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Petersburg Food Program Works to Strengthen Local Food System

To help improve nutrition and alleviate hunger, the city of Petersburg has turned to local farmer and food makers to provide fresh, local produce for older residents. (Photo provided by River Street Market)

*Clara Haizlett reported this story

In January, the city of Petersburg launched a four-month initiative to provide healthy food to older people, while also supporting local farmers and food makers. Residents say the program has helped, but it’s also faced challenges.

“Feed the Need (Support the Farmers) Seniors Program” is supported by local partners like the River Street Market and Petersburg Healthy Options Partnership, a group working to improve community food systems. Every week until April, they’re distributing 100 bags of food to older people throughout the city, about 1600 bags total. The bags include things like eggs, produce, meats, dairy and prepared foods: all sourced locally.    

Cheryl Bursch, the manager for the seniors program, says the need for fresh local food in Petersburg is substantial. 

“Another grocery store just closed and supposed to be another Dollar General going in there,” she said. “It’s just a terrible situation.” 

Petersburg has several food deserts, places like the one Bursch described, where residents have limited access to fresh, healthy food. Over the years, this has impacted obesity rates and overall health of Petersburg residents. In 2020, the County Health Rankings ranked Petersburg City lastof 133 counties and independent cities in Virginia.  

The city created the food program at the end of 2020, with roughly $32,000 in leftover CARES Act funding. That money needed to be spent before 2021, which Bursch says rushed the implementation.

“We put the cart before the horse, and we're doing things that we're not quite ready for,” she said.

Still, residents say they love the program. Joyce W. Scott, who is 80 years old, found out about the program through the Petersburg Parks and Services Department. 

Scott received things like sweet potatoes, cabbage and homemade wheat bread - which she said was “awesome.” Scott says the collard greens were her favorite though, they were “so tender and so good.”

Lou Esther Simm, another program participant, had similar positive feedback. She had just one complaint - she’d like to get some bananas. 

Although bananas were always going to be outside the scope of a local produce program, Bursch says there are other problems they could have tackled if not for three big challenges: the lack of a proper facility as a headquarters, sourcing locally-grown produce out of the growing season, and coordinating with farmers on such a new program.

About 25 farmers and food makers are working to fill the bags. Bursch says many of them aren’t used to taking bulk orders, and they need resources and training in order to do so. 

This rings true for Erin Phelan, who owns Turkey Creek Bakery in Moseley. She runs the bakery out of her home kitchen, where she makes artisan bread with local wheat berries. Originally, Phelan was asked to provide 100 bread loaves a week for the four month program. 

“It's kind of a ‘Catch 22’ situation to be in, because I wanted to jump all over it when Cheryl first mentioned it to me,” she said.

She says she loves the idea of the program, but with limited space and resources, Phelan says it just wasn’t possible to produce that much bread, especially since she has a full-time job outside of the bakery.

“I'm not the type of person to want the government to give me money to start a business necessarily,” she said. “But if one of the goals is to encourage local, small businesses, there's going to be a hurdle that those businesses have to get over in order to do that.”

She says it would be helpful if those resources were built into the program’s funding, so she could scale up without worrying about what will happen after the program ends.

Bursch says one of her main goals is to build trust with the farmers and providers, but she recognizes that will take time, and says residents have good reason to be skeptical of municipal government. 

“The trials of Petersburg, over the past 15 to 20 years, have been a lot of promises unkept,” she said. 

Bursch is also the manager for two other local markets in Petersburg: POP! Market and Riverstreet Market. She says a lot of grants have come into the city, but “nothing sticks and nothing stays.” 

What residents and food producers really need, she says, is long-term support of a local food system.  

“In the long run, we're going to continue to try to put some things in place like a local certified kitchen,” she said, describing a place where cooks could make food they can sell without buying their own kitchen spaces. 

Bursch says she wants to keep doing these types of programs even after the pandemic, to build confidence in farmers and foodmakers and establish a reliable inventory of local food in Petersburg. 

“Feed the Need (Support the Farmers) Seniors Program” is planned to run until April.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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