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Fresh food finds its way to Northeast Central Durham


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Dawn Hill-Alston doesn't want to drive to the grocery store anymore. "I want to be able to walk down the street with my grocery cart and be able to buy fresh produce, fresh meats, spices. And then walk back home and cook my meal," she says.

Hill-Alston lives in Northeast Central Durham, a food desert where a chunk of its 20,000 residents lacks access to fresh food.

The area encompasses at least 300 blocks that, according to a 2009 city assessment, are divided into six neighborhoods: Old Five Points, Cleveland Holloway, Eastway-Albright, Wellons Village, Hoover Road and East Durham.

In East Durham, at the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street, TROSA Grocery celebrated its one-year anniversary as a small, full-scale market this past May. When it opened, national statistics ranked North Carolina among the top 10 hungry states, with more than 13 percent of its residents listed as food-insecure. The most recent statistics from this spring show an increase, with more than 18 percent of North Carolina residents lacking access to fresh food within a quarter-mile walking distance.

TROSA Grocery Manager Mark Tull says about 70 percent of its customers walk to the store. Each day, the grocery serves about 65 people, many of whom, Tull says, leave with $15 worth of food sufficient to feed four people.

"You go back six or seven blocks, and there's no grocery," Hill-Alston says. Less than two miles away on Alston Avenue is Los Primos supermarket, part of the Compare Foods conglomerate. Based on Google's walking directions, it's a 30-minute trek on foot from the homes in the TROSA neighborhood.

"TROSA has been very good at passing out fliers with weekly specials," Hill-Alston says. "That's how a market is going to survive. It's a market that's already grasped that idea, by working with the community."

TROSA Grocery is still trying to break even, according to Jeff Stern, director of special projects, who supervises the grocery. He said the initial opening was met with "warring perspectives." Some assumed the bright sunshine logo signified a health food store, while others saw it as just another convenience mart.

The store, which is in one of Durham's poorest neighborhoods, carries meat, including pork, chicken, beef and turkey, and greens like collards and cabbage. The variety is limited, but the food is fresh and cheap. Last week's specials included green cabbage at 29 cents per pound and chicken quarters at $1.62 per pound.

Hill-Alston works third shift as a security supervisor but spends most days at community and City Council meetings to bring investment to her neighborhood. She belongs to a citizen group involved with the city's four revitalization plans under the Northeast Central Durham Livability Initiative. The government-funded initiative is part of a national effort established by the Obama administration to revitalize urban areas. Hill-Alston works in conjunction with urban designer and city planning consultant Wanona Satcher on public transportation, safe and healthy communities, economic development and workforce training, and multi-use open spaces.

Satcher began to realize that all of these factors affect a neighborhood's hunger problem, particularly Northeast Central Durham. So she and the city teamed up with Feed My Sheep, a local nonprofit, to launch Bull City Urban Market, which is both walkable—two-tenths of a mile from Los Primos—and affordable. The market is funded in part by state and federal grants, and run by community members.

Currently, the outdoor market operates daily at Golden Belt at the corner of Franklin and Belt streets. Last month's grand opening featured fresh produce from Everlaughter Farms, Kukia's Cookies, bikeCOFFEE and Bread Uprising, a baking cooperative. TROSA sold its jams and raffled gift certificates to its own store. Future vendors include those selling fresh meat and seafood.

"It felt more like an urban market [than other farmers markets]," said Kifu Faruq of Kukia's Cookies. "People were walking up the streets to come. I saw vendors there I had never heard of, which is a good thing."

Camryn Smith, a resident of Old East Durham, has sold her Sudie's Fresh Baked Goods at the market. She is part of a Good Work food collaborative, in which citizen activists and urban farmers try to solve the hunger problem.

"We do have assets here serving all the community," she says. There are roadside produce stands on Holloway Street, the Green Flea market on Pettigrew Street and Leo's Seafood, which grills outside and serves food on North Alston Avenue. "There are certain facets that would appreciate alternatives, like Bull City Urban Market, and there are others that are pleased with what we have."

On a recent Monday afternoon, just a couple of tables sat in the vast space of concrete where the market now resides next to the Cordoba Building. Feed My Sheep Director and Market President Herbert Johnson waited for passersby to buy spices (at only 25 cents a bag) and household items like toilet paper. He says his nonprofit feeds 12,000 people a year by providing a food pantry as well as free breakfast programs for senior citizens. Feed My Sheep also helped start a thriving school garden at nearby Eastway Elementary.

Johnson points to the row of mixed-income houses on Franklin Street, some with peeling paint, others completely refurbished or newly built.

"You look at all these houses, and children may be in some of these houses hungry," he says. "We give people these groceries and they cry, you know? That is motivation. When a person receives this food and they can't hold their emotions, they need it. That motivates us to keep doing it. We can help more and more people. Right here it's gonna grow."

While the market's daily hours may seem ambitious as we enter winter, Satcher and Johnson have bigger plans for the market: outfitting an 8,500-square-foot space at the rear of the Cordoba building (behind Scrap Exchange) into a full-scale supermarket—by January. Even in the dark, the ample rectangular space seems perfect for a grocery store, complete with loading docks left over from its previous life as part of American Tobacco's manufacturing arm. The market is less than a quarter-mile walking distance from several neighborhoods, and the free downtown bus—the Bull City Connector—stops on Main Street adjacent to Golden Belt, creating access both in distance and in price.

Johnson also wants to launch a commercial kitchen to teach children how to use fresh produce from the Eastway garden and the market vendors. He has an idea for a mobile greenhouse outfitted from an old school bus that would travel to people's homes. He envisions turning a 600-square-foot concrete pool, formerly used to process ink for tobacco cartons, into a pond to raise tilapia for local seafood, an idea inspired by nationally acclaimed, Milwaukee-based urban farmer Will Allen.

"I think it's a really important moment right now," says Sam Hummel of Everlaughter Farms. "There are still many adults in the Northeast Central Durham neighborhood who have a food tradition that involves fresh local vegetables. We don't have to import a food culture from foodie West Durham. There's already a food culture in Northeast Durham that knows what to do with fresh ingredients, but the ingredients haven't been there for it to be practiced and passed on."

"Why can't I have the same options as Southpoint, Brier Creek, Trinity Park? Why can't I have that same quality of food and freshness as everybody else?" Hill-Alston asks. "Just because we live here doesn't mean we're going to settle. Because we know we're worth more than that."


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