Access to Healthy Foods

Beyond the Food Desert: Fresh Fruit and Fresh Vegetables in North Omaha

At times in prior years, fresh fruit and vegetables have been difficult to find in North Omaha. Various local and national studies have classified the area as a food desert. Vitally important collaborative efforts to eradicate this label are in full swing in North Omaha.

The Douglas County Health Department has been a major player when it comes to addressing the lack of healthy foods in North Omaha. In 2011, the County applied and received the national Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant. A large and diverse collaboration was formed and the group intensely focused on improving access to healthy foods in North and South Omaha where the greatest need was identified.

Measurable results were produced. School and community gardens were established. Eight neighborhood stores were transformed into healthy corner stores in partnership with the Empowerment Network. Health ministries were established and expanded, working with Nebraska Center for Healthy Families. Valuable information was gathered regarding the eating habits and needs of residents in these core areas. The collaborative work continued under a second Community Transformation Grant which also expanded the focus to included assessments of the walkability of neighborhoods, bike trails to encourage exercise and a plan to make Adams Park more usable.

Over the past four years, another innovation and thought leader, No More Empty Pots, has burst onto the scene. The grassroots organization has blossomed into a key catalyst for educating and informing the community on the benefits of preparing and eating healthy foods, connecting rural and urban food communities, and exploring the possibilities and illustrating the potential of urban food production. No More Empty Pots also maintains a heavy emphasis on connecting North Omaha youth to the promise of healthy foods.

Big Gardens and City Sprouts were early pioneers in the field of community gardens. Both organizations have strategic locations throughout North Omaha where neighbors are actively involved in planning, planting and harvesting fresh vegetables. City Sprouts was one of the first to partner with North Omaha youth, providing employment opportunities during the summer.

The Minne Lusa/Miller Park Neighborhood Association has taken the concept even further by purchasing and renovating a house where neighbors and others interested come together to prepare, eat and preserve foods over positive and energizing conversations. They have found it to be a powerful tool for building strong relationships.

Metropolitan Community College with its growing international reputation has also played an instrumental role in the ever expanding journey towards access to healthy foods in North Omaha; with the Culinary Institute as a primary meeting place for large conferences, workshops and summits on the subject. Various organizations have hosted important strategy sessions with the USDA and other regional and national players. MCC has a strong and growing curriculum associated with agriculture, food, energy efficiency and more.

Another groundbreaking innovator, Greg Fripp, founder and director of Whispering Roots, is leading the way on local efforts to bring aquaponics deeper into Omaha. Aquaponics is a revolutionary method used to grow vegetables and raise tilapia and other fish through an integrated system of production based on water. Fripp is working with schools and local organizations to use the process as an educational tool and economic stimulus.

The Charles Drew Health Center has joined in on the efforts to address the food issue. Partnering with Gutman and Associates, Charles Drew presents a weekly farmers market during summer months which attracts large numbers of residents seeking fresh foods. The market accepts Food Stamps and EBT cards allowing residents from lower income homes to enjoy the fresh and great tasting merchandise.

Behind the scenes, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, with Annette Artherton, Director of Research and Special Projects leading the way, has been instrumental in supporting many of these initiatives. OEDC is preparing to introduce a new, industry leading business concept in this growing field which will produce jobs and great tasting food. The organization is also building towards the opening of a healthy neighborhood corner store in the Fair Deal Urban District.