Walnut Hills / E. Walnut Hills

Creativity in community: solving Walnut Hills’ food security crisis

In December of 2016, the Walnut Hills community was shocked by devastating news: their neighborhood Kroger store was closing. With its exit, the grocer rendered Walnut Hills an official food desert and its residents — many of whom were low income, elderly, or disabled —now had to find another way to buy groceries.

In the three years since Kroger’s closure, Walnut Hills has turned this proverbial “lemon” into lemonade, using the crisis of food insecurity as a rally cry for activism and entrepreneurship. Creative solutions have risen up from every corner of the neighborhood (and beyond) and, though it’s not perfect, Walnut Hills’ food system is coming to life.

Hoping for the best; preparing for the worst

Back in 2016, the leadership of Walnut Hills was not surprised by the news from Kroger. They knew the store had been losing money. The Walnut Hills Area Council and the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF) had employed various tactics to keep Kroger open, but it wasn’t enough. The store was economically unsustainable and had been for years. And with a new $25M Kroger store opening a few miles away in Corryville, they knew the decision could come at any time.

Food security is a more urgent issue for some residents than for others. For those with reliable transportation, or those with flexible schedules and budgets, driving a few miles for groceries is an inconvenience but not a crisis.

For very low-income, elderly, or disabled residents, the logistics alone of getting to the grocery store and then getting the groceries back home again is a struggle. The absence of a full-service neighborhood grocer could mean the difference between dinner on the table and an empty pantry or between a meal made with fresh vegetables and one pieced together with snacks from the corner store.

Emergency services and basic stability

Open Door Ministry has a food pantry and a free breakfast cafe, which has the added bonus of combating loneliness in the community.

Food insecurity may have become a more urgent issue when Kroger left the neighborhood, but it is not new a new problem for many in Walnut Hills. For those experiencing food insecurity, social services agencies like food pantries and soup kitchens can provide an immediate safety net for urgent needs.

The Queen City Kitchen has been a staple in Walnut Hills since 1976. It operates two soup kitchens in Cincinnati: one in Walnut Hills and one in Over-the-Rhine. The Walnut Hills location is open five days a week for a hot meal, and two meals are served on Saturdays.

They also provide a “choice pantry” which means, rather than receiving a random bag of groceries, clients can “shop” from whatever food or pantry items are available, choosing only things they want and will actually eat.

Clients can pick from the same items they’d find at a full-service grocery store — things like canned fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, noodles, cereal and breads, snacks, cookies, and condiments — though brand options and varieties are limited. Some items are donated by partnering agencies; some are purchased by Queen City Kitchen for their inventory.

In 2019, the Queen City Kitchen served 56,000 hot meals and provided 601 different clients with take-home groceries. They served 4,316 hot meals in January of 2020.

Open Door Ministry is another agency meeting the baseline need for groceries for vulnerable residents. They opened in 1973 as a ministry of the Episcopal Church of the Advent.

The ministry provides payee services for clients and a food pantry. They are open weekdays, with one Saturday food giveaway a month.

While they don’t serve hot meals, Open Door Ministry has a free breakfast cafe, which combats the loneliness experienced by many of these vulnerable residents. The cafe provides a “third place” for people who may not be able to afford the pleasure of sharing a cup of coffee or a meal with a friend at a nearby restaurant. The cafe has become a valuable asset among residents who stop in for a donut or a bag of groceries for the week, or both.

Partnering for healthy food options

In early 2017, even before Kroger was officially gone, the WHRF jumped into action, inviting residents to engage in the process of re-imagining food access in the neighborhood for the long-term. With Kroger’s impending closure, they also ramped up their existing food access programs, including those health and wellness focus, like urban gardening and farmers markets.

Long-term Walnut Hills resident Gary Dangel is the Food Access Coordinator at the WHRF.

He is confident that they’ll eventually secure a grocery operator for the neighborhood. But, in the interim, he says all other ideas are on the table, especially if they help create a truly robust food system that meets the needs of the whole community.

He explains the plight of an average Walnut Hills resident.

“Imagine I’m a 65-yr old guy living in the Alexandria [housing complex],” he says. “I don’t have an income. I don’t have a car and I don’t walk well. So I have to get on a bus and spend three hours doing my grocery shopping and I have to buy food that won’t spoil or melt during my three hour trip back on the bus home.”

Residents like this, he explains, end up making unhealthy food choices, buying only frozen foods or processed foods in boxes and cans. In the absence of a neighborhood grocery store, Dangel wants to provide better and healthier options for residents, especially those with limited income and mobility.

“Success [for us],” Dangel says, “is when you don’t have to leave the neighborhood and you get all the food options you would anywhere else.”

Dangel’s activism is a remnant of his time as a young adult living in an off-the grid “hippie commune” where he learned the value of growing your own food and living off the fruits of your labor. He believes that food access is a matter of social justice, community health, and environmental sustainability.

One of his greatest joys is being able to deliver fresh-picked produce into the hands of a neighborhood resident.

“This is directly from the garden, ‘farm-to-table’ in the true sense of the word,” he explains. “I can tell people that this tomato was picked a quarter mile from where we’re standing, by me, picked by hand, a half hour ago.”

As a program of the redevelopment foundation, Dangel has been offering fresh, seasonal produce (and sometimes smoothies) to residents via a pop-up produce stand. He sets up shop at various events around the neighborhood like the (seasonal) monthly Noir Market and the weekly Healthy Harvest Mobile Market in the vacant Kroger parking lot.

The Noir Market is the brainchild of MORTAR graduate Ora Daniels of Sugar Innovations. She saw the vacant Kroger parking lot as an opportunity to adapt the farmers market concept she’d seen elsewhere to the particular needs of Walnut Hills.

Her market is made of mostly black entrepreneurs selling food and goods to the predominately African-American customer base of the neighborhood. Daniels says the Noir Market will grow and expand in 2020, with more food vendors and live music. She’s excited to provide a culturally-relevant experience for the neighborhood while also meeting the practical need for greater food access.

The Healthy Harvest Mobile Market (HHMM) is a program of Freestore Foodbank, offering wholesale-priced grocery staples and fresh food to residents in twelve food desert communities across Cincinnati. Dangel says the weekly HHMM has been a life-saver for the neighborhood these past few years.

“From day one when Kroger closed, they were there,” he remembers.

The program helps fill the void in places where it’s hard to find (and buy) healthy food. In addition to bringing the food directly to the customer, the program offers special double-your-money perks to low-income customers using a SNAP/EBT card, making these fresh items even more affordable.

This outside help is necessary for a community in crisis. But greater local food security and sustainability is still the goal, Dangel says. He is hoping to offer a hyper-local CSA program soon for residents who are interested. And he’s always doubly excited to have resident volunteers help with the planting and harvesting of the locally-grown food that ends up in neighborhood kitchens.

Gardening and gleaning

It’s a common theme in Walnut Hills to see vacant lots reclaimed as community space, many of them as community gardens. Walnut Hills has seven community gardens, which are managed in a variety of ways by both residents and local organizations. There are two foraging fruit orchards, as well as some simple vegetable and flower gardens.

Sue Plummer is the garden manager at the Glean and Share Community Garden, a project designed to implement the Old Testament practice of leaving some food in the fields after the harvest for the poor and widowed to freely glean for themselves.

Plummer explains, “The concept, today, refers broadly to rescuing edible food that might otherwise be left in the field, on the shelf, or in the restaurant kitchen, and getting it re-distributed to food insecure individuals.”

Glean and Share is a project of Vitality Cincinnati, The Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, and the Society of Saint Andrew. It was started in 2018 and funded by a Green Umbrella Grant.

Plummer cites a recent study that says 30% of the food produced by farmers never leaves the field. As the Glean and Share program expands into a Walnut Hills garden, the aim is to keep as much of the produce from the garden in the Walnut Hills neighborhood, distributing it to local residents, food pantries, and soup kitchens.

“The goal is serving and feeding those who are food insecure,” Plummer explains.

“We have a significant population living at or below the poverty level, and a great desire to serve our neighbors, and help them find options to serve themselves. The community gardens are also one of the few places where neighbors might meet who may not meet otherwise.”

Plummer isn’t the only one implementing this gleaning concept. In 2020 La Soupe will be moving to their new facility right in the middle of the Walnut Hills business district.

LaSoupe is opening a larger location in Walnut Hills.

La Soupe is a business with a mission to rescue, transform, and share food waste. They rescue food from stores like Kroger, Jungle Jims, and Whole Foods — plus food scraps from local restaurants and gleaned produce from community gardens — and process it into healthy, delicious meals.

Board President Mimi Dyer says La Soupe rescues, per week, 8,000 pounds of food and then gives away 6,500 servings. They sort the food, remove any bad parts, and cook it into soups and pan meals to share with their 80 partners, many of them local schools. Most everything their chefs cook is made entirely from rescued food, even down to the soup broth.

When relocating to Walnut Hills this year, La Soupe will expand from a tiny 900-square-foot facility to more than 10,000 square feet, opening up the opportunity for retail space, walk-up services, and more educational opportunities.

“Once people start eating and tasting this really healthy food, they want to know how to make it themselves,” Dyer says.

A much larger space with a commercial kitchen means they can welcome more people in for classes to learn how to prepare healthy food into simple one-pot meals. They even provide a crockpot for students in their classes to make this an easier transition at home.

Walnut Hills was hand-picked for La Soupe’s $5M relocation project because of its convenient location, access to public transportation, and the dependability of its urban infrastructure. Plus, it’s a food desert and food security is a part of their mission.

La Soup brings one more opportunity for residents to make healthy eating easier with limited food access, time, and budgets.

Thinking creatively about community-driven solutions

Walnut Hills is not the only food desert in Cincinnati. Others — like Avondale, Madisonville, and College Hill — have been navigating this problem for years, with mixed success.

The grocery industry is not completely blind to the concern. One innovative solution is digital commerce where, with the click of a few buttons, customers can have the groceries of their choice delivered right to their door from large retailers like Aldi, Kroger, and Whole Foods. But, for low income Cincinnatians receiving food stamps, this isn’t a feasible option. Almost no online grocery services accept their SNAP/EBT card.

Food Forest is the exception.

Food Forest is an app-based online grocery store that captures inventory from various sources around Cincinnati, including multiple vendors from Findlay Market and food entrepreneurs from the Incubator Kitchen Collective in Newport, KY. Customers place their order through the app, Food Forest completes their orders around town, and then personally delivers the products to a “hotspot” location in their community. Customers pay Food Forest directly upon delivery. And they accept SNAP/EBT.

It’s like a personal shopper for those who could not normally afford the luxury.

Founder David Curtin developed the app based on his firsthand knowledge of the grocery industry. He was working on the digital team at Kroger in 2016 when the news broke about the Walnut Hills neighborhood store. When he saw the reaction, both within Kroger and on the community level, he knew there had to be a better solution.

“People rallied behind the issue,” he remembers. And the Kroger Foundation has worked to remediate the problem to an extent. But a human-scale solution from inside a global-scale company, he says, is “complicated.” Yet, the problem of food insecurity is not going away. Curtin says it is only going to get worse as retailers like dollar stores fill in the void left by large grocers chasing more high-yield markets.

The Food Forest concept marries the innovation of mobile grocery service with the needs of low-income customers and communities. Curtin says that most people see mobile grocery as a more expensive way to shop, but it doesn’t need to be. By “multi-sourcing” local products, customers can actually save money.

Food Forest’s launch was funded by a grant from the Haile Foundation. As far as operational costs, the Food Forest business model is very minimalistic with little overhead. They keep almost no inventory. Everything is ordered, picked up, and delivered efficiently in a short window of time.

Curtin keeps a small staff: just himself, a part-time delivery associate, and two tech partners. And he takes no salary. Before the business launched, he and his wife implemented a family plan to save enough money for him to work two years pro bono while establishing the business.

“I was really inspired by things we were trying to do internally at Kroger,” Curtin says, like the idea of the “endless aisle” of products. But the concept was hard to implement and execute inside a big company. He wanted to create a miniature model that was easier on the environment and more small-business friendly. And he wanted it to be accessible to vulnerable residents like those in food deserts, like those in Walnut Hills.

“Walnut Hills is the place to model this kind of solution,” Curtin explains.

The On The Ground Walnut Hills feature series is made possible by a grant fromThe Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.