"We want to make sure you have access to the best produce," says University of Delaware anthropology senior Dan Reyes. "To locally-, naturally- and organically-grown fruits and vegetables. Pesticide-free. Herbicide-free. The kinds of food normally too expensive to buy in grocery stores."
The kinds of food that low-income households can now — thanks to the Food Bank of Delaware's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, developed by two UD students — purchase using their federal food benefits.
Funded by a $300,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant, the CSA will enable 100-200 low-income families to purchase subsidized shares of fruits and vegetables from two local farms, allowing those farmers to, in turn, increase their annual revenues by nearly $50,000.
"This will allow us to provide outreach to households not only about healthy foods, but how local farmers play a key role in our food supply," says Patricia Beebe, Food Bank president and CEO.
On a 38-degree November morning, Reyes is explaining the CSA program to the 50 or so men, women and children gathered outside St. Stephen's Church in Wilmington, awaiting the Food Bank's distribution of potatoes and Lipton iced tea.
A $10 deposit, paid either in cash or through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), will cover a family's first week and hold their place in the program, which begins mid-spring 2013 and runs for 18 weeks.
Participants can pick up their "shares" — nearly 10 to 15 pounds of fresh produce — every Thursday at Wilmington's Cool Spring Farmers' Market, where they will also receive $10 in market cash to spend, as well as access to cooking demonstrations, tastings and family friendly activities.
"Sign me up," says Bernard Lolly, a 65-year-old resident of Wilmington's East Side. "I'm a senior. I need to eat healthy, and this will put more food on my table."
Reyes, an Honors Program student who is currently in the process of recruiting 134 participants for the CSA's spring launch, is the 21-year-old co-architect behind the program.
In the summer of 2011, he and former anthropology student Nick Rockwell -- now a UD alumnus -- began researching the concept of a CSA program for low-income Delawareans. Working as service learning scholars at the University, they met with every CSA farmer in the state and found the agricultural community had an "overwhelming desire" to feed their low-income neighbors.
Together, Reyes and Rockwell designed a program that joins these unlikely partners under the banner of the state's Food Bank, which serves as a financial and logistical middleman between the farming and low-income community.
Their work formed the core of two grant proposals the Food Bank put forward and subsequently received. Through the USDA grant, supplemented by a $75,000 state Department of Agriculture grant, the Food Bank can operate on a weekly loan basis, in which it pays the upfront cost ($400 for each shareholder) to the two farms (Highland Orchards in Wilmington and SIW Vegetables in Chadds Ford, Pa.), and then collects the money back from the participants' use of SNAP benefits.
An ideal partnership
"It's a matter of equity and justice," says Reyes, "and this is an ideal partnership."
The Centers for Disease Control reports 75 percent of adult Delawareans consume less than the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables. More than 35 percent of the state's population is overweight; 28.7 percent are obese. The data includes low-income communities in the West Side of Wilmington, where approximately 7,000 SNAP recipients have an average monthly benefit of $273.
"This is a powerful example of different organizations coming together to create a local food economy," adds Reyes, who worked on a farm as a 2012 UD Plastino Scholar and will travel to Guatemala this winter for further agro-ecology training.
For now, the fruits of his labor are best evidenced in the nearly two-dozen families who have already signed up for the CSA program.
To make the initiative sustainable, however, Reyes and the Food Bank hope to recruit an additional 50 "sponsored share" members, who would pay $500 into the program, $400 to cover their farm shares and $100 that would be donated to the Food Bank to subsidize shares for low-income households.
Anyone interested in a sponsored share can register for the CSA program by contacting Reyes at firstname.lastname@example.org or Barbara Brkovich, the Food Bank's CSA coordinator, at 302-292-1302, ext. 204, or email@example.com.