I’ve just attended my first Neighborhoods, USA (NUSA) annual conference in Birmingham, AL! It was an effective mix of information workshops at the hotel and field trips to see projects underway throughout the city, and I’ve come away feeling inspired and optimistic about what can be accomplished by people working together. There were several aspects of this conference that I may write about, but the one that impressed me most was the community development efforts going on in the Whitely Neighborhood of Muncie, Indiana. (They also won NUSA’s Neighborhood of the Year for 2018, so Congrats, Whitely!)
The workshop’s title was “Building an Oasis”, a nod to their fairly recent designation as a food desert. Like most places in the United States, large chain grocery stores had taken over sales of fresh produce, and when one chain went out of business, Muncie lost half of their stores almost overnight. Whitely lost their access to fresh food as well as a major employer. So their Community Council crafted a plan to help those in need by developing a wide-ranging network of partners.
The community center has come to life as a food pantry and the hub for all kinds of other services. Second Harvest stepped in and provided about 75 percent of the food distributed. Purdue Extension helped with the preparation and education about nutrition and food safety. Tree Hill Farms’ mobile market provided more food, especially meats. The Minnetrista Center offered mini-gardens (think bucket- to half-barrel- sized), complete with seeds and instructions. The local library coordinated drives to provide free children’s books, as well as providing boxes of shelf-stable food and more seeds. The local church became a secondary food pantry and distribution center. They used the local radio station to make announcements and call for volunteers when needed. They employed a Time Bank to log individuals’ special skills and volunteer hours that could be traded for the services of others. They put a harvester to work gathering the fruits and nuts from lands both public and private (residents with trees sign up for this program). Most of these programs were offered free of charge, sometimes at the cost of transportation. And all this in an effort to utilize every resource they could to get people fed.
The most inspiring aspect of this workshop, though, wasn’t the many partnerships that were formed to get people fed, but in the additional efforts that went into empowering people to feed themselves. They energetically support voter registration to get people involved in politics and policy. There is a neighborhood watch that not only provides surveillance, but protects against the corrosive decay of blight. They offer exercise classes like zumba, cooking classes and samples, and free childcare for those too young to participate in the other activities. They bring in a doctor to give check-ups and track individual progress by taking measurements. They’ve set up a free transportation service to get people to the community center and back home again. And they have plans to renovate their center to include an entrepreneur program complete with temporary office space, a kitchen share facility to assist food start-ups, health clinic facilities, a large dining room for events, community garden plots, a park, and much more.
The overarching theme of this community is to offer a hand up, to empower residents to help themselves, to get involved, and to make their own contributions. I was struck by how insistent they were in gathering ideas and feedback from their community members in order to get buy-in. Having outsiders come and offer assistance was welcome in times of extreme need, but real progress ultimately requires self-sufficiency, meaning a commitment, an investment, by and for themselves. Well done, Whitely Neighborhood. Advocates of food security, food sovereignty, and food justice have a great example to follow there in Muncie.
*This post is drawn entirely from my notes on the workshop at NUSA. My apologies for any inaccuracies or omissions, I’ll be happy to make corrections as needed.