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Advocates hope Pittsburgh’s food justice fund will bear fruit this year

A shed, greenhouse and two-story building are pictured in the city's Manchester neighborhood.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Freeman Family Farms & Greenhouse is nearly ready to open a grocery store in the city's Manchester neighborhood. But owner Lisa Freeman says, "I've expended all my resources." She's looking for a grant from the city's food justice fund to be able to open her doors.

A 2021 study found that one in five Pittsburghers suffer from a lack of access to healthy food. After the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated food insecurity in Pittsburgh, the city pledged to make a first-of-its-kind $3 million investment in a food justice fund that could jump-start neighborhood gardens and grocery stores.

But as the ground thaws a year later, advocates are still waiting to see what the fund will yield.

Lisa Freeman, owner of Freeman Family Farms & Greenhouse, is nearly ready to open a neighborhood grocery store on her property in Manchester. But she needs help paying for an epoxy floor — and she'd been hoping to win a grant from the program to cover the cost.

“I’ve expended all my resources,” Freeman said. “The food justice fund, which we all thought was going to be in progress right now, that’s the delay.”

Freeman's grocery store largely fits the criteria laid out for the fund: She would bring fresh, organic produce to an area that otherwise has little access to it.

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, a nonprofit that aims to improve equity and sustainability in the city’s food system, helped the city craft a framework for how to allocate the money slated for grants last year. City Council approved that approach last July. It splits the money into two separate $1.5 million pools. One pool would be for small community organization grants, whose value would range from $2,000 to $75,000, while the other $1.5 million pool would be allocated in grants of up to $500,000, for larger investments in the food system.

In February, the city hired Gabriel McMorland, the former executive director of the Thomas Merton Center, to serve as a coordinator for the fund. The city has also been soliciting applications for a governance committee that will vet project proposals.

"We have flexibility there, so there's room for creativity," McMorland said.

But the city has yet to award any food justice grants. And that’s kept projects like Freeman’s Manchester grocery store in limbo.

Lisa Freeman holds a packet of seeds inside her greenhouse in Manchester.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Lisa Freeman is ready to begin planting crops this spring inside her greenhouse.

'Food deserts' a concern

After the flooring is installed and some landscaping work is completed, Freeman said she’ll be ready to provide the city’s North Side with fresh meat and produce. She envisions her store as a place for organic fruits and vegetables, primarily taken from the large greenhouse on her property. She’ll also provide meat and fish.

But Freeman wants to go beyond that — by offering cooking and nutrition classes, as well as subscription boxes filled with fresh ingredients for her neighbors. Freeman said the educational component is key because people won’t necessarily walk through her door “just because I have fresh tomatoes.

“The reality is that marginalized communities have to learn how to eat fresh because we go right to the freezer … because we're tired. We work hard,” Freeman said. “When you come home, you want something quick and fast and McDonald's is just that easy.”

The store is just the latest chapter of Freeman’s work to bring urban farming to a food desert — a neighborhood that lacks easy access to affordable and healthy food.

Freeman first started Freeman Family Farms & Greenhouse in 2011 as a school community garden. Since then, she’s distributed food, taught neighbors how to garden and started a work-release program for incarcerated men.

On her 10,000-square-foot lot along Juniata Street, Freeman tends to a chicken coop, raises crops in a large greenhouse, and serves customers in a shed-sized storefront. The federal Department of Agriculture awarded her a $175,000 grant to build a grocery store last year. But she said the process since then has been dotted with obstacles.

“It took us a whole year to get through" the city's planning process, she said.

Now all that's left is installing the floors and finishing some landscaping outside. But Freeman estimates she's $50,000 short, so the store is on hold.

She said while she waits for the city’s food justice fund to provide an opportunity to get her store across the finish line, she’s looking toward other fundraising methods.

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Feeding a community

In other food-desert neighborhoods like Hazelwood, it’s been another year of residents traveling roughly two miles to pick up groceries. Hazelwood hasn't had its own grocery store for decades, and the closure of a neighborhood Rite Aid late last year left residents with even fewer options.

“Right now … there’s actually no way to get things that you really need,” said Pastor Lutual Love of Praise Temple Deliverance Church. Love is a member of the Pittsburgh Food Justice Fund Coalition and lobbied for the city to launch the fund.

Love said most of his neighbors don’t own a car, so they take a bus or use a rideshare app to get to the nearest grocery store in Greenfield or the South Side Flats. But he wants to change that.

Love has partnered with Saundra Cole-McKamey, founder of the nonprofit People of Origin Rightfully Loved and Wanted, to build a grocery co-op along Second Avenue.

It would be the latest business along the corridor, once a bustling main street in Hazelwood that has seen new development in recent years.

But there’s a long path such a project could open its doors.

The pair want their grocery co-op to do more than bolster their neighborhood’s economy. Like Freeman, they want to offer classes on how to garden, build a business and buy land.

“The whole idea is to address food apartheid,” Love said. “We don’t call it a food desert, because a food desert is something phenomenal caused by God. ... This problem that we have in our community ... is caused by man.”

Cole-McKamey said she was tired of foundations, government and developers asking the community what it needs, only to ignore pleas for a local grocery store.

“It’s not just what we want, it’s what we need,” Cole-McKamey said. “We need a grocery store out here.”

Pastor Lutual Love and Saundra Cole-McKamey stand in an empty lot.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pastor Lutual Love and Saundra Cole-McKamey stand in an empty lot where they envision their grocery co-op will one day stand.

Funding expiration date

Other food-justice advocates have expressed frustration about the slow progress of the food justice fund. Jamie Christian — founder of Overbrook-based founder of the Lettuce Turnip the Beet Sustainability Collective — said she began to worry that the city's investment in the food system was getting stalled by bureaucratic red tape.

"A lot of times, these amazing city projects that happen, they kind of, you know, slow down for some reason," she said. Later, she came to realize that the initiative would require laying groundwork that included hiring a city employee to manage the fund.

"They had to create a position, they wanted our input [and] they had to do the bidding process properly," she said.

Still, the federal money used to seed the fund has an expiration date.

Pittsburgh must have all $3 million of federal aid earmarked for the initiative — as well as all of the other remaining federal pandemic aid — under contract by the end of this year. That's due to federal rules that require the money to be budgeted by 2024 and spent by 2026.

Beyond that, though, there is little sense of what the timeline for issuing grants will be. And with eight months to go, the clock is ticking.

Kathryn Vargas, director of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said officials are ready to kick the process into high gear this spring.

“I feel like we've made a ton of progress since February,” Vargas said.

Hiring McMorland to coordinate the distribution of funds was a key step, she said, and the city is making headway on two other goals.

One is to hire a company to manage the funds designated for smaller loans. After a bidding process, the city plans to enter into an agreement before the end of this year. Vargas says the process is on track to have the funds earmarked in time to meet the federal deadline.

The other step is to convene a nine-member governance committee to vet applications, and begin the search for a company to distribute the smaller loans.

Vargas said the panel will be made up of individuals “who are part of the food system locally and have that real experience,” and who can make fair decisions about how to distribute the funds and solicit community feedback.

Pittsburgh’s food-justice community is tightly knit, which means it’s possible that members of the governance committee would also apply for grants. McMorland said she’s taking that into account as she drafts a timeline for distributing funds. The city may consider issuing grants in rounds to allow governance committee members to recuse themselves, McMorland said.

She added that projects in food deserts will likely be prioritized, though eligibility guidelines are still being finalized.

It’s unclear whether the city will invest any of its own money into the fund after the federal money is spent. Vargas said she’s hopeful the city’s effort will inspire regional foundations to invest in future food justice projects.

“What we're hoping to do, with this $3 million investment that the city is making, is also spark action within our larger foundation community to jump on board,” Vargas said.

For now, McMorland said the city has a unique opportunity to strengthen its food system “because the next time, whether it's a climate crisis or a public health disaster, we want to have a stronger, more resilient local food system.”

McMorland said that shoring up food networks — be it with grocery stores, food pantries, urban gardens or other projects — could help prepare the city for a future crisis. She said the spike in food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic could have been eased by a similar initiative.

“People in communities who already were excluded from access to resources — and struggle to access healthy, affordable food — were hit with the worst of the inequities of the pandemic," she said.

For now, community advocates like Freeman, Love and Cole-McKamey, say they’re patiently optimistic. Freeman said projects like hers could add to the health of residents and the strength of neighborhoods like Manchester.

“I’m just so hopeful,” Freeman said. “People want to be part of a community, and this is the best way to start.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.