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LEAP into Spring

By March 8, 2024No Comments

A new chapter for cultivating food community in Roanoke

WORDS | Layla Khoury-Hanold  PHOTOS | Layla Khoury-Hanold and provided by LEAP

The February sun shines on the large green truck parked behind Morningside Manor, illuminating a display of potatoes, onions, beets and apples. A woman standing beneath the green-and-white lettered sign, which reads “LEAP Mobile Market,” asks about the lettuce. “It’s just like a summer crisp,” says mobile market manager Aaron Terry, describing the Green Batavia from Four Leaf Farms. He opens a sturdy blue cooler revealing wedges of Mountain View Farm cheese nestled among tubs of butter and jars of sauerkraut. An elderly gentleman ambles over, asking for onions, apples and potatoes, which Terry helps select to keep the total under $5. To another senior, Terry explains the matching dollars program that will allow him to double his Medicaid, affording him the large jar of apple butter. Finally, a woman named Lola rolls up. It’s her third visit to the truck today. “I’m the go-getter,” she says, picking up tomatoes for another resident who got a late start. The residents at Morningside have been asking for tomatoes for weeks, so when Terry got the call they’d arrived, he doubled back to the food hub at the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology.

Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP) is a Roanoke-based food nonprofit whose mission is “to create an equitable food and farming system which prioritizes health and abundance by supporting community initiatives, markets, farms, and farmers.” For the last 12 years, the organization has worked behind the scenes to create a regional food hub; develop local and regional partnerships; and launch farmers markets, mobile markets, community gardens, and a community kitchen. The fruits of this labor helped LEAP secure funding to build out a centralized food hub and headquarters located at 1027 Patterson Avenue, in the West End neighborhood. It marks the start of LEAP’s next chapter.

In 2020, LEAP reported supporting 178 food businesses, serving 11,000 Roanoke Valley residents, and moving an estimated $880,000 of local food. What the numbers don’t capture is how nuanced and complex the work of building a sustainable, resilient local food system is, especially since supporting farmers and improving food access to fresh, local food sometimes comes with competing priorities. It’s one of the reasons the growth of the mobile markets has been so vital.

Since the mobile market’s inception in 2015, it has expanded to operating four days per week, year-round, and serving multiple stops where healthy food is hard to find, including community centers, senior living facilities, and Roanoke Housing Authority locations. The growth and need are underscored by a 148% increase, from 2020 to 2021, in the food purchased through incentives such as senior vouchers and the Virginia Fresh Match program, which matches funds for SNAP, Medicaid and WIC. The market has also evolved by tailoring its offerings; it partners with other regional food hubs to diversify produce and procure oft-requested items such as meat, milk, cheese, butter and bread.

Increasingly, LEAP can work with farmers to meet requests. “An apartment complex we serve with a large [Afghan] population requested okra, spinach, tomatoes, garlic and eggplant,” says Kelly Key, LEAP’s director of programs. “Okra doesn’t sell like crazy at Grandin or West End [farmers markets], but it grows really well in this area. So, we talk to farmers to ask them to grow okra for us. It’s nice to have that kind of commitment to the grower as well.”

LEAP is well-known for its farmers markets, but those operations have evolved, too. The pandemic spurred the establishment of an online market and a contactless drive-thru pick-up model. When socially distanced walk-up markets resumed in late summer 2020, the Grandin Village market moved a short distance, to a larger space in the parking lot behind the Roanoke Co+Op. There, total market sales grew from about $183,000 in 2020 to nearly $400,000 in 2021, reflecting an increase in consumer demand and number of vendors.

“It seems like a lot of people took stock at the beginning of COVID in terms of their own personal life and happiness and what they were doing. We saw some people start gardening or start farming,” Key says. “It really felt like people were seeing that local food was a real, tangible way to feed your family or make a living.”

Working with LEAP, some people, like Hailey and Mike Sowden of Crooked Porch Farm, have traded in their day jobs to farm full-time. “We got to have this conversation with them regarding how we can work together this year,” Key says. “We’re going to be able to purchase large [quantities of] wholesale storage crops, like potatoes and root crops.”

LEAP also supports growing local food through its four community gardens, which it acquired from the Roanoke Community Garden Association when the organization dissolved in 2019. For a low-cost fee, residents can pay for a plot and grow food for their families. Last summer, LEAP hired a community gardens manager to implement the infrastructure overhaul needed to get the gardens fully operational, and to oversee relationship-building with gardeners and with the community.

“It’s another space where we can forge those one-to-one connections with community members,” says Maureen McGonagle, LEAP’s Director of Regional Partnerships. “It provides a space to teach about food systems. There’s no better way to do that than through the process of growing food.”

Local partnerships are another area of focus for the gardens. LEAP is partnering with the Roanoke Refugee Partnership to support community members who want to farm on a larger scale, so the redesign will also include plots up to 20×20 feet, in addition to 4×10 or 6×12 plots. LEAP will facilitate the development of a community garden network for Roanoke, too, uniting organizations with similar operating missions such as the George Washington Carver Garden, Lick Run Farm and Roanoke Master Gardeners.

This partnership-building mentality extends to a regional level, too. LEAP currently partners with community organizations, such as Virginia Cooperative Extension, Roanoke City Public Schools, Virginia Tech and the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, to support a number of community initiatives, including Farm to School programs. LEAP is also the fiscal agent for Virginia Fresh Match, a federal grant that funds healthy food incentive programs for 90 farmers markets and retail markets statewide. One major initiative involves building a Roanoke Regional Food System Partnership. “The food system can’t be working in one domain without considering the larger whole, because everything impacts everything else,” McGonagle says. To connect the disparate parts of the food system — including production, distribution, access and policy — LEAP brought together key stakeholders to complete an extensive regional assessment and a food systems mapping process. Now that they’ve identified regional needs and the factors that enable (or inhibit) local food systems, they’ll address four key areas: food access, production and distribution, governance structure and regional food identity.

The food hub is a symbolic part of developing Roanoke’s regional food identity. “It’s a visible space, where food from across the region is aggregated and distributed to the community, and it’s the headquarters for LEAP and the broader work we do,” McGonagle says. The two-story building will unify LEAP’s offices and operations, the West End farmers market, a retail outlet, and a food hub. The hub will streamline delivery for 50-plus farmers as well as distribution for LEAP’s various outlets, including its farm share, CSA program, mobile markets and community produce packs, which provide fresh produce at no cost to Roanoke city residents with limited income.

LEAP has had a presence in the West End since 2010, first with a farmers market, then with a commercial kitchen in 2016. The LEAP Kitchen will remain in its current location, and will continue to serve local nonprofits and food entrepreneurs such as Ot’ Chihuahua and Queen’s Vegan Cafe, whose tamales and vegan veggie burgers, respectively, were featured as value-added products in LEAP’s winter farm share. The kitchen operations will also benefit from a newly hired kitchen manager, Jeff Bland, whose experience as a chef and as a member of the broader Roanoke food community will both enhance the kitchen’s role as a food incubator and develop the space’s potential for educational events.

The new food hub will be large enough for LEAP to install processing equipment that they didn’t have room for at the kitchen, including a flash freezer and a food dehydrator to process excess in-season produce or second-quality products. This helps reduce food waste, offers additional sales outlets for farmers, and creates new products to continue addressing food access. “Someone who doesn’t have the time or tools or resources can buy a bag of frozen, cubed butternut squash,” Key says. “They can cook it in the microwave or on a hot plate and they just need a wooden spoon and a lot less time. Hopefully it’s making local food even more accessible.” It would be a boon for someone like Lola from Morningside Manor, who cooks with her microwave due to mobility issues.

The new food hub’s retail component will act as a greengrocer, primarily selling fresh produce as well as meats, cheeses and other locally produced food, all SNAP-eligible. It’s another way by which LEAP will occupy a more tangible presence in the eyes of the local community.

“What I hope and envision for the property in the West End is that food becomes more visible. A more everyday part of the community of that specific neighborhood,” says Maureen McNamara Best, LEAP’s executive director. “In addition to 1027 Patterson allowing us to consolidate and function more effectively together as a team, I think that it will make us more visible to the community and it will make food a more visible part of this larger community.”

This article first appeared in our 2022 Spring Issue

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