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Program working to build 34 new jobs, city’s grocery stores

With more than 40 years of experience in the restaurant business and as a central figure in the slow-food movement in Western North Carolina, Mark Rosenstein knows a thing or two about bringing food to the table. But rather than serving fine cuisine to paying customers, he’s channeling his passion for cooking to address food insecurity and job creation in some of Asheville’s poorest neighborhoods.

After selling his popular downtown Asheville eatery, The Market Place Restaurant, in 2009, Rosenstein successfully pitched his idea for a culinary-arts training program to Asheville-based Green Opportunities, a community-based development organization also known as GO.

In March 2012, with Rosenstein at the helm, the group launched GO Kitchen Ready and delivered its first 12-week program to train low-income adults facing employment barriers – those, for example, who are homeless, don’t have a high school diploma or have a criminal record — to work in the food industry.

“The community kitchen is an enterprise that is producing and generating income,” Rosenstein said. “It’s also providing job training as a pathway to self-sufficiency.”

Just nine months later, the program will anchor an expanded economic development initiative that will address food insecurity in low-income Asheville communities more likely to have households without enough food for a healthy life.

According to GO co-founder and co-executive director Dan Leroy, the organization has been awarded an $800,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help with the effort. Leroy said that GO has received the award letter, but other details, such as a timeline, have yet to be finalized.

What is known is that the funds will boost GO’s ability to establish and support sustainable enterprises. Those are, according to Leroy, profitable business entities that produce outcomes beneficial to the social, economic, and environmental needs of a community – in this case food insecurity.

“The No. 1 focus of the grant is on job creation in low-income neighborhoods,” said Leroy, who explained that the grant stipulates that their program also address food deserts.

Needing food, but living in isolation

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a food desert is a geographical island where residents in census tracts with poverty rates above 20 percent have limited access to nutritious food, as measured by the USDA.

Based on current data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are four food deserts in Buncombe County. View where those deserts are here.

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Yet, not all neighborhoods with families vulnerable to food issues are located within the boundaries of a USDA identified food deserts. For instance, the Hillcrest neighborhood, in Asheville, is not within a food desert, yet residents may still face challenges to purchasing fresh food at affordable prices.

GO co-executive director DeWayne Barton said the near-downtown community’s geography makes it isolated. Although grocery stores are nearby, transportation may be a barrier to purchasing healthy foods in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty.

In addition, neighborhoods with small groceries, such as corner and convenience stores, within a safe walk are not considered providers of healthy food in the federal government’s measure of food deserts since they are less likely to provide fresh produce and other nutritious foods at affordable prices.

The funds for the grant will serve neighborhoods in what GO refers to as Asheville’s riverside neighborhoods – communities on the east and west side of the French Broad River, such as Pisgah View, Burton Street, Southside and Hillcrest. According to USDA data, the census tract in between I-240 and the French Broad River in West Asheville is a food desert with 14.1 percent of the population considered to have low access to healthy and affordable food.

That food desert includes the Pisgah View Apartments, although some of the traditionally African-American neighborhoods along the river are not within USDA recognized food deserts since the USDA uses relatively broad census tracts as the geographical context rather than measuring the food accessibility in more localized units, such as a neighborhood. That is why GO is addressing needs of specific neighborhoods rather than focusing on census tracts.

“The scope of the grant is focused on specific neighborhoods in the city that have their own identities, boundaries and names,” Leroy said.

Leroy points out that low-income communities not designated within USDA food deserts, such as Hillcrest and the Livingston Heights Apartments near Mission Hospital, face food accessibility challenges too.

“If you don’t own a car, your choices (from Livingston Heights) are Green’s Mini Mart on Depot Street,” Leroy said. “You can walk several blocks to Amazing Savings or the French Broad Food Coop, or take a bus to the central bus station (Asheville Transit Center) and then transfer to a supermarket.”

Training, and more places to buy food

When Leroy and Burton launched the GO Training Team, in 2008, it focused on a 15-week job training and placement program. According to the GO website, the GO Training Team is a paid training and placement program designed to prepare low-income, unemployed young adults ages 18 to 24 for living-wage jobs in clean energy, recycling, sustainable energy and other green-collar jobs. Another one of the organization’s programs, GO Forward, is designed to provide participants with free technical skills training, professional certifications, and educational and employment counseling.

But GO also has experience using food as a means to address broader economic challenges.

In 2003, Barton and his wife, Safi Mahaba, established the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens, in West Asheville.

“In Burton, we used the community garden to draw people together to work around a common cause,” Barton said. “The whole purpose was to create economic opportunity in places they don’t exist – in isolated areas with historically high unemployment and high crime rates. For me, it’s about looking around and learning what type of enterprise is missing and how we can work with the community to help build it.”

Rosenstein agreed with Barton on the impact of food in developing strong communities.

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“The table is the center of culture and civilization; food is a very real pathway to bring a community together,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein’s GO Kitchen Ready program is just one of the ways the grant aims to do that. It will also provide funding to develop retail grocery enterprises that provide locally produced healthy foods and urban agriculture enterprises — both of which, Leroy said, will compliment Rosenstein’s established training program.

“The Kitchen Ready program is already moving us in the right direction to address food insecurity,” Leroy said, adding that the grant requires the initiatives develop at least 34 new jobs. “We don’t want to judge people in the way they eat. We want people to have the option to buy affordable, healthy food in their own communities.”

Leroy says they intend to partner with other organizations to develop a successful model of establishing retail enterprises and urban agriculture projects in neighborhoods without access to affordable healthy food.

GO also hopes to work and partner with organizations with success in facing food insecurity in the mountains such as MANNA FoodBank, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and Bountiful Cities, among others.

While each of the three components of the grant has food as a common link, Leroy emphasized that GO and their partners hope to empower communities with residents’ participation.

“We don’t like getting a bunch of money and say, ‘How can we help you?’ ” Leroy said. “We prefer to ask the community if this is something they support, and, if it is, give them real opportunities to be involved.”

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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