Before the Farm to Family mobile farmers market began making weekly stops at the Southern Villas senior apartment complex in southwest St. Augustine, Robbie Reynolds often went to bed hungry. Reynolds lives in a food desert, one of seven census tracts in St. Johns County where an estimated 10,000 poor and elderly people lack access to healthful foods. Since Reynolds doesn’t drive and has no dependable transportation, she ate what food people brought to her. Disabled and homebound, the 58-year-old had no choice.
“I ate a lot of junk!” she says.
That’s all changed since Farm to Family began visiting Southern Villas.
Leaning on a walker for support, Reynolds asks Farm to Family market ambassador George Hall to pick two zucchinis, a cantaloupe, a spaghetti squash and a Vidalia onion for her from the bins of fresh produce stacked in rows along the open bay of the Farm to Family truck. She says she will sauté the zucchini in olive oil and onion and then finish it with a light splash of wine vinegar. She’s wearing bright-orange Crocs that make her feet look like giant mushrooms, and holding the leash on her Chihuahua mix Rubi, who’s sporting a service dog vest and tag. For Reynolds, the arrival of Farm to Family means she has access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as a weekly occasion to leave her apartment. She buys $10.75 worth of produce. Hall takes the bag to her back porch so that she doesn’t have to lug it home. The stop at Southern Villas is one of five locations in St. Johns County that the mobile farmers market visits on Thursdays. All stops are places where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited or nonexistent.
Farm to Family is an offshoot of the nonprofit Pie in the Sky that St. Johns County’s No. 1 do-gooder Malea Moore Guiriba, 57, founded in Hastings in 2009. Farm to Family draws on the values of the farm-to-table movement. They gather produce from area farms like the delivery services Palmetto Organics, Front Porch Pickings and Black Hog Farm. Instead of serving the sophisticated palates of Northeast Florida foodies, Farm to Family brings locally grown produce and homemade foodstuffs to the poor and working poor in St. Johns County’s food deserts. Farm to Family accepts food stamps. They double the dollar amount of a food stamp purchase if it’s spent on Florida produce. The medical group Island Doctors first helped pay for the double-dollar program; now, the USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINE) grant program supports it through a $25,000 grant.
The response has been overwhelming, says Guiriba.
“For someone who is trying to scrimp and spend as little as possible to make food stamp dollars last until end of month, it’s a big deal,” she says. ”The reaction we’ve gotten is everything that we hoped for and more. People just cry.”
Guiriba doesn’t take a salary from Farm to Family or Pie in the Sky. She lives frugally in Switzerland, mostly on money she inherited from her parents. She grew up on the Trout River in Jacksonville and earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Florida. She worked as a reporter for Clay Today when she swerved into social service. While researching a book she hoped to write about domestic violence, Guiriba began volunteering at the Betty Griffin House domestic violence shelter in Fruit Cove. She was soon named shelter director and worked for four years in Hastings as a domestic violence prevention advocate. When the grant ran out in 2009, Guiriba wanted to continue to help the people of Hastings, a small potato and cabbage farming community in southwest St. Johns County.
She says she’d gotten to know the farmworkers and other people in Hastings and didn’t want to abandon them. That led her to the nonprofit Pie in the Sky. She opened a storefront in downtown Hastings, where she offered pies, conversation and guerilla social services. Without the bureaucracy that a government grant imposes, she helped people freestyle. She might raise the money to buy a person a pair of dentures, a wheelchair ramp or a wheelchair, or buy a bus ticket so a farm laborer could visit his sick parents.
When the Second Harvest North Florida Food Bank notified Guiriba it had a surplus of food, she and St. Johns County Health Department social services manager Ellen Walden — who retired from the county last week after 39 years — loaded up a pickup truck and took food to Hastings. That led to a weekly food pantry run by Pie in the Sky. But after baking 1,000 pies and giving away more than a million pounds of food at the Pie in the Sky food pantry, Guiriba wanted to do something that would make more of a long-term difference in people’s quality of life.
She and Walden, who is the executive director of the board of Farm to Family, say the farmers market can change lives. If young families include more fresh fruits and vegetables less processed food in their diets, it can mean their children will be healthier for the rest of their lives. To help people change their eating habits, it’s necessary to educate them on how to prepare fresh food, says Guiriba. She notes that elderly customers redeem more than 80 percent of the double food stamp dollars available for fresh produce, while younger people redeem only 40 percent. She thinks that’s because many young people grew up on fast food and processed food and don’t know how to cook the fresh items.
Farm to Family market manager Phyllis Wood teaches more than she preaches. She breaks out the sauté pan at Farm to Family stops to cook some of the produce and give out samples. Wood spent many years working for Jacksonville’s Catering by Liz. After she retired and decided the leisure life wasn’t for her, Guiriba hired her. “Just give me a minute,” Wood says she tells customers who don’t like spinach. Then she heats up a pan with a little olive oil and garlic, wilts some fresh spinach leaves in the heat and squeezes lemon juice over top to give it sparkle. From spinach-hater to convert, such cooking demonstrations not only open someone’s mind to new food, but demonstrate how simple fixing a fresh vegetable can be, Wood says.
“I don’t want people to think they have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen to make something good,” she says.
Since February, Guiriba says Farm to Family has operated in the black. Next, she hopes to add stops on Fridays and is beginning to think about adding a second truck. These days, Guiriba works out of her home in Switzerland on grants and fundraising. She’s hired two others to operate the food truck: driver Nicholas Zimmer has a degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin and ran education programs at Trad’s Nursery and the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens before launching his own organic horticulture business, Bluebird Growers, and market ambassador George Hall, who for many years was a migrant laborer working potato and cabbage crops.
Wood hopes that Farm to Family teaches people the difference that a healthy diet can make in their lives and lures them away from empty calories and junk food. Eating healthy can combat obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and several more illnesses, she says.
She describes the layout of a typical Dollar Store, where the customers must pass aisles of potato chips, snacks and candy before arriving at canned vegetables and maybe a cooler of processed food. If that’s all that a person has nearby, they’ll feed their families from those limited offerings.
“That’s an American tragedy,” says Wood.