As Harvest season falls upon us, classic seasonal produce like pumpkins, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes seem to be everywhere. Although some people can’t bear to hear the words “Pumpkin Spice Latte” by the time it hits November, it's a true blessing to have access to any and all seasonal produce. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case for thousands of St. Louis citizens who find themselves living in food deserts, or areas with limited or no access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable food, experiencing food insecurity every day.

farmer's market, fresh vegetables, local produce, kale, swiss chard, vegetable, carrot, broccoli, cabbage
Sam Jesner

Food deserts are typically areas of lower socioeconomic status, and the implications of limited access to affordable, healthy options are often noted by dramatically decreased mental and physical health in these populations. For instance, low income neighborhoods in the US have, on average, 25% fewer supermarkets compared to middle income neighborhoods.

When combined with the knowledge that convenience stores are 20% more expensive than supermarkets and the presence of a local supermarket decreases the prevalence of obesity by a whopping 22%, the social justice and health disparities created by food deserts become a harsh reality. As a pre-med student, I was stunned by these disparities. I knew that if I wanted to ever truly enact change in my position, I had to view health care from a preventative and educational lens. Fortunately in St. Louis, there are two amazing organizations that refuse to let the injustice of food disparity continue: Urban Harvest STL and City Greens Market.

Urban Harvest STL Food Roof

Clare Schrodt

In 2010, Mary Ostafi moved to downtown St Louis, and immediately recognized the city's need for more local green space. Instead of making a normal garden, she innovated STL’s very first rooftop farm, the Food Roof.

From the Food Roof, Urban Harvest St. Louis experienced green expansion and now the organization now has 4 other locations: Downtown Community Garden, Kerr Food Roof, Flance School Garden, and Fresh Starts Community Garden. These locations all work toward the sourcing and education of food insecurity. The success of Urban Harvest STL becomes even more incredible when considering its impact in the past year: 3,514 pounds of food grown, 1,760 meals sourced to families facing food insecurity, and nearly 2 million gallons of water captured by their green roof that would have otherwise become stormwater runoff.

Clare Schrodt

The organization created a partnership with St. Louis MetroMarket and The Fit and Food Connection to promote a food growth, distribution, and education system that could enact a tangible and immediate change in the lives of Saint Louis citizens living in food deserts. Urban Harvest STL grows the food to be sent to food deserts, and St. Louis MetroMarket distributes their food in a reconstructed metro bus that now functions as a mobile grocery store. I have been fortunate enough to volunteer with STL MetroMarket on multiple occasions, and meeting with the bus patrons has only further reinforced my passion for making a change in St. Louis. Even President Bill Clinton has paid a visit to St. Louis MetroMarket to praise the organization for addressing food access directly and efficiently. 

Finally, education of growing food and creating healthy meals is carried out not only through the Fit and Food Connections facilities found in neighborhoods affected by food insecurity, but at the Food Roof as well.

How to get involved: Visit, volunteer, intern, or SLU work study. Urban Harvest STL encourages any sort of visit, whether through volunteering on a drop-in Saturday, a scheduled field trip, or attendance at one of their premiere events and workshops. The Food Roof hosts drop-in volunteer hours from 9-12 pm April through October. Weekly volunteering is also encouraged and there is a form on Urban Harvest STL website to get involved right away! Additionally, they hire seasonal interns and SLU students that are Federal Work Study eligible.

City Greens Market

In the heart of the Grove neighborhood in St. Louis, the “Midtown Mamas” decided a change needed to be made concerning neighborhood food. These women were fed up with the trouble of accessing affordable, organic produce, and were quite aware of the link between a lack of healthy options and the high prevalence of recurring health problems within the community.

The Mamas’ original goal was to promote healthy lifestyles through a small, community market. However, with such overwhelming success, the City Greens Market has now developed into a full-fledged storefront where a community has flourished through food availability, education, and partnerships with local St. Louis farmers. City Greens Market also has a food truck, the Supa-Fresh Veggie Mobile, and its own urban garden.

Because fellowship and affordability are at the root of their mission, the Mamas developed a model of membership according to the ability of some families to pay more than others. This allows City Greens to adjust for overhead costs and make the food as affordable as possible for patrons living in food insecurity. The Market has now developed to be an independent non-profit organization.

How to get involved:  Fill out a contact form on the City Greens Market website, or email. Weekly volunteers get free membership to the market! 

These two organizations are changing urban food insecurity in this country as they continue to grow and gain support, health and success in some of the most poverty-stricken communities in St. Louis become more of a possibility. By improving food access, the root cause of numerous physical and mental health issues, we can work to alleviate the continuation of the poverty cycle in cities experiencing wealth disparity like St. Louis.

Progressive urban agriculture provides an opportunity to both connect and nourish a community, while simultaneously tackling a daily social injustice. Everyone deserves the chance to enjoy amazing foods, and by supporting these organizations, we can turn that hope into a reality. Because I put food disparity at the forefront of my medical philosophy, I am constantly inspired to continue educating myself and others about the invisible divide created by unfair food access. Outstanding groups in St. Louis like Urban Harvest STL and City Greens Market create a bridge between my future health care career and my passion for social equality to make this personal and shared education possible.