Today is Food Day, an occasion for the awareness and celebration of efforts in the United States to address food-related issues like access, health, sustainability, and others.  With almost 6,530 USDA-determined food deserts in the U.S. today, making nutritious and affordable food accessible requires creative solutions. These solutions demand we re-imagine elements of the food system by asking fundamental questions like “What is a grocery store?” or “What is a farm?”  As we celebrate the healthy food movement today, I’d like to highlight contributions from the two organizations at which I spend my work week: Nonprofit Finance Fund and Brooklyn Grange.

NFF has recently partnered with Philabundance, the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief organization, and several other organizations to assemble the financing and New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) to open Fare & Square, the first nonprofit grocery store in the country.  Set to open in Chester, Pennsylvania in the Spring of 2013, Fare & Square will offer much needed relief to the area, which has been without a grocery store for 11 years.  Commercial grocery stores have increasingly vacated urban areas such as Chester due to higher operating costs and limited space, forcing residents to travel unreasonable distances for fresh food, giving rise to urban food deserts.  The need for free and affordable food grows, while food bank donations across the country continue to decrease. Fare & Square’s model provides an innovative solution to get healthy food to the areas that need it most, and keep it there.  Open to the entire community, the store will not only provide food staples at a lower cost, but it will also provide qualified members with “Fare & Square Bucks,” which they receive as a percentage of every purchase and may use for any future purchase. Additionally, the store will accept SNAP benefits, provide SNAP outreach, and offer donated foods to members at no cost.  Fare & Square promises several advantages for the community – access to fresh food, the creation of jobs, volunteer opportunities, and increased economic activity.  With this progressive program, Philabundance is taking a novel approach to fixing food deserts and, more importantly, doing so with a replicable model.

Brooklyn Grange rooftop farms, where I am an Apprentice, is changing the way we think about using city spaces efficiently, from both an environmental and economic standpoint. With over two acres of cultivated space on two rooftops in Queens and Brooklyn, we grow and sell organic vegetables to the community through multiple channels: at weekly farmstands, to local restaurants, and through our forty-member CSA program. The benefits of growing food on city rooftops are numerous. Though growing nutritious vegetables is the fundamental purpose of the farm, providing fresh local food for the community is just the beginning.  The greenroof system improves air-quality and reduces the urban heat-island effect. The roof is able to absorb almost all of the rainwater that hits it, providing some relief to the city’s over-burdened stormwater management system. The farm insulates the building below it, reducing costs and extending the life of the roof. The farm also runs an educational non-profit arm, City Growers, which provides New York City’s children with the valuable opportunity to find out where their food comes from. Brooklyn Grange has been able to tap into unused spaces in the city to create a fiscally sustainable model for urban agriculture and generate a true triple bottom line.

The need for healthy, affordable, and accessible food is greater than ever, and it’s time to try new approaches to use our resources more efficiently.  A nonprofit grocery store and a small, commercial, organic, urban farm are two examples of this – atypical business models that venture to change the way we think about getting food from point A to point B. Further, they redefine points A and B altogether.  To grow a tomato on a city rooftop, and then to one day have that tomato show up in a successful nonprofit grocery store in a former food desert is no easy feat.  It is attainable and replicable, but it requires support. Fare & Square would not be possible without the help of the community, volunteers, and financers like NFF. Similarly, Brooklyn Grange could not do without all of the community support, investors, interns, volunteers, and locavores. So this Food Day, if nothing else, take a minute to appreciate your food. Do you know where it came from? Do you know where you’ll find your next nutritious meal? These are things not to be taken for granted.  Our food works for us, every day – it is what keeps us alive. Shouldn’t we be doing a little work for it?