Creating food security in communities in central Jefferson City has been a challenge for decades.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it selected Jefferson City as one of 13 participants in its Local Foods, Local Places program, which supports community-led efforts to reinvest in neighborhoods by development of the local food economy.
"The idea is that everybody's got enough stuff going on now — there is kind of a plan," said Sarah Eber, coordinator of the human nutrition and health program at Lincoln University Cooperative Extension. "But, this gets everybody's vision united."
There have been efforts to improve the health of the community before — through the work of organizations like Missouri Foundation for Health, which funded the three-year Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities initiative — aimed at helping families (especially those with young children) develop healthier lifestyles.
The EPA has included Jefferson City in its program before.
During its inaugural year — 2015 — the EPA tapped Jefferson City for its efforts to develop a Downtown Farmers Market, and to stimulate development of local-food restaurants downtown.
It was a popular effort, said Ken Luebbering, a Jefferson City-based writer and professor of English at Lincoln University.
Much of the focus was on the Lincoln University Farmers Market, which had temporarily (during May 2014) operated downtown while its location on campus was being used for other purposes.
Stephanie Bell, then- president of the Downtown Association, at the time praised the decision to host the market downtown.
And, it led to a weekly Downtown Farmers Market. That later transformed into the Capital City Farmers Market, which was determined to find a permanent indoor home (near the neediest communities in town) to allow it to operate during any weather.
The market gained access to a building at 130 E. Dunklin St. and began indoor operations May 5, 2018.
Now, it can be difficult to find signs of the efforts to create sustainable, healthy food choices downtown.
The LU Farmers Market is about the only option for nearby, fresh, healthy food choices for some near downtown.
The Capital City Farmers Market moved out of its building in December 2018, following the death of Steve Smart. Smart had been a driving force for the market — pushing for the building and leading fundraising efforts.
The market eventually moved to the Orscheln Farm and Home parking lot, 2304 Missouri Blvd., where it operates on Saturdays.
Restaurants were enthusiastic about using locally grown foods, Luebbering said. Some continue to use them, he added.
But, it quickly became apparent farmers in the market weren't able to produce enough food for long enough stretches of the year to help restaurants use their products on a consistent basis, he said.
"For three years, during Downtown Dinner Dash, we had restaurants feature local food for their menus," Luebbering said.
Although essentially nothing remains downtown from the 2015 grant, the community can take lessons from its success and failures, he said.
"There was a lot of excitement about the grant we had initially. I think our hopes exceeded our success," he said. "That's the way things go. You don't always have the success you hope for the first time around."
The latest Local Foods, Local Places effort is focused in a food desert in Jefferson City.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a place a food desert if it is a low-income census tract (at least 20 percent of residents are below the federal poverty level) where a substantial percentage of residents have low access to a supermarket or grocery store.
The food desert in Jefferson City is a triangle generally bordered on the west by U.S. 54, the east by U.S. 50 and East Dunklin Street, and south by Ellis Boulevard, Chestnut Street, Leslie Boulevard and Moreau Drive.
In her application for the program, Eber focused on U.S. Census Tract 105 (within the food desert), and pointed out that U.S. Census Bureau data showed in 2018 that it contained about 1,750 households (with a mix of rental and owner properties). The community is 46 percent Black, 1 percent Hispanic and 48 percent white. And about 20 percent of the population is below the poverty line.
She pointed out a significant portion of the tract's residents are working in low-wage jobs, such as cleaning services, food service and in the retail sector.
Stakeholders in the latest program are keeping an eye on the past as they work for their community's future, Eber said.
"You take inventory of your resources," she said. "Where you want to go and what your resources are. What your needs are."
There's a lot of buzz in agriculture corners about groups trying to set up sustainable communities. That has come about because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she continued.
"What's happened with COVID is the food insecurity. Even though grocery store shelves have food on them, everyone's afraid that could happen again," Eber said. "All of a sudden, you've got no food on the shelf. How are you going to feed your family?"
A partner in the program, Building Community Bridges, a local community-based nonprofit, has been collecting a list of resources available for the central Jefferson City community for several years, she said.
Lincoln University also has access to a number of resources through partnerships with Project Homeless Connect, several United Way of Central Missouri committees and other organizations, she added.
For example, Eber said, people who operate Missouri's Women, Infants and Children program recently made a presentation to the university, showing a drop in WIC use, although they suspect need has increased. They're working together to find ways of getting mothers connected with the program.
"In the meantime, we've got this spike in food insecurity, and we've got all these other things going on," she said. "It's very interesting from that social standpoint. Clearly COVID is the big piece of that. We still have these underserved communities, which remain under-served, yet have less utilization of resources."
Lincoln University has ongoing work in the community, where it has organized small community gardens for distribution in the area. BCB is also trying to feed community members through a food pantry it has set up in the neighborhood. It recently applied for and received a grant to provide free summer lunches for school-age children. On Tuesday, the first day for the free lunches, 48 students participated.
BCB provides food and does everything it can to break the cycle of hunger, said Joshua Dunne, the nonprofit's outreach coordinator.
Towns that have been successful in the Local Foods, Local Places program have developed local food systems, Eber said. Success requires a significant commitment of time, she continued.
A lot of things the initial EPA workshop for the program brought in right away in other grants, were things the Jefferson City community already enjoys, she said. Like a commercial kitchen; like a farmers market.
People may use a nearby commercial kitchen (at Lincoln University) to make "value-added products," like jams or jellies.
"We already have that in place, and it's specifically aimed at people with limited resources," Eber said. "There are a lot of other pieces that we already have. Really, it was just a matter of pulling it together and seeing what the community wanted to move forward with."