Fresh Food Co-Ops Fight Liberty City Food Desert

Resident collecting produce at a Liberty City co-op.EXPAND
Resident collecting produce at a Liberty City co-op.
Courtesy of Cecilia Gutierrez

For Liberty City resident Izegbe Onyango, purchasing fresh, affordable produce hasn’t been easy. With no grocery store within a mile radius of her city, more than 50,000 residents like Onyango are left with convenience stores, quick shops and fast food to feed their families.

“Having fresh produce should be a basic human right,” says Onyango. “And I don’t mean just lemons on a street corner. You shouldn’t need to go searching like I had to.”

Key Biscayne resident Pat Molinari noticed the problem her sister-city was facing as well. With the help of the Key's Chief of Police, Charles Press, and the Miami Children’s Initiative, Onyango, Molinari and the community decided to take a stand against Liberty City’s food desert one fresh food co-op at a time. And with additional funding from the Key Biscayne Community Foundation and the Coca-Cola Foundation, what was once a dream for Onyango is now a reality. 

(From left to right): Izegbe Onyango, Pat Molinari and Liberty City resident Tinna at a co-op.
(From left to right): Izegbe Onyango, Pat Molinari and Liberty City resident Tinna at a co-op.
Courtesy of Cecilia Gutierrez

The first co-op launched in March 2014 with a second one opening a year later. Together they serve 100 families and over 300 children within a 29-block range from 63rd Street to 59th Street and Seventh Avenue to 22nd Avenue. Each family donates a small amount ($2 at the first co-op or $5 at the second co-op) and receives $40 to $50 of fresh produce. Cooking and nutrition courses are also available.

“Helping create these fresh food co-ops really came out of necessity for me,” says Onyango. “I needed it, and I know others did too.”

For residents living within the 29-block radius, becoming a part of the co-op is simple. Families fill out a survey describing their current eating habits and food situation, speak with a co-op organizer, and commit to coming each month. Each family is assigned and can only use their designated co-op. Miami Children’s Initiative keeps close contact with all families involved, tracking everything from monthly fruit and vegetable intakes to changes in overall health and wellness.

Liberty City co-op.
Liberty City co-op.
Courtesy of Cecilia Gutierrez

According to Melissa McCaughan-White of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation, the program helps curb childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in this at-risk community.

But to President and CEO of Miami Children’s Initiative Cecilia Gutierrez, the co-ops are just one aspect in a much larger effort to improve the general quality of life for children and families in Liberty City.

“Our goal as an organization is to penetrate all of Liberty City and these 29 blocks or “Impact Zone 1” as we call it are just the start,” says Gutierrez. “We are trying to end the cycle of poverty head on by addressing it in everything from early childhood and afterschool programs to health and wellness initiatives like the co-ops.”

As Gutierrez puts it, if she had “her way” she would like to see a co-op within every four blocks of the city.

Fresh produce offered at a Liberty City co-op.EXPAND
Fresh produce offered at a Liberty City co-op.
Courtesy of Cecilia Gutierrez

“Not only do the co-ops offer food that isn’t available, but they create a sense of community and belonging,” says Gutierrez. “They force people to get to know each other.”

Once a volunteer for her own co-op, Onyango now works at Miami Children’s Initiative focusing on both co-op programs. She believes it has been an invaluable addition to her community.

“When you walk down the block and see all of the colorful fruits and vegetables, it looks like someone cares,” says Onyango. “You know, it’s the hood but it really just gives a different feel and air to the area.”

To get more general information on the co-op and volunteer opportunities, contact Izegbe Onyango at 305-514-6120 or visit tomorrow's monthly co-op from noon to 2 p.m. at Miami Children’s Initiative at 1907 NW 60th St.

Follow Clarissa Buch on Twitter and Instagram.


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