By Molly Cochran, Communications Specialist, Loyola University Maryland
When Loyola University Maryland committed to investing in the communities to the east of its campus in Baltimore, University leaders didn’t assume they knew what changes were needed. Instead, they started by asking residents of the area’s neighborhoods to share their hopes and challenges.
That “Loyola Is Listening” project, a 2010 survey of the local community, brought many opportunities to the forefront, including one within walking distance from campus. Just minutes away, near York Road, was a food desert that needed better access to fresh, affordable produce. Community members indicated that they needed either a farmers’ market, a food store or a community garden in the area.
The following summer, in 2011, Loyola’s York Road Initiative (YRI) established the weekly Govanstowne Farmers’ Market in an effort to meet this community need. The market has grown every year since then, offering not only produce, but local artisans, free meals for children, and a lively place for neighbors to gather every Wednesday afternoon.
As welcome as the Govanstowne Farmers’ Market was, its success only made it clearer that community residents needed better access to fresh produce on a regular basis throughout the year. Residents—and the University—wanted to have a more sustainable and long-term solution to the lack of healthy food.
So, in 2015, FreshCrate was born. A year-round initiative, FreshCrate helps make fresh—and affordable—produce available in local corner stores along the York Road corridor. FreshCrate is a grant-funded program through the United Way of Central Maryland and is supported by the Govans Business Association, the York Road Initiative and Parkhurst Dining Services (Loyola’s dining service).
When store owners buy food from a supplier, an additional charge is typically applied for smaller orders. But through the FreshCrate program, Loyola acts as the middle man, supplying corner store owners with fresh produce at retail prices but at no additional charge for smaller orders. “This is how Loyola is pivotal in changing the food landscape in the community,” says Marie M. Anderson, ’11, assistant director of the York Road Initiative.
The FreshCrate program also partners with the GEDCO CARES food pantry to give customers coupons to use for produce at any participating corner stores. Over the past three years, more than $14,000 worth of fresh produce has been purchased through this partnership. Rachael Neill, program director of GEDCO CARES, has witnessed the positive impacts of FreshCrate and the coupon program along York Road. She says, “Our participants really look forward to the coupons, and they love that the stores are right in the neighborhood. When we don’t have the coupons [when funding is tight], they are asking for more.”
Raymond Stokley, a York Road resident for more than 20 years, always looks forward to using the coupons to purchase fruits and vegetables. He says, “I’ve lived here most of my life, and we have just started to have access to produce and coupons…I’m on a fixed income and I can’t afford a lot of things, so the coupons really help.”
Some of the corner store owners say that they are seeing a positive change in their businesses as well. Murray’s Family Food and Market, one of the participating FreshCrate corner stores located along York Road, has experienced an increase in produce sales due to FreshCrate. “There are no stores in the area with enough fresh fruit and vegetables to serve the community. With FreshCrate, there is a bigger variety of produce,” says Jamil Khawar, Murray’s store owner. “Often times people can’t afford it, so the coupons are good for this program. It has been good for my business.”
This past spring, the Baltimore City Health Department ran a grant-funded initiative to involve local youth and bring attention to FreshCrate. Through the program, five local high school students had the opportunity to educate the public on FreshCrate and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. They shared information on how to incorporate fresh produce into one’s diet and explained the benefits of healthy eating.
“I see a direct connection between poverty, health and diet,” says Neill, who has been the program director of GEDCO CARES for 12 years. “The impact of poor diet is rampant in low-income areas. Those who don’t have access to fresh food are more susceptible to cardiovascular diseases. Bringing fresh food into the neighborhood and making it more affordable is very important.”
Loyola’s work to address food security through FreshCrate and the Govanstowne Farmers’ Market recently earned the University the 2018 Mayor’s Business Recognition Award from the Greater Baltimore Committee. This annual award is given to companies who demonstrate leadership and promote community service to help improve Baltimore City.
“Through the York Road Initiative, Loyola has had the opportunity to partner with our closest neighbors in our city to strengthen those communities and Baltimore," says Loyola’s president, Rev. Brian F. Linnane, S.J., who accepted the award on behalf of the University. "I am grateful to all of our community partners who work alongside us to help make a difference in their neighborhoods and in so many individuals' lives."