“I actually went to the grocery store again, and I bought kale again,” Amelia Reese said triumphantly as she picked up her weekly produce share at Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti.
“I love that people are buying kale even though we’re giving it you every other week,” Amanda Sweetman laughed, handing Reese a bag full of locally grown produce.
There’s no kale this week. Instead, Reese is taking home farm-fresh Swiss chard, beets, lettuce, jalapenos, sweet corn, beets and the pièce de résistance – a vine-ripened cantaloupe from Green Things Farm. Sweetman suggested using some of the melon to make a refreshing cantaloupe-infused water.
Reese is one of 40 people receiving a weekly community supported agriculture (CSA) share through a pilot program coordinated by The Farm at St. Joe’s and funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
Each Wednesday afternoon, Farm manager Amanda Sweetman and her team – often interns or volunteers – pack a van full of produce gathered from seven local farms and distribute them at the Parkridge Community Center. Many of the recipients are grandmothers or grandfathers, some of them take a 45-minute bus ride, and others are volunteers or staff members of the center, like Reese.
The $25,000 pilot program is aimed at reducing childhood obesity by giving low-income families access to fresh produce. Sweetman said the impact is already visible, after just two months.
“I actually had a thyroid problem that I had to deal with, and I had to go on a low-iodine diet,” Reese shared. It just so happened to be right when this program started. All I could eat was fruits and vegetables. They are amazing, and they helped me survive it,” she said.
Since June, Reese has lost significant weight, and she said she is enjoying the new produce, even veggies with hard-to-pronounce names. Kohlrabi is growing on her, as is eggplant. Kale, by far, is her favorite. Even Reese’s daughter, not normally a fan of greens, will try some of the new plant-based dishes.
“I eat more vegetables, and I know how to cook more vegetables,” Reese said.
Sweetman spends a lot of time teaching participants how to prepare the produce at home. And because education is so important, all CSA members were provided a cookbook, cutting board and knife set, and a mason jar for salad dressing at the start of the program.
“Most people hadn’t seen Swiss chard, no one had seen kohlrabi, garlic scapes were totally foreign to people,” Sweetman said. But that hasn’t deterred people from being open to trying new things. As a trained chef, Sweetman has a knack for making even the “scary sounding” veggies approachable.
“You have to try something like seven times before you know if you like it,” she said.
It’s the conversations and community this program is creating that Sweetman said she enjoys the most. Wednesdays at Parkridge Community Center are often very lively, bustling with people swapping recipes and sharing how they prepared last week’s produce.
The program has also had a big impact on the local economy. Sweetman shared that one of the local producers quit his secondary job, knowing the program funds would allow him to stay on the farm through the summer.
“We work to grow a healthy community, and I feel that this is very mission-aligned,” Sweetman said.
The CSA pilot program at Parkridge ends Nov. 2, and Sweetman is hopeful the grant will be renewed next year. In the meantime, she has connected Reese and fellow participants with other local organizations, such as the Hope Clinic, that have food assistance programs throughout the off-season.
The program has helped foster a valuable relationship between St. Joe’s and the greater Ypsilanti community, but Sweetman said there’s plenty of opportunity to help people within St. Joe’s as well. The Farm also coordinates a CSA program for staff and physicians, and Sweetman hopes to be able to set up a subsidized version of the program in the near future to benefit colleagues in need.
“There’s no reason not to get fresh fruits and vegetables in Washtenaw county. There’s so many resources, but it doesn’t look like this. This is beautiful, farm-fresh, gorgeous produce,” Sweetman said.
Read Amanda Sweetman’s blog post on the health impact of CSAs on The Farm blog.