Food is a force for good. We believe this to be true in every aspect of what we do — that’s why we work with forward-thinking nonprofit partners to promote healthy living and eating in our cities. One of those incredible partners is Tricycle Gardens.
Tricycle Gardens didn’t actually start out as a nonprofit. Initially kicked off by a group of neighbors in the Church Hill neighborhood, Tricycle set out to address urban blight by focusing on ways neighborhoods could improve the environment through local growing, and on teaching individuals how to grow their own food. In 2011, they started to move away from the community gardening world, establishing a 501c3, and building the first at-scale urban farm in Richmond. By 2012 or so, they were producing a tremendous amount of food, but they weren’t reaching the demographic they most wanted to target — the communities in Richmond that were food insecure.
So they took a step back. They refocused their goals. And they charged full-force-ahead toward solving Richmond’s food access issues.
We met with Tricycle’s Mission Manager, Isabel Eljaiek, on a brisk morning a few weeks before we opened our very first CAVA Richmond location in the Fan District. She showed us around their flourishing Blackwell garden space, and gave us the scoop on where that refreshed mission has taken Tricycle Gardens so far — and where it’s taking them next.
The city of Richmond faces a challenge — one that’s present in many US cities, but often doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves. There’s a gap in socioeconomic circumstances, in demographics of neighborhoods, in opportunity. It’s a deeply complicated challenge, one that certainly doesn’t have one true golden-egg answer.
But there’s something really great happening in Richmond, something that’s tackling socioeconomic inequity in a fresh way. That something is called Tricycle Gardens. So what is Tricycle Gardens?
1) Tricycle Gardens is an urban agriculture training program.
“The average age of a farmer is 58,” Isabel said. “And there’s not much training being done to repopulate that.”
Tricycle is committed to creating career path opportunities for the future of local agriculture. This is more than a quick workshop or tour of an urban garden. Tricycle partnered with the USDA to establish a comprehensive 12-month fellowship and certification program. They hand-select 12 fellows each year, creating a truly unique and invested class of adult students.
“We have one fellow locally who started his own composting business,” Isabel said. “And we’ve hooked up other fellows with the Lakeside Farmers’ Market.”
“We really believe that if we train folks within the city, educate them on how to cook for themselves and eat locally, then we think any demographic can help build that alternative system that will see us into the future.”
2) Tricycle Gardens is a Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
So where does the produce cultivated by each year’s fellows, on-staff team, and volunteers wind up? It gets invested right back into the city of Richmond with the organization’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
Tricycle partnered with the National Association of Convenience Stores — which had done extensive research with Cornell University and could bring funding to the initiative — to place vibrant, nutrient-dense veggies where they’re needed most. When they started out, people thought they were crazy to think about putting displays of seasonal produce into convenience stores and corner shops in food-desert neighborhoods. Would it really sell?
As it turns out, it did.
The program started with two corner stores in 2013, and it’s now at 22 locations, with a total of 30 slotted by the end of 2017.
“Store owners would tell us, ‘Ok, you can try it out’ — and now some of our store owners have been in the program for three or four years and they invite us into their other locations.”
When the program reached about 15 stores, it became too expansive for Tricycle’s central urban farm to sustain all of the produce demand. They’re averaging about 15,000 pounds of food production per year from their collective farming sites — but with a program that served 40,000 nutritious servings of food last year within the Corner Store program, there’s lots more produce to source. And they do that in partnership with other small local growers and purveyors, continuing the cycle of bolstering Richmond’s rising food system.
This is a community investing in itself.
3) Tricycle Gardens is a compassionate network of advocates and teachers.
The Healthy Corner Store Initiative isn’t just a once-a-week drop-off program. At each partner corner store, Tricycle team members demo recipes using the produce and share cooking tips.
“But we’re not just putting things in the corner stores, assuming people want kale,” Isabel said. “We want to provide people with healthy produce they’re actually interested in. We go to City Council meetings and introduce a conversation.”
Sequoia, the Corner Store Program Manager, leads in-depth programs in public housing and community centers — including a cooking-class series on how to cook from scratch on a really limited budget.
“One of the most profound things in programming like this is that the population we’re focused on — people who have low access to fresh healthy foods and maybe don’t know how to use ingredients — they’re no different from anyone else.”
These interactive programs are catered to what the community is genuinely interested in learning — and advocates in the community help Tricycle engage and build rapport with residents.
“Most people aren’t eating the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables; most people don’t know how to cook dinner from scratch five nights a week. There’s a common ground where we can learn from each other.”
As the Tricycle Gardens team continues to build out its Urban Agriculture Fellowship Program and its Healthy Corner Store Program, they already have their sights set on the future. So what does that future look like?
What’s next looks looks like adding more corner store partners and ensuring more fellows graduate and take their learnings out into the community.
What’s next looks looks like continuing to build out the farm-stand they operate at the VCU Massey Cancer Center each week in the warmer months.
What’s next looks looks like moving to a much larger growing space where they can cultivate a true state-of-the-art urban farm where people can learn and enjoy themselves — and putting Richmond on the map for this incredible work.
Seizing an opportunity
Tricycle recognizes that they haven’t yet solved for every piece of the challenges that plague Richmond and so many US cities. But they have a passionate team of eight full-time staffers and a fluid workforce of about 5,000 volunteers — and every single one of them is sure as hell going to try.
“There’s a lot of inequity within the city; our zip codes heavily define us. Someone with a West End zip code has 20 extra years of life expectancy compared to someone on the East End. It’s a dire need.”
“Our fellows are finding vocation —they’re making a living off their training and the ideas they’ve brought to it. We have one really groovy applicant coming up who wants to do farm-to-hair — making natural hair products and growing produce for that within her salon. It’s just a different take on the whole urban farm idea.”
So what does success really look like for Isabel and the Tricycle Gardens team?
“Success is the vocation of urban farming continuing to become a path people identify with — and that they can take what they’re doing for a living and transform it into something that gives back to the community.
“Success is folks regularly doing to the corner stores within their neighborhoods to buy fresh produce — and having the knowledge, skills, and ability to know what to do with it.”
Ultimately, success is within reach for Tricycle Gardens and for Richmond — but heightened awareness and action are essential. And that’s where CAVA comes in. We’re committed to supporting our regional community partners as they raise their communities up, partnering with them along the way with monetary support, volunteering support, and awareness building.
“There are so many ways to engage with us right now, and to engage with the community through our sites,” Isabel added.
So let’s get out there and engage, friends. Let’s get out there and build a better city.
For more information about the Corner Store program, click here.
For more information about the Urban Agriculture Fellowship Program, click here.
To learn about volunteering with Tricycle Gardens, click here.
To donate to Tricycle Gardens, click here.