A More Just Food System

Feb 7, 2022 | Features

When it comes to food access, the issue is much more complicated than the presence of a grocery store.

Image of Shalom Farm sign in front of a green field

Photo credit: Amanda Miles Photography

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Heather Bridges

Turn into what looks like the parking lot of an apartment building in Sherwood Park, a neighborhood north of downtown Richmond, Virginia, and the pavement soon turns to gravel and greenery.

Workers weave between rows of broccoli, kale, collards, and cabbage. A hoop house shelters warm-season vegetables from the cold. Nearby, harvested produce is readied and packed for distribution.

This is Shalom Farm’s five-acre site in Northside that, along with their 12-acre Powhatan farm, produces more than 600,000 servings of sustainably grown fruits and vegetables on a yearly basis.

The Northside location in particular is a fitting representation of the organization’s mission to make healthy food more accessible to Black and Brown communities in Richmond—some within minutes of the farm—that have been impacted for years by discrimination.

Because when it comes to food access, the issue is much more complicated than the presence of a grocery store.

Understanding systemic barriers to access

They’ve historically been called “food deserts,” areas that the USDA defines as lacking stores or other sources of healthy food. But that term is no longer accurate.

“The conditions that exist around limited food access aren’t just, ‘Oh, there just happens to be a forest here and a desert here,’” said Dominic Barrett, former executive director.* “They are the result of many deliberate choices…often choices that have nothing to do with food.”

Photo credit: Amanda Miles Photography

Take “redlining,” a racist practice from the 1930s that discouraged investment in low-income and minority neighborhoods. A report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Richmond found that, today, once-redlined neighborhoods experience higher rates of poverty and diseases as well as lower life expectancy.

Compare old maps of redlined neighborhoods in Richmond with USDA food access maps, and you’ll find they’re nearly the same, said Interim Executive Director Erin Lingo–particularly areas of Richmond’s Northside, Southside and East End.

Thus, Shalom Farms uses the term “food apartheid” to describe the focus of its work. It’s a term created by food justice activist Karen Washington “to ask us to look at the root causes of inequity in our food system on the basis of race, class, and geography,” she writes on her website.

“At the end of the day, the flaws and the inequity in the food system are not unique to the food system–they are part of our systems at large,” Barrett said. “I think that’s also the tension in this work, is how do you remain focused on the things that you can do well, like the parts of the food system that we’re focusing on, while recognizing that ultimately this is about poverty and injustice and racial inequity.”

Partnering to build a better food system

Leaning into that tension, Shalom Farms collaborates with organizations outside of the food system.

Photo credit: Amanda Miles Photography

With their mobile market program, popping up in 15 sites each week, this means working with affordable housing partners to choose the right locations. It also means partnering with the healthcare providers to offer nutrition education, cooking classes and fresh produce through their Prescription Produce Plan.

Partnership is just as necessary within their own space. Exchanging resources, knowledge and experiences with other local organizations allows Shalom Farms to do more effective, more informed work.

In 2020, they distributed nearly 400,000 servings of produce in partnership with community food pantries and Feed More, a large hunger-relief organization serving central Virginia. In 2021, they worked with the Richmond Food Justice Alliance to launch a mobile market on property owned by RFJA near Mosby Court, an affordable housing community.

“It takes many approaches, it takes many forms, it takes many actions to make a just food system,” Mobile Market Manager Alistar Harris said.

He shared the example of an independently owned grocery store, a partner of Shalom Farms, that opened in Richmond’s East End a few years ago with the hope of reducing food insecurity in the surrounding area. The store makes an impact—but not as much as everyone had hoped. Charging the prices necessary to make a profit, the store struggles to attract the customers it is trying to help.

“So what we see is people still need the kinds of programming that we offer, in addition to a solution like a grocery store” Harris said, “and there is a range of opportunities and ways to engage in creating a just food system.”

The many layers of food access 

Photo credit: Amanda Miles Photography

The way that Shalom Farms approaches creating a more just food system, Harris said, is through growing and distributing nutritionally dense food.

“We know that within Richmond there are many neighborhoods that are low resource and low income,” he said. “We particularly focus on those neighborhoods to come in and offer opportunities for people to access food that is fresh, that is cheap, that is grown with care and with love and consideration.”

Lingo used to work at a farmers market, and she’s familiar with the tension between providing a livable wage to farmers and affordable food to customers. Growing their own food, and lots of it, allows Shalom Farms to subsidize costs. Additionally, their mobile markets accept SNAP.

“Not just providing a retail solution in a community that doesn’t have a retail option, but actually getting into a community that is lacking physical and financial access to healthy food and really focusing on the affordability,” Lingo said.

Even then, beyond proximity and affordability, meaningful access to food includes the knowledge and the skills to consume it—another organizational focus.

Say a mobile market is selling butternut squash, Lingo said. Maybe the market also offers shoppers a taste of butternut squash soup and a recipe, too. Or Shalom Farms’ Community Nutrition Manager demonstrates how to cut butternut squash. Maybe shoppers feel inspired to share their own ideas for preparing squash.

“Our goal is that everything about that experience becomes dignified,” she said. “So it’s not a food pantry, where someone else is making those food choices for you. It’s actually about getting people to the place where they have ultimate control over what food they are able to purchase and prepare for themselves and their families.”

*Barrett left Shalom Farms at the end of 2021 after nearly 12 years with the organization.



Heather Bridges is a Richmond-based writer with a background in journalism and marketing. She is passionate about storytelling as a form of catharsis, connection and change.

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