By Isabelle Azar
Every desert needs an oasis, even urban food deserts. And just as oases are critical for the living creatures of real deserts to find fresh water and food, a place where residents can find sustenance is critical in a food desert. Youngstown, Ohio, is often considered a food desert, meaning that many residents don’t have easy access to grocery stores with healthy foods. That’s what makes Cultivate Cafe so vital.
When you first walk into the cafe, whose full name is stylized as “Cultivate: a co-op cafe,” you’re greeted by the friendly faces of the employees and the smell of delicious food. Light streams through the many windows, and the mural on the back wall adds a pop of color. The seating arrangement is different from expected for a typical cafe; half of what would normally be the seating area is taken up by a small grocery store.
Cultivate is a unique business in Youngstown; it’s just a short walk away from Youngstown State University’s campus, and not only does it offer food from a menu, it also offers fresh and locally sourced fruits, vegetables, sauces, jams, meats, dairy products, snacks and more. And, as indicated by its full name, it’s owned cooperatively. As its website states, “that means the farmers and food makers who supply the products are the actual owners of the Cafe and share jointly in its management, risks and rewards.”
The cafe has only been open for three years, but it makes a noticeable difference in its local community. Not only does it offer affordable fresh food in an area lacking it, but it also supports local small businesses and makes Youngstown a more interesting and inviting place.
Providing Access to Fresh Food
The Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” Calling Youngstown a food desert may not be necessarily mean it has no grocery stores but that the population has trouble accessing them and affording healthy, fresh food.
According to the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas data from 2015, the area of Youngstown including and surrounding Cultivate is a “low-income census tract,” meaning that the poverty rate is 20% or higher. According to the atlas data, a significant number of Youngstown’s residents have no vehicle and don’t live near a supermarket. As shown in the following map, the areas marked in yellow are defined by the USDA as low-income census tracts “where more than 100 housing units do not have a vehicle and are more than a half mile from the nearest supermarket.” Cultivate’s location is marked by the square marker.
The cafe is in a prime location to serve those with a low income in the surrounding census tracts. And it not only helps residents by its location; it also participates in several programs that help low-income residents more easily afford fresh produce.
Cultivate participates in the SNAP Double Up program and Mercy Health’s Food and Vegetable Nutrition Prescription program. According to Saralee Greenfield, a nutrition educator at Mercy Health, the Double Up program allows those who receive SNAP benefits to double the amount of produce they can afford. At Cultivate and a few other select locations, every $5 in SNAP spent on fresh fruit and vegetables is doubled up to $30.
The prescription program lets patients of Mercy Health that currently receive SNAP benefits be prescribed fruits and vegetables by their physician just as they would be prescribed medicine. The eligible patients receive a $25 voucher per month from June through October to use at local farmers’ markets and Cultivate. However, because Cultivate is a permanent location with regular business hours, it is more convenient for those looking to redeem their benefits. “Cultivate has very easy access, whereas the markets can be difficult for some to navigate through for various reasons,” Greenfield said.
Cultivate’s participation in the program potentially improves the diets of hundreds in the community. Greenfield said the goal of the prescription program is to help over 600 people per month in Mahoning county. Though this is a small number compared to the amount of people receiving SNAP benefits, the impact is still significant. According to Greenfield, a lack of fruits and vegetables can cause many chronic health problems. But fresh produce is more expensive than other, less nutritious foods, so those with SNAP benefits may not prioritize produce.
Susan Payton, the manager of Cultivate since its opening and a YSU human ecology professor, recognizes how difficult it is for those with a lower income to afford nutritious food. “I have one elderly woman; she gets $16 a month for food stamps. What do you buy? I mean, seriously, you could buy a couple gallons of milk and your bread,” she said. “It’s difficult to entice people to make the effort to figure out how to make things last when you can buy a bag of potato chips for 50 or 75 cents and you have to spend $1 for an apple.”
“The purpose of the program is to help change behaviors as to recognizing that eating a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables is beneficial and is seen with improved health results,” Greenfield explained. By Cultivate participating in both the Double Up and prescription program, those that can’t afford produce and live far from a traditional grocery store can more easily afford nutritious food that can significantly improve their health.
Supporting Local Business
Small businesses and local food producers often face challenges, but those trying to get a start in Youngstown can encounter more difficulties than most.
Shannon Blackshire used to work with the Lake to River co-op, many of whose members supply Cultivate, and was also a producer at the Northside farmer’s market. She now has her own business called Her Primitive Ways Red Road Apothecary, which is across the street from Cultivate, and she sells tea to the cafe. According to her, small businesses in Youngstown cannot charge as much for their goods and services as they might in other cities because of the low income level of the area.
“Because we live in Youngstown and face many challenges based on income, pricing and services are set according to income and we cannot charge a premium like other cities,” she said.
Despite those challenges, Cultivate as a small business itself supports local food producers by selling their products.
Cultivate is associated with the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator, which is located right next door to the cafe. In fact, the staff use the incubator to make all the dishes on its menu. According to Payton, the incubator offers producers commercial-grade equipment and a clean place to make food with the appropriate licensure to ensure safety.
Many of the food producers that make their products at the incubator also have their products featured for sale at Cultivate. Payton said she tries to support all the users of the incubator by selling their products at Cultivate. Much of the produce, meat and dairy products used in dishes and featured for sale in the grocery section at Cultivate are bought from local farmers as well, further supporting the web of local businesses in and around northeast Ohio.
Payton stressed the importance of supporting locally owned small business to improve the surrounding community. “Look at at least in Youngstown. I mean, what else is there? We have some steel going on. We’ve got these little small manufacturing. That’s not paying a dime. I don’t know how people survive. But all of our businesses are drying up. So, you have to support local,” she said.
The local community has taken notice of the importance of supporting locally owned businesses such as Cultivate and just as Cultivate itself supports fellow small businesses.
Brooke Lissy, an advertising and public relations student at YSU and a frequent Cultivate customer, appreciates that it’s locally owned. “I think that it is vital for a community to have many locally owned businesses, so I think that it is phenomenal that businesses similar to Cultivate are opening. I would choose to visit a locally owned business over a corporation any day.
“When the community supports small business, they are making an investment not only in the business but also in the community itself. Small businesses will reinvest in the community,” Blackshire explained.
Cultivate supports its local businesses by buying and featuring their products, and it reinvests in its local community by doing so.
Making Youngstown a More Inviting Place
Though Youngstown was once known by negative stereotypes such as “Murdertown,” in recent years it’s grown to be a more welcoming place for people to live in and visit. Locations like Cultivate contribute to this growth. It has a wide variety of clientele. Other than those visiting to buy from the grocery section, the cafe attracts many to enjoy its delicious dishes.
“I have retirees. I have college students. I have high school students. So it depends on what time of day and what day of the week. It’s a really interesting crowd of people,” Payton said. Cultivate also accepts Pete’s Points, making it easy for students living on campus to get a healthy meal.
Lissy visits Cultivate once or twice a month for the food and the chance to support the business. “I really enjoyed that it’s all local; people, local farmers, local, everything, and they’re so like a community base. … I think having a variety of local businesses creates a more inviting and warm town,” she said. “I think it’s really great for the community and a really great local place that, like, we are kind of missing here,” she said.
Jessica Wilhelm, a nursing student at YSU, has visited Cultivate recently for the first time and said she would definitely return. “The prices are really affordable; I just got a cookie, but it was really good. The people who work there are friendly. … It’s so great to see, like, local businesses, especially in Youngstown, thriving and not just chains for a change.”
Blackshire explained that small businesses such as Cultivate make Youngstown more appealing by creating an inviting experience. “Small-business owners usually live in the area, so not only do they invest in themselves but also the community. We know who our customers are and that adds a deeper connection and a personal feel.”
A Look to the Future
Overall, Cultivate is fostering that deeper connection to its community, and even in its short time of being open, it has made an impact. But despite its contributions and the recent growth in downtown Youngstown, the cafe still has a hard time pulling new customers in. “They’re growing downtown but not pushing out our way,” Payton explained. “So it’s really a constant struggle. … And honestly, I don’t know how we stay afloat.”
Cultivate’s ability to be an oasis depends on making enough profit to stay open, and that depends on having a steady customer base. The future is uncertain for the cafe, but Payton hopes more YSU students will visit and encourage others to visit as well. The fate of small businesses in Youngstown counts on local customers being aware of what they support with their money.
Payton is hopeful for a prosperous future for Cultivate despite its challenges, however. “I would really hope that what I’ve worked towards can stay and build and get more people interested and continue serving the community.”