Food Access and Cultural Inclusion
From the rise of farm-to-table restaurants to the frequency of farmer's markets in cities across the country, the local food movement has expanded significantly in recent years. In states throughout the country, nonprofit organizations and small businesses are working hard to decrease food miles and provide an alternative to corporate food. However, these organizations and businesses often struggle to effectively address issues of access and cultural diversity. Rachel Slocum, an environmental justice advocate, has noted, “In alternative food practice is the possibility to make food production more ecologically sustainable, just and humane and, more broadly, to enable thinking about ethical relations. But community food efforts currently also enable an intimacy that results in collective sadness because it is based on the closeness of similar people.” The plethora of organizations, individuals, and businesses that comprise Rhode Island's local food infrastructure have done incredible work to increase access to healthy, local foods and support small-scale farmers and food producers. However, many of these markets, restaurants, and small businesses have been slow to address the needs of underserved and underrepresentative communities.
Here at Urban Greens one of our seven guiding values is Equal Access, which we define as: “Every person, regardless of economic or social status, deserves access to healthy, affordable food that is also culturally relevant and produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.” Urban Greens is dedicated to prioritizing local sourcing, and we are excited to work with farmers and producers in Rhode Island. At the same time, Urban Greens will be a full-scale grocery store commited to offering products that are representative of the diverse cultures and traditions in the state. As a large scale buyer, Urban Greens will be able to incentivize local farmers to diversify their product selection and experiment with different crops in order to better meet the needs of communities in West and South Providence.
Urban Greens will be located in Providence's West End Neighborhood, which is the largest and densest neighborhood in the state. The Sankofa Initiative recently compiled a Food Security Assessment of the West End, which notes, “The West End has numerous assets; chief among them are its cultural and income diversity... 38.3% of West End residents were born outside the U.S., making the West End ‘home’ to over 7,800 immigrants/refugees.” Rates of food insecurity and poverty in the West End are significantly higher in the West End than in Providence and Rhode Island as a whole. “Many underserved, racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods have limited access to affordable, healthful food and easy access to inexpensive, unhealthful food putting residents at risk for numerous health problems.” Organizations like the Sankofa Initiative and the African Alliance have been working hard to increase access to culturally appropriate, healthy foods in these diverse communities. According to Sankofa's Assessment, 82% of participants felt that foods related to their culture were important to them. Urban Greens will help fill a missing link in Rhode Island's growing food economy not only by providing local farmers and producers a new, stable, year-round sales opportunity, but also by providing and promoting healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food items.
Additionally, Urban Greens will work to be a hub for distributing information on community resources, events, and organizations. We will also host a variety of classes and workshops in our space. We’re excited to collaborate with local organizations who are doing important work in the community, such as the Southside Community Land Trust, the Sankofa Initiative, the African Alliance, and several more.
Recently, we had the chance to chat with Blia Muoa, who has been farming in Rhode Island since he immigrated from Laosdecades ago. When he and his family moved to the United States, they started off with just one small plot of land. Since then, and with the support of Southside Community Land Trust, they have acquired several more plots around Providence and have expanded their business to include a variety of vegetables and flowers. Muoa's selection continues to evolve as community members request new crops.
Muoa grows a variety of traditional Laotian vegetables, such as asian cucumbers, bitter melons, and yardlong beans, and he’s always happy to talk with customers about his favorite recipes. Muoa’s son especially likes the long beans, which can be eaten raw in salads, mashed into a paste, or stir fried with beef or pork. His bitter melons are one of my personal favorites; known for their distinct warty textures and bitter flavor, they have significant medicinal properties. According to Muoa, bitter melon is great for purifying and cleansing the body. It can be used to treat various stomach disorders, skin conditions, diabetes, etc.
All of Muoa’s vegetables are chemical-free “Everything we eat has too much fertilizer," he mentioned. "Everything collects in your body. You eat so many chemicals.” By growing these traditional vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way, he hopes to make it easier for Rhode Island residents to afford and enjoy healthy foods.
As a small-scale urban farmer, Muoa faces a variety of challenges, such as unstable markets, limited land access, and unpredictable weather. Muoa orders most of his seeds from Laos, which has become more difficult in recent years as regulations have become stricter.
You can find him and his family at the Sankofa Initiative’s World Market on Wednesdays and at the Seekonk Speedway Flea Market on Sundays. Muoa told us that recently he's been selling tons of his fresh corn, especially to Chinese families in Rhode Island and Massachusettes. “They were born in a different world, and then they come over here. It’s hard for them to wait to get these,” Muoa explained. Recently, a customer thanked him for "refreshing my memory of my homeland again." Muoa is proud that he can offer these foods to local customers. "We're from that world, and there's different food from another part of the world. Then you come here. You crave it. You go to Stop & Shop or Shaw's and it's different. It looks [similar] but it's not the one you used to eat. Thanks for bringing me my original food, my homeland's corn. That's what he [a customer] said to me."
Muoa and his family love to chat with customers, and he encourages visitors to ask questions about vegetables they’ve never seen before. The bitter melons sell out quickly, so make sure to stop by the market early!