Community gardens, farm stands engage residents to help combat food insecurity

Even with the threat of a storm overhead, Sherry Chen and the other volunteers of Springfield Ohio Urban Plantfolk (SOUP) continued to setup their Neighborhood Farm stand outside Perrin Woods Elementary School.

And as the downpour started, the neighborhood residents lined up to shop quickly huddled under a tent, determined not to let the rain keep them from the fresh produce they’d come to shop for.

SOUP was stated in 2016 by Chen and a friend who has since moved out of state.

“The focus of SOUP is to support urban agriculture in Springfield,” Chen says. “It is also to address food security any way we can in South Springfield, and we come at it from a fairly holistic approach.”

Chen says community gardens – which is something the group supports – are a great resource, but they don’t work as the only resource to combat food insecurities.

While some people might take to utilizing community gardens and even learn to build gardens of their own, the fact remains that not everyone loves to garden and not everyone will get the majority of their food that way, she says.

With that in mind, SOUP tries to meet people where they are rather than pushing one specific agenda. Though SOUP does teach gardening skills, it also wants people who would rather buy fresh food to still feel like that’s an option. And, pre-COVID-19, SOUP also planned cooking classes for people whose connection to food was more experience-based.

“It’s all based on a belief of ours to go where people are. Meet them where they’re at,” she says. And that belief goes further to include where the popup farm stands should be located – positioning them at schools which are already a community hub.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen says SOUP changed their farm stands from two smaller locations to one larger locations where shoppers can be more spread out. The farm stand is set up at Perrin Woods, and dates and times can be found on the group’s Facebook page.

Having SOUP and other similar locally-organized groups within the city – such as the Jefferson Street Oasis - is a huge asset to the residents on the South side of the city, said Shannon Meadows, community development director for the City of Springfield.

“It’s a great thing that a larger part of our greater network of our society in Springfield is beginning to understand and take note of the importance of creating more food-secure neighborhoods and providing resources to create better food security for families,” she says.

And though Chen coordinates SOUP’s activities, she emphasizes that the goals of the group are led by what community members say they want and need. She also says that over time, local residents have taken pride in working in community gardens and taken on responsibilities for running the farm stand.

“It’s just wonderful to see the community coming together around food in their own space, and it’s beautiful that that’s the other piece besides just the fresh food itself,” Chen says.

Before Kroger left South Limestone Street earlier this year, the farm stands and gardens were already a Southside staple. But, they’ve become even more important now as food – especially fresh produce – is scare in that area of Springfield.

The City of Springfield hope to attract the same buy-in and personal connection from neighborhood residents as it works to attract grocery and other retail and service businesses to the Engage Neighborhood – the area from Limestone Street to Yellow Springs Street, Meadows says.

“It’s a very dynamic area, as far as income, race, religion and diversity,” she says. “It’s an area of our city that has felt disengaged for a long time.

“The biggest task that we have as Community Development is to continue to try to make the table as large as possible and as inviting as many people possible for people’s voices that have not been engaged before to now become engaged.”

She says that simply attracting a new grocery store isn’t enough. But rather, the city wants to work within neighborhoods to identify their long-term goals and to work to attract businesses that meet their unique needs.

“We want to figure out how we can provide space for some of our historically disadvantaged businesses to grow and be part of the renaissance of the four corners that we’re looking at as a strategic planning opportunity at the intersection of John and Limestone streets,” Meadows says. “We want to create synergy and a network of people who are coming to the four corners for service retail – so it’s not just a grocery store or a co-op store providing fresh foods and groceries on their own, but creating this kind of dynamic energy of traffic and market that allows for success in the future.”

And she’s hopeful that the type of engagement the grassroots organizations like SOUP have will help encourage the same kind of engagement with the city.

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.