Transcript of Episode 3: Grow-Mobile

with host David Richards [DR] and guest Moria Nagy [MN].
Listen to the audio

[DR] This week on this Healthy Communities Podcast, we’re going to talk about hunger and food insecurity with Moria Nagy. We’ll see how healthy food delivery is much more than your local takeout.   

[DR] Welcome to the Learning Network’s Healthy Communities Podcast. I’m your host David Richards from APHA. This is Episode 3: Grow-Mobile.


[MN] Sure. My name is Moria Nagy. I’m the board president for the DeKalb County Community Gardens. We are an organization located in DeKalb, Illinois, a nonprofit, and our main goals are to utilize growing and making gardens as part of the community. All of the garden produce that we raise goes toward the community. It’s primarily run by volunteers, so powered by the community. We also have some specific programs that seek to address some of the needs for training and permitting skills, building with individuals with special needs. We have a couple of different areas that we work in, but our main focus is using community gardens to help community. 

[DR] Great. Are you from DeKalb County or where are you from? How did you get started in the program?

[MN] Actually, I’m not from Dekalb. I moved here about six years ago. DeKalb County is known for two things: the city of DeKalb is the birthplace of barbed wire and also it has a major university, Northern Illinois University. I moved here because my husband got a job, so we moved and then I learned about Community Gardens, which was still kind of in its infancy about six years ago. I became more involved because my love of gardening. This area is also very agricultural. We produce a lot of the commercial soy beans and corn, but also there are a lot of types of food produced and a big push for natural sustainable growing as well. 

[DR] Do you want to get into that a little bit? What else do you grow? The county is mainly known for its corn.

[MN] Soybeans. A lot of that food goes directly either to animal feed or to producing ethanol. Not much of that main production is food for individuals. Unfortunately in DeKalb County, we have a high rate of individuals with food insecurity. There’s this huge disparity where we have some of the richest soils here. A little geology lesson for you: The glacial coverage was pretty high in this area and so when the glaciers retreated, it deposited a lot of minerals and organic matter in the soils. Our soils are some of the brittle and best for growing. Yet, we’re not necessarily geared to growing food. There are a lot of farms in the area that still focus on food production, but it’s a small scale. We can grow really anything here for our zone. We grow lots of vegetables, lots of gourds, squash and zucchini. We can grow all of the leafy vegetables, all of the radishes, everything like that. For fruits, we can grow raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. There are a lot of apple orchards, pear orchards here. We can grow a lot of different varieties of food for consumption, but that is still on a small scale.

[DR] That’s a very fun fact. Thanks for sharing. You said that there is a big chunk of the county that suffers from food insecurity. Bringing it back a level, what is food insecurity? How do you define it? 

[MN] Great. Actually I don’t have to define it, thankfully. It is nationally defined as basically individuals that are within one mile of accessible foods. That could mean a grocery store that contains fresh produce. Individuals that live next to a gas station, for example, are still considered food insecure because that gas station may not provide fresh and healthy foods. It may only have processed or packaged food. That could also mean that a grocery store is close, maybe say, within a half a mile, but that individual may not be able to get to that grocery store. They may not have access to public transportation or they may not have their own car. Food insecurity is strictly defined put you can also place people in that category based on do they actually have the ability to get to that grocery store, which for you and I may be easy to walk to. Maybe they aren’t able to walk that distance. There are a lot of people in our county that are food insecure. We have about 28 percent of people living below the poverty level. We look at our public schools and the number of kids that are receiving free or reduced lunch is really high; it’s about 55 percent. Those are some of the other statistics that help us understand how our county ranks in terms of food insecurity. 

[DR] You talked about the schools. Does the DCCG address that? 

[MN] We don’t have any direct partnerships with the public schools as far as what’s provided in the cafeteria, but we do have many partnerships with the elementary schools in the county primarily in DeKalb and Sycamore, although we are branching out to other towns. And those schools now have school gardens. That is part of the major educational aspect to our organization. We want to teach people how to grow and the best way to do that is to bring it to the public schools. The amount of food produced in those schools is probably not enough to support the cafeteria, but the kids do get to sample that food and they do get to participate in growing that. There’s already an element there to bring the education in to our public schools. I think that’s one of the biggest success stories of the organization. We started out there with community gardens and also in public school gardens and those have really taken off and have spread to neighboring towns and communities. 

[DR] That’s great. How much food has been produced? 

[MN] Well, it’s hard to say. We’ve been in existence for six years now. We have a general tally. We say about 150,000 lbs. of food has been produced. That food has gone to a lot of different places. We regularly donate to our local food pantry in the growing season. The food that is grown at the public schools is curated to students and parents. We also distribute to individuals with our new program, which is the mobile food pantry, which is the grow-mobile program. Last season, we devoted a lot of that food that we are producing to donate to people in the community. They can come to our mobile event, pick up a box of produce. That’s making a big difference for people who don’t normally have the means to buy produce because produce in the grocery store can be very expensive. They’re also getting the benefit of knowing that produce was grown locally. We use sustainable methods for growing. That’s a big part of our push to help people understand that we can produce the food here. We don’t have to always rely on the grocery stores. That’s one of our goals. That’s the amount of food, a rough estimate. I was thinking about how to visualize that. I looked up the weight of an African elephant; bear with me here, if you want to be able to visualize that amount of food, that 150,000 lbs. is roughly about 12 African elephants, when you think about it that way.

[DR] Also another good thing to put into perspective is that the average American eats about 1 ton of food a year, which is about 2,000 lbs. I was really amazed at the grow-mobile program. Do you want to talk more about that?  

[MN] Sure. Our grow-mobile is our program that we received the seed grant for, for the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. It has been a program that we’ve wanted to do, but never had the goal to really to drive that program. We really do need a refrigerated produce truck because we wanted to take our produce in the middle of summer in Illinois, which can get pretty hot, to some of the farther parts of our county, which are up to 50 miles away. We’re a pretty large county. The idea there is that if we can obtain that vehicle, which would really help our program take off. We consider our grow-mobile program, this idea that we have a pop-up mobile source food pantry. But we also provide education along with that, so it’s not just people coming to receive food. We have a great partnership with our local university, Northern Illinois University, and their public health department. We utilize them and their students to do mini stand up public health speeches about food. We also have a mobile chef who comes and uses some of our produce to make a test recipe to educate people how to utilize those foods and to taste it to see if they enjoy it. Our program is really starting out small, but we envision it being more far-reaching in our community and having more regular stops and to be able to service more individuals and community members. 

[DR] You talked about the size of your county. Is that a challenge for you? How many locations have you been able to go to? 

[MN] It’s a really large county. We have over 13 towns, what we consider townships. Some of our more rural towns are not even considered towns. They’re such small populations. We wanted to reach as much of the county as possible. Last season, we were able to reach about 10 out of 13 towns and townships. That’s a really great success for us. Some of the places that we’ve chosen, and where it’s worked well, are places that already have food pantries where often there is a church or a community center in one of those towns that maybe runs a food pantry once a week. We come there and we’re adding to that and an extra day to their food pantry schedule that way people already know where to go for picking a location, and where people are familiar with. We try to pick a location that’s downtown, easy to access and somewhere with a lot of parking. Our major goal is to visit at least all 13, at least once this growing season. 

[DR] It sounds like you utilize a lot of community partnerships and the partnership with the university. Do you want to talk about how you’ve created those partnerships?    

[MN] Those have really developed slowly over time. Now being a more established organization, it’s great that we can rely on those connections and partners. But we’re always making new connections. Some of our most supportive partners have been the university, Northern Illinois University. They actually have one of our community gardens on campus. It’s called the University Gardens. That’s another success story where that garden has been built into the university curriculum. They have a strong environmental studies program. So that environmental studies program assistant director actually runs the garden. She has a class that talks about sustainable food systems. They actually go out to the garden to have that class. We’ve had a lot of support from our local health system, Northwestern Health. The hospital has been not only a generous donor to our program, but also we needed land where we could have one of our community gardens. Those partners have been really crucial in helping us establish locations for growth. We also partner with organizations that work with individuals with disabilities because it’s another aspect of our organizations is to teach skills for everybody. We don’t want disability to be an impediment for learning how to grow something. We have partnerships with an organization called the Gracie Center, which helps train individuals with special needs in skills that can help them get a job. We have regular participants who come out to our farm, which is our main location, to learn those skills. Having all these different partners, helps support all the different aspects of our program. Thankfully our message is easy to sell. There’s no one that we’ve met so far who has disagreed with the message of providing food to individuals who need it. 

[DR] It sounds like you couple a lot of the educational component to the gardens and to the partnerships. Can you talk more about the educational side and how important that has been? 

[MN] Absolutely. We want to make sure that our community members have the skills and education necessary to be more independent. We also think that health is very important in our community. For people to improve their health there’s a strong correlation with eating healthy, eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Also, the activity of being outside and having that connection with your garden promotes a healthy lifestyle. If you think about it, we’re really educating people to choose those healthy options. Bringing that education element really does change the mood of the community and promotes a healthier lifestyle, which is going to benefit the community as a whole.          

[DR] That’s great. It’s the growing season, but then you have a pretty long winter. Are you able to grow anything in the winter? What kind of work do you do when you can’t grow any fruits or vegetables? 

[MN] That’s a great question. Illinois winter is pretty long. Generally, our growing season, we start to get producing, starts in about May. We can actually grow a lot of that autumn produce into October and November. So really, that’s what we’re working with for actually producing food. We don’t have any other methods of producing foods in green houses for example. That would require a lot more resources for heating a green house and trying to keep things going all year. So to sort of extend our program, to extend our ability to provide food, the grow-mobile has played a crucial role in that. We have another major partnership with Northern Illinois Food Bank. That’s a wonderful location where, if you don’t think about it, a lot of food goes to waste like in grocery stores in throwing things away a lot of perfectly good food. Northern Illinois Food Bank is a wonderful resource because they collect a lot of that food that is slightly expired or can’t be put on the shelf and then they disperse that to the food pantry. We can go there, load up our truck with hundreds of lbs. of food and then use that to distribute. We were actually able to do that this winter to continue our grow-mobile program at a slower pace, but to continue to provide health options for individuals over that winter season. 

[DR] What is the future of the community gardens project and what is the future of the grow-mobile? 

[MN] We continue to grow every growing season. Establishing more gardens is the goal. Overall, for our organization, again is to continue with partnerships. The goal for the grow-mobile is to expand our reach. Hopefully to continue more of the visits even outside of the growing season and to make sure that we’re hitting all of the areas within our county. We hope that the grow-mobile program can be a model for other organizations that might have mobile units. By bringing around the mobile chef for example, we’re showing that other organizations can come along with us to our events and provide their services. 

[DR] You touched on being this model for other organizations, what advice do you have for these other organizations and for other healthiest communities’ projects? 

[MN] Absolutely. The logistical things like scheduling has been a really big learning curve and some advice that I can give is that if other organizations are trying to reach out from other towns or townships in their county, the best place to start is with one person. You have to find that one person in that small town that knows everybody, but if you can find that one person or at least a couple of people and reach out to them, they can be a really good resource in that community and they can help you with things like setting up locations and getting the permissions and advertising. I really relied on those individuals. And if you can find them, they’re great.         


[DR] That’s the show this week. The show is produced by David Richards. Thank you to my guest Moria Nagy and thank you all for listening. See you next time.