Feeding Hope: How local nonprofits are helping the food insecure

by C. Aileen Blaine

In the city of Warren, Ohio, there is no shortage of vacant lots that are home to plots of land used for vegetable patches. Where once stood tall, imposing school buildings now wilts produce meant to go to those in need.

From the compost of these wilting gardens rises the promise of another solution to food insecurity.

The Mahoning Valley is just one of many areas in Ohio — and the nation — riddled with food deserts. According to the most recent data released by Feeding America, over 65,000 Trumbull and Mahoning County residents are considered food insecure. This means many residents lack access to grocery stores nearby — and those who may live near a grocery store might still lack a means of transportation to get there. This leaves corner shops and convenience stores as the only viable resources for food.

If there’s one thing these mom-and-pop shops are good for, it’s for selling the things that will kill you: alcohol, tobacco and junk food.

Junk food — think chips, soda and candy — is so prevalent because of its long shelf life. What doesn’t sell in a day might sell in a week or a month and will taste no different. It tastes good, and it’s relatively inexpensive when considering the markup fresh foods and produce have to undergo to be even slightly profitable for the seller.

So what does the future of the food desert hold? Will it become full of tiny oases branding the badge of mom-and-pop corner stores?

Local nonprofit organization Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership works with other local groups to provide access to healthy, fresh foods for Mahoning Valley residents. Photo courtesy of C. Aileen Blaine

In Warren, Ohio, a nonprofit organization is taking the steps to combat food and housing insecurities. Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership partnered with other local nonprofit organizations such as the Youngstown-based Healthy Community Partnership to launch the Healthy Convenience Store Initiative. The initiative strives to make fresh produce more accessible to those lacking transportation or access to traditional grocery stores by partnering with local convenience shops.

TNP formed in 2010 as a part of the Raymond John Wean Foundation in an effort to assist with community development and organization in the Mahoning Valley. In the early days, TNP joined forces with another local community group, Garden Resources of Warren, to establish small community gardens scattered around the city.

In 2017, TNP decided to shift more effort into meeting Valley residents where they’re easily reached: at the corner store.

For the first few years of the healthy foods initiative, much of the time was spent making contact with store owners, community members and sponsors while also applying for grant funding.

Matt Martin has served as TNP’s executive director since the organization’s launch. He says much of its initial launch focused on building relationships with the community.

“There’s no shortcut to organizing and relationship-building,” Martin says. “You have to show credibility and become trustworthy and build a relationship. And honestly, you have to be able to offer something in exchange.”

One of the biggest challenges in the healthy eating initiative is recruiting store owners into the program. Many are hesitant because of overhead charges that make actually gaining a profit from selling produce challenging, and others are wary of organized programs resembling “the government.” Gaining their trust is just the first step.

For Christian Bennett-Mosley, the healthy food access retail coordinator at TNP, the fight to bring healthier foods to local neighborhoods is something personal. She grew up in a food desert in Youngstown.

“I was exposed to just your regular Family Dollar in my old neighborhood,” she says. “I remember going there to get chips and nothing else.”

When Bennett-Mosley was 12 years old and her family moved to Hubbard, Ohio, she realized the differences between her peers’ upbringings and her own. They didn’t share the same experiences of budgeting for food and relying on food stamps to eat.

“Moving there allowed me to see just how much of a disadvantage that I was in, being in a single-parent household,” she says.

An alumna of Youngstown State University’s geography program, she uses her background to understand better how terrain affects neighborhoods and how communities engage with each other. Her work with TNP lets her blend her knowledge of geography with a deeper understanding of food insecurity in the area as well.

“We want to see a goal where distribution is not an issue anymore, where local distribution companies will actually work with store owners,” Bennett-Mosley says.

Even though it hasn’t been easy, there’s a payoff to time spent building these relationships. Sarah Lowry, the director of Healthy Community Partnership and an adjunct instructor at YSU, says programs like the convenience store initiative also bring not just the community members together, but also the organizations in the Mahoning Valley.

“There are more organizations working consistently together, planning together and doing together,” Lowry says. “More organizations see the benefit and value of taking a truly collaborative approach that is built on strong relationships that are rooted in transformation rather than transaction.”

This screenshot from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2018 dashboard shows how Trumbull and Mahoning counties are just two of the 33 Ohio counties with more than 15% of residents considered food insecure. Trumbull and Mahoning counties have an average food insecurity rate of 15.45%. Data provided by Feeding America, 2018

TNP and HCP work together as members of the Healthy Food Retail Action Team to help expand and support nutrition incentive programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s Double-Up program, which allows eligible residents to “double their dollars” at participating locations. Between Mahoning and Trumbull counties, there are almost 10 community stores either currently offering or preparing to launch fresh produce. For example, in early April 2021, TNP announced the launch of their produce cooler in Lucky 7 Food Mart near downtown Warren.

“Studies say residents want to see groceries. They want to see a store that sells actual healthy food, not just junk food,” Martin says.

With the collaborated efforts of these small-scale organizations dedicated to large-scale improvement, the future of food access to Valley residents seems bright. Youngstown mayor Jamael “Tito” Brown supports organizations’ collaborations to solve problems in the area.

“We have to work more together than we do apart,” Brown said in a 2019 address at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s Good Morning, Youngstown! breakfast.

“This willingness to think bigger, bolder and longer term was exciting and different,” Lowry says. “I wanted to be part of this shift in thinking and doing in the place I call home.”

So, the next time you find yourself strolling past the vacant lots that are home to plots of vegetable patches, or the next time you walk into Lucky 7 Food Mart on East Market Street and see its shiny new food coolers, just remember the people who have joined together to make these possible.

“We’ve done a lot in 10 years,” Martin says. “This is definitely something that I’m particularly proud [of].”