What is the key to a food secure Mantua? The patience, persistence, and hard work of an organized neighborhood.

Margaret James checks to make sure she has her purse, pocketbook, SEPTA tokens, and house keys before leaving her apartment. At 70 years old, Margaret takes her time walking down her steps. She makes her way down the sidewalk, six blocks to the corner of Mantua Avenue. Knowing that some of her neighbors are disabled or bedridden, she is glad that she can still get around all right. She stands and waits at the bus stop, her hat blocking her eyes from the sun. The pavement steams in July in Philadelphia.

The 38 bus arrives and Margaret slowly, deliberately climbs aboard. She is a little winded, happy there is a seat free for her on this bus. “If I’m lucky,” she thinks, “I can get my groceries and make it back home in three hours.” Thirty stops later, Margaret exits the bus. She walks down the parking lot past the shiny hot cars, grabs a cart, and heads into the Pathmark grocery store.

These stores down here only sell beer and fast food. And fresh vegetables? Forget that!

Every week for the past seven years, Margaret has made her trip to the grocery store. She lives in Mantua, a community in West Philadelphia where, for a long time, residents have had to leave their neighborhood to find fresh produce.

There are supermarkets that are closer to Mantua than Pathmark, but they are less accessible for some Mantua residents. “I would have to take two buses to go to the supermarket on 43rd St.” she explains. “It’s rough; it really is.”

In addition, the stores in her immediate area don’t stock the fresh vegetables she needs. “These stores down here only sell beer and fast food,” she said. “And fresh vegetables? Forget that! They put some out there, but they are not fresh. They might sell a head of cabbage that’s been there for 10-11 days, and it’s turning brown. Who wants that? I’m not going to buy it, that’s why I go all the way out to Pathmark.”

Confirming what residents have known through experience, Mantua was designated as a “Low Supermarket Access Area” by The Reinvestment Fund. Mantua wasn’t always this way. Margaret remembers getting her food from the local supermarket and street vendors – but that was over 7 years ago, before the store was burned down and the street vendor found a new location after he was robbed. Increasing crime and violence drove businesses away, she says.

For those who want to understand more fully how neighborhoods like Mantua can improve health outcomes, food access, and overall quality of life, Margaret’s story is illuminative.

Often missing and obscured in the official conversation are the voices and experiences of residents who live in the low-income neighborhoods that are so widely studied and debated.

Most advocates feel that addressing the lack of access to fresh, healthy food in low income neighborhoods across the country will help turn around their disproportionately high rates of chronic disease and other poor health outcomes. Recent research and debates over food and health policy have raised questions about the nature and impact of food deserts: neighborhoods with few options for residents to obtain healthy food. For example, the New York Times reported on two studies which questioned the relationship among the availability of food, low-income neighborhoods, and rates of obesity.

While the research may complicate the picture of those relationships, it doesn’t help us understand the positive benefits of available fresh food, or the costs of limited food access. This was LISC Director Michael Rubinger’s point in his letter to the editor that highlighted the important neighborhood-wide benefits of supermarkets and other fresh food outlets.

Listening to the voices and stories of Mantua residents will help everyone understand better what major problems residents face and how they can be addressed.

Moreover, many studies like this focus on a small number of variables across diverse communities. After all, they are trying to describe a complicated situation where social, economic, and environmental factors intersect with individual and cultural preferences.

Often missing and obscured in the official conversation are the voices and experiences of residents who live in the low-income neighborhoods that are so widely studied and debated. These are people like Margaret James, people who spend an hour or more on a bus to get to the market, who care for neighbors and family members that are suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and who are working daily to overcome obstacles of poverty and crime. At the same time, many of these neighborhoods are filled with people who, like James, are working for positive and community-driven transformation.

When the group organized around fresh food access, they recognized that no one strategy would solve the problem.

Margaret and her neighbors, were used to having to travel to get the food they wanted. In fact, they had gotten used to crime, blighted vacant lots, foreclosure, unemployment, and an increasing cost of living, too.

In early 2012, the Mt. Vernon Manor subsidized apartment complex received a Federal planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Philadelphia LISC convened a group of stakeholders and hired a community organizer to invite residents together to lead their own community’s planning process. The process promised to involve open and transparent collaboration among the stakeholders. Along the way, people living in Mantua got involved. These were people who cared deeply about their neighbors and community and who wanted to roll up their sleeves and work for meaningful change.

photo by david ferris

Mantua residents of all ages are taking action to improve their community.

One of Margaret’s goals was to bring fresh food to her neighborhood, so she was a perfect match for the Health & Wellness Task Force.

Residents first worked to understand and describe the priority issues that affected the community. What’s more, they described how the issues intersected and overlapped. For example, since Margaret knew the history of the neighborhood, she knew that problems of unemployment and a lack of activities for young people had led to crime; she knew that crime had pushed the two fresh food vendors to leave the area; and she knew that crime and problems with infrastructure (sidewalks, lighting, blight, etc.) made residents feel unsafe to walk or exercise. All of these issues had implications for the food security and the overall health of people in Mantua.

After months of meetings, the Health & Wellness Task Force compiled a list of priority issues they wanted to see addressed, as well as a list of recommended strategies for improving health in the neighborhood. What emerged was a recognition that the health and wellness of people living in Mantua depended on a number of factors: “access to appropriate, timely healthcare and pharmaceuticals; a need for clean, safe, outdoor play space, including recreation centers, green space, art, and trails; and access to healthy food to buy,” according to health task force member Claire Baker of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

When the group organized around fresh food access, they recognized that no one strategy would solve the problem.

Let’s bring food to our neighborhood in every way possible.

Instead, the group advocated for several small strategies. Mantua resident Rebecca Rose recognized that, like Margaret, “A lot of people don’t have cars. They don’t have that access, so they just have to buy from the grocery stores around here.” And what’s available nearby is limited: “There are plenty of canned goods on the shelf. The delis will fry you something up or make hoagies, but you know that’s not so tremendously nutritious for people. I only use the small grocery stores if I am walking by and I need something minor. But their rates are higher.”

The group thought that multiple strategies could lead to more fresh fruits and veggies being sold and consumed in the neighborhood. For example, a food truck or street vendor could offer healthier options in the short term, corner stores could be encouraged and supported to stock fresh fruits and veggies in the medium term, and a larger supermarket could be invited to the neighborhood in the long run.

Another strategy the group recommended was to grow food in the neighborhood in backyard and community gardens. “Being able to grow your own is one avenue of increasing food security in the neighborhood,” said Claire. “And gardens have benefits beyond food production: they make neighborhoods more livable and more welcoming, and the act of gardening is a healthy outdoor activity that can engage people across generations.”

photo by david ferris

Using vacant lots to create community gardens and urban farms, according to Mantua residents, is one key piece in increasing the food security of people in the community.

Beyond bringing fresh food to people and growing it locally, the group saw the need for education and promotion of healthy eating. Gerald Washington said, “When we do get a market or stores that have fresh fruits and vegetables, we’re still going to have to promote it to where it catches on, to where people are buying that food.” Rebecca suggested teaching residents about fresh foods and healthy cooking, in a fun, delicious way that would appeal a variety of people.

Supplying folks with healthier food and building awareness are not enough if people can’t afford to eat healthier – or even if they think they can’t afford it. “There are lots of food banks distributing food to the community,” says Rebecca. “You have to look at the income levels to support a healthy habit.” As a result, a strategy to connect residents to benefits, job resources, and financial coaching becomes important to health.

In addition, Margaret suggests engaging and employing Mantua’s youth around these goals: : “If enough organizations get involved and get with these young men, they might see another way to go instead of selling drugs. Maybe that would help.”

The final proposal of the task force compiled all of these ideas and more. Claire summarized it: “We just know we want more food and better food, and there are multiple ways to do that.  Let’s bring them all to Mantua. Let’s bring food to our neighborhood in every way possible.”

We know what would be good for Mantua, but we have to invite people to come up with a strategy for implementing the plans.

Eventually, the Health & Wellness proposal was added to those of the other task forces who were meeting: youth, physical environment, economic development, safety, and education. What emerged was a comprehensive community platform: a collective recognition of neighborhood challenges and a roadmap to successfully addressing them through resident-led efforts.

Despite all this hard work, some residents have been skeptical of whether anything will come of the planning. Gerald has been engaged since the beginning, offering astute, practical, level-headed criticisms. He reminded everyone, “We know what would be good for Mantua, but we have to invite people to come up with a strategy for implementing the plans. We can talk about it, but until we got a way to make it happen, then all it’s going to be is talk. Who’s going to make it happen?” (Thankfully, Gerald has stayed involved, like Margaret, contributing to the value and realism of the plan and recommendations for its implementation.)

To ensure the work implementing this plan would continue, Mantua residents also worked to build a civic association. The neighborhood has not had a truly resident-driven body for years. Now this new organization can work to advocate for city support for the community, champion initiatives and programs that will benefit residents, and provide accountability to developers and speculators looking for opportunities in the area.

Margaret has already seen positive changes in the neighborhood since residents got organized. “The drug dealers are not standing on the corners like they used to since We Are Mantua! I see a big change with that,” she said. “It’s encouraging. But still, businesses are scared to come down here.” Despite the progress, she faces other challenges as well. Margaret wishes she could more quickly gain access to the vacant lot near her house to build a community garden.

This time around, the key to creating real change in Mantua is collaboration between the residents and the stakeholder organizations.

Early action projects have been essential for keeping people involved in the overall neighborhood revitalization process. These projects create small but tangible victories for the neighborhood. Several projects aimed at improving food security and health in Mantua are already underway.

The West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub has responded by working to bring fresh food to spots within walking distance of Mantua. At specific times throughout the week, the truck also brings food directly to libraries, community centers, and senior apartments within Mantua. The Hub sells affordable, fresh, local, and organic food, attracting customers with low prices and friendly service. Grants from LISC and others have helped the Hub get off the ground, quickly, addressing concerns articulated by the Health and Wellness task force.

photo by david ferris

Mantua residents can purchase fresh fruits and veggies, many of which are local and organic, at the West Philly Fresh Food Hub, usually stationed at 37th and Lancaster Ave.

The taskforce is also trying to start community gardens on vacant land, which is abundant in the neighborhood. “We have been trying to get this empty lot over here ever since we started We Are Mantua!” Margaret said. “This empty lot is just sitting there. That would make a beautiful garden.”

The community’s efforts would be fruitless without the advocacy of LISC and collaboration among stakeholders.  Other developers and agencies have made empty promises to Margaret and her neighbors in the past. This time around, the key to creating real change in Mantua is collaboration between the residents and the stakeholder organizations. Leaders like Margaret organize, motivate, and energize residents, while articulating goals for the community; institutional partners bring resources to the neighborhood to establish early victories and carry out the projects envisioned by the residents. Without the vision and hard work of organized residents, efforts to affect positive change in Mantua would be in vain.

We have to overcome all those factors. We have got to get up that hill.

Margaret, Gerald, Rebecca, and all of the residents engaged in the process of improving  Mantua provide an inspiring example of what is possible when residents tackle the challenges of their communities with responsibility and courage. Improving Mantua’s food systems and the health of its residents will take significant commitment and hard work from the community’s leaders. Affecting lasting change will be a difficult challenge.

“You know, a lot of our neighbors, haven’t had a lot of successes in their life, so they are not optimistic,” Gerald explained. “But nevertheless, we have to overcome all those factors. We have got to get up that hill.”

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