With a $20,000 grant from the City of Takoma Park, the Crossroads Community Network aims to expand healthy food access for the city’s residents.
“This year we were up yet another 19.6 percent in sales … it shows our growth and sustainability as we become less dependent on federal nutrition benefits sales for our success which was the case in earlier years,” said Michelle Dudely, the Farmers Market and Healthy Eating manager of the organization, while giving an update on their progress to the City Council Wednesday evening.
“I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate … you bring together not only healthy eating classes but also recognize and embrace the cultural diversity that exists in the crossroads area and bring it to life,” said Council member Talisha Searcy (Ward 6).
Based within the city, the organization receives grant funding from Takoma Park as well as Montgomery and Prince George’s County governments and runs a variety of programs that promote local farm producers and improve access to healthy and organic food access.
One of their programs, which according to executive director Christie Balch, known as Fresh Checks was the first in the nation to offer purchasing incentives to low-income residents for fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Since we started, we’ve given out over $450,000 in Fresh Checks to over 15,000 local low-income residents,” Balch said. “Not only have a lot of families that had a hard time affording fresh healthy food gotten access but it also stimulated sales at all these local farms,” she added.
Balch also explained that the program assisted many residents to improve their diets by regularly consuming fresh produce.
“In a place like the Takoma-Langley crossroads … there’s a lot of unhealthy options and a lot of times it can be cheaper to choose unhealthy foods than healthy foods, so it [Fresh Checks] makes it a lot easier for people to buy fresh produce,” she said.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s really changed their lives,” she added.
In addition to hosting a farmers market, the organization also conducts business training for local entrepreneurs through its Microenterprise Training Program to enter the food business in Montgomery County.
Balch explained that the County’s licensing and permitting process can be difficult to navigate, especially for those who are not native English speakers.
“We had been aware of this need for a long time – a lot of the people coming to us had some business experience but didn’t know how to do the whole regulatory thing,” she said.
The program is also closely related to the organization’s community kitchen, designed to give food entrepreneurs an opportunity to prepare their products in a licensed kitchen as required by County regulations.
“The program is a pipeline to get people ready to launch their business in our kitchen,” Balch added.
Balch explained that because many prospective entrepreneurs who approached her organization were not utilizing a licensed kitchen, they prohibited from establishing a booth with freshly-prepared food.
In August 2017, Crossroads Community Food Network opened a newly-constructed kitchen housed in the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church. Previously, the kitchen was in disuse and outdated in terms of code, according to Balch.
“Since we launched the kitchen six months ago, there’s already been two new jobs created in the businesses that use it,” she said.
Aside from educating entrepreneurs, the organization also educates students in fifth grade about healthy eating practices and raising awareness on seasonal produce.
“It’s not just a nutrition education program but it’s also a program about your whole food system,” Balch said, while explaining how the program also exposes students to the farming to understand and make food selection decisions based on seasonal crop availability.
In 2017, Crossroads Community Food Network received $20,000 from Takoma Park, $58,000 from the Montgomery County Council and $15,000 from Prince George’s County, according to public records.