Salad days | The Roanoke Times

Lindsey Nair | | 981-3343 | Posted: Saturday, August 10, 2013 8:00 pm | The Roanoke Times

The plump local peaches with their velveteen skin looked too good for LaRue Dickerson to pass up on a blistering July afternoon.

After picking up his 2-year-old daughter, Lynessa, from the Total Action for Progress HeadStart preschool on Shenandoah Avenue in Roanoke, Dickerson, 30, stopped at a farm stand outside the school and bought his family some fruit to supplement the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peas he grows.

“Peaches is one of their favorites,” he said. “We don’t do candy or gum.”

In the past, families like the Dickersons had to travel to downtown Roanoke to find a selection of local fruits and vegetables. This summer, there are seven markets located across the city, from an urban farm on 10th Street in northwest to a parking garage in south Roanoke.

As accessibility to local foods has become less of a hurdle, so has affordability. Thanks to state and federal grants and private contributions, the number of markets able to accept (and in many cases, double) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits keeps swelling.

Carilion Clinic has not only provided funding for SNAP at farmers markets, it is making it easier for its own employees to buy local food by offering payroll deduction to purchase farm shares.

Vickie Riggins, an employee in the information technology department at Carilion, picks up a box of fruit at a market outside Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital every week. She said she probably wouldn’t have bought a farm share if it hadn’t been for the company’s offer.

“The payroll deduction has made it really attractive,” she said, “because you can budget for it.”

Locals supporting locals

Across the country, the number of farmers markets has gone from 2,000 to 8,000 over the past 13 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Virginia, the number has jumped to 230 this year from 88 in 2006 — a 160 percent increase.

Part of the growth can be attributed to an effort to set up farmers markets in “food deserts,” or neighborhoods that do not have easy access to healthy food.

The West End Community Market, a seasonal market in its third year, was the first to open in a low-income neighborhood in Roanoke. It was started in 2010 by the nonprofit Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP), which also manages the Grandin Village Community Market.

When the West End market began, LEAP director Brent Cochran said he saw room for similar markets in other city neighborhoods. This year, that vision has taken the form of two new farm stands, the TAP HeadStart Community Market at the Brand Hardin Simms center on Shenandoah Avenue, where Dickerson bought his peaches, and the Lick Run Community Market at Lick Run Farm, an urban farm on 10th Street.

LEAP calls these “LEAP-frog markets,” which means they piggy back on the nonprofit’s existing infrastructure. For example, instead of asking time-starved farmers to work the TAP market, Cochran gathers part of what they bring to the West End market on Tuesdays and takes it to the TAP center, which holds its market the same day.

“You already have people coming to town,” he said, “so we aggregate and take it to a different location.”

Because LEAP has already been set up to accept SNAP benefits, it shares its equipment (namely, a point-of-sale card-scanning device) with all of its markets, extending the affordability quotient.

Community support for LEAP has included funding from the Roanoke law firm of Glenn Feldmann Darby Goodlatte and from Carilion Clinic, which this year donated $10,000 to match SNAP dollars.

It’s the second such grant from Carilion Clinic, which last year gave the Roanoke City Farmers Market $5,000 that it is still using this summer. Marie Webb, senior director of community outreach for the hospital system, said it is a company goal to help fund projects that promote general wellness within the community.

“Carilion is the biggest beast in town and they’re throwing their weight behind these initiatives,” Cochran said, “which I think is pretty cool.”

Changes for the better

When Riggins picked up her box of fruit at the Carilion Clinic Farmers Table on a recent Thursday afternoon, she opened it to find two varieties of apples, as well as peaches and blueberries.

Riggins said she bought the fruit share this year because it forces her to eat healthier every week or risk losing money on the investment.

In addition, she said, “You know it’s not going to be shipped from a long distance, and you know they aren’t going to put a bunch of chemicals on it.”

A Floyd-based consortium of local growers called Good Food-Good People provides the fruit, vegetable and egg shares through its Community Shared Agriculture program. The cost of the shares, which can be several hundred dollars, are deducted from participating Carilion employees’ paychecks over 12 pay periods.

The CSA was available last year, but “it struggled,” said Aaron Harris-Boush, a planning analyst for Carilion who helped organize the local food program. Since the company offered payroll deduction this year, he said, Good Food-Good People has had to bring two trucks.

The CSA, which was also advertised to residents of the nearby South Roanoke neighborhood, sold 177 shares this year, for a total of $64,495. Of those 177 shares, 92 were purchased by Carilion employees, Harris-Boush said.

Good Food-Good People also sets up the farmers table at the Riverwalk Parking Garage outside Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. The table, which is loaded each week with fruit, vegetables, cheeses, meat and other products, is open to everyone — not just Carilion employees.

“I think it’s the most beautiful of all the market sites, by the river,” wrote Tenley Weaver of Good Food-Good People in an email. “We are really grateful to Carilion for providing this lovely space for what has become a brisk market and CSA site.”

Every market day, the hospital’s Mountain View Cafe prepares a recipe that calls for seasonal ingredients and has recipe cards printed. The cards are available at the cafe and at the market stand.

“It’s convenient and it’s more or less for the health of my family,” said Roseanna Webb, 24. “And I don’t know what a lot of this stuff is, so it forces me to learn.”

Webb, who works in hospital’s Central Sterile Supply department, said she and her family have been exposed to kholrabi, a funny-looking root vegetable they thought tasted like fried potatoes, and rhubarb, which she made into a pie using one of the recipe suggestions.

“That was written down permanently in my recipe book,” she said.

Making it known

Even the historic Roanoke City Farmers Market, which started in 1882 and is open daily, is branching out.

For the past two years, Downtown Roanoke Inc., which manages the market, has organized a “pop-up market” one evening per week during the summer. Last year, it was at the Kirk Family YMCA in downtown Roanoke. This year, the pop-up market happens every Thursday at River’s Edge Sports Complex on Reserve Avenue.

Market manager Tracie Hughes said she chose River’s Edge because the area is shady and has ample parking for both customers and the food trucks that sell meals there.

She said the first few weeks of the event have been successful and the number of participating vendors has risen from five to eight.

Between existing markets, LEAP-frog markets and the pop-up markets, Roanokers have plenty of opportunities to buy from local farmers. But it remains to be seen whether all of the markets will flourish.

Rick Williams, who bought the overgrown, trash-infested property on 10th Street and turned it into Lick Run Farm, is struggling to generate interest in a new market. He has fresh produce to sell that was grown in his garden or at other Southwest Virginia farms, but his Sunday market has had a slow start.

Cochran is familiar with the situation.

“I guarantee there are people within a one-block radius that don’t know the market exists,” he said. “It takes years to get there. The best advice I can give him is you’ve got to show up every day at the same time.

“I think that’s 90 percent of the battle.”

Williams said he watches neighbors “pacing back and forth 20 times a day” to the convenience store next door, and wonders how to make his products more attractive than the “horrible” food they buy there.

“We have a few fanatically loyal customers, so there are people who are very, very happy that we are here,” Williams said. “Not as many as I’d like, but that’s OK, it’s very gratifying.”

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