Innovating food deserts

Houston nonprofit grows to provide more resources to underserved communities in Houston

Urban Harvest is introducing a new location and a new program that accepts government assistance. Erik Scheel/Pexels

For some Houstonians, fresh foods are far away and too expensive to incorporate into their diets regularly. A Houston organization is looking to change that.

Urban Harvest, a 25-year-old nonprofit focused on bringing fresh produce and education to underserved communities, received a $347,000 grant from the Rebuild Texas Fund earlier this year to expand their services across town. The expansion also means a new community farmers market in northeast Houston that opens on Saturday, August 17, at Kashmere Gardens Elementary School (4901 Lockwood Drive).

The farmers market was created to serve a food desert continuing to recover from Hurricane Harvey, according to a news release. Urban Harvest is partnering with Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council and Common Market to create and run the market.

The new market will accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, which offer nutrition assistance to over 637,000 low-income individuals in Harris County. With the addition of the Double Up Houston program, which launched in April 2019, SNAP shoppers receive a dollar-for-dollar match, up to $20 per day, that they will be able to use to purchase fresh produce. In total, there are 13 farm stands across Houston that can access the Double Up SNAP incentive.

"Double Up is new to Houston, this is the first time we have had a Double Up kind of program here in the metroplex, ever," says Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest. "It is something that is very common in a lot of states."

Fair Food Network, based in Michigan, assists in working the Double Up program in 22 states across the country, including their partnership with Urban Harvest in Texas. "It gives people the opportunity to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables, which are very expensive," said Roberson.

"Last fall we received a grant with a large group of partners for Double Up Houston," Roberson tells InnovationMap. The grant was gifted by Rebuild Texas, a fund created by the Austin-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation after Harvey.

"Initially, they did not do a lot of funding in Houston because we have a lot of resources here in our city, so their primary task was to fund in other places that had been hit by Hurricane Harvey that didn't have that foundation," adds Roberson. "They were really interested in areas of Houston that had been hit by Harvey and impacted, and how those places related to food and food access."

Urban Harvest, founded in 1994, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization providing community garden programming, farmers markets, gardening classes, and youth education. The farmers markets, launched in 2014, bring in farmers and producers from within 180 miles of Houston, offering the freshest, local produce and meats available. The organization has a staff of 11 and is located in east downtown Houston.

"There is programming also going at these markets where we are working with the University of Houston and the Houston Food Bank's nutrition office to have people come out to the markets and actually prep fresh produce to be able to show people, with very simple recipes, what you can do with the extra vegetables that you are purchasing," says Roberson.

In the past year, Urban Harvest has been working to strategically grow in the greater Houston area. In September of last year, the organization's main farmers market moved to its current location at 2752 Buffalo Speedway, tripling in size.

"We moved the market and expanded it, presenting some 72 vendors at the market location," Roberson tells InnovationMap. The Buffalo Speedway market operates 52 weeks a year every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon.

Urban Harvest has over a dozen spots where it has weekly farmers markets around town. Courtesy of Urban Harvest

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Moonflower Farms grows lettuce hydroponically. Courtesy of Moonflower Farms

A Houston urban farm has earned national recognition for its innovative approach to water conservation. Moonflower Farms won the American Heart Association's Foodscape Innovation Excellence Award, which recognizes positive changes in the foodscape, a term for all of the places where food is produced, purchased, or consumed.

The Heart Association selected Moonflower's submission, titled "Sustainable Farming Through Water Conservation," from 26 entries. Dallas' Restorative Farms earns the Foodscape Innovation Consumer Choice Award.

"These two innovations demonstrate a way of producing food that promotes affordability and equitable access, and the American Heart Association is proud to recognize these efforts," AHA chief medical officer for prevention Eduardo Sanchez said in a release.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse south of downtown, Moonflower operates what it describes as Houston's first vertical indoor farm. The method both reduces the amount of space needed to grow the farm's microgreens, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers and it eliminates the disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions, which allows the farm to produce year round.

Moonflower uses a closed-loop system for capturing rainwater to feed its crops. The water is treated and oxygenated so that it can be reused. Not having to pay for water from the City of Houston allows the farm to operate more economically and sell its produce at an affordable price to restaurants and individuals.

"Our hydroponic farm uses 90-percent less water than conventional farms," Moonflower founder and CEO Federico Marques said in a statement. "We provide year-round produce to residents in historically underserved communities and donate produce to local charitable food systems."

One of those charities is Houston non-profit Second Servings, which "rescues" food from restaurants and events and distributes it to food pantries and other resources.

"The donations we receive from Moonflower Farms are incredible," Second Servings founder and president Barbara Bronstein said. "Their hydroponically grown greens are so appreciated by the needy Houstonians we serve, who lack affordable, convenient access to fresh produce."

Recently, Moonflower introduced a SupaGreens subscription box that allows customers to purchase greens weekly, bimonthly, or monthly. The box is delivered directly to consumers.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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