Urban farming program tackles Duluth “food desert”

Michael Latsch, program director for Seeds of Success, tends a garden plot in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood. MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Community leaders have many ideas about how to address food access in Lincoln Park, a neighborhood west of downtown Duluth that lacks a grocery store. We reported this week on the challenge the absence of a grocery store poses for low-income residents.

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Some people want to lure a small grocer to the area, others suggest cab vouchers or a free bus to help residents get to existing supermarkets.

But one program is already doing something about it.

As MPR's Stephanie Hemphill reported in 2010, Seeds of Success hires low-income Duluth residents to transform vacant urban lots into vegetable gardens. Last summer, the program produced 4,800 pounds of produce and employed 17 people, sending them home with gardening skills and vegetables.

Organizers have been selling the rest of the produce to grocery stores and high-end restaurants. For the most part, that's going to change.

"This year we're moving to a model of selling it directly to low-income people," said Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth, which runs the program through a partnership with the A.H. Zeppa Foundation and the City of Duluth.

Miller has noticed more people struggling to get enough healthy food as poverty rates have risen.

"We've listened to low-income people. We've had focus groups, and they indicated a clear desire for more produce at affordable prices," Miller said.

This summer, Seeds of Success will pack their produce into boxes and sell it in Lincoln Park, where residents don't have much opportunity to buy fresh food. If the program secures funding, it will also sell in several other neighborhoods where residents can't find plentiful supplies of fresh produce. The sales will be weekly and year-round, supplemented in the winter by other sources.

They'll set up in churches and community centers, places people can reach on foot.

"It's not the best way to buy produce, to have to show up in a particular spot on a particular day," admits Michael Latsch, program manager for Seeds of Success. "But we feel like we can meet the need immediately, so we're looking to do that until someone can find a way to work out the financing, and to work out a business plan, for a grocery store in this neighborhood."

The program has drawn praise for its comprehensive approach, proving jobs, skills, food, and neighborhood revitalization.

But it might take more than access to change diets, Latsch said. That's why there will be cooking education at the distribution sites.

"There is a lot of research coming out now that suggests that physical and economic access to produce is a start, but it needs to be matched with education and with promotion," he said. "In my view, access is the start, but then people need to have the knowledge to cook the produce, and the desire to consume it as well."