Food News

Urban Oasis Project Grows Social Justice Arm

Photo courtesy of Lisa Palley
Urban Oasis Project currently accepts as many SNAP/EBT dollars as one chooses to spend, then matches them with funds from a federal grant to allow shoppers to buy even more healthy fare.
Urban Oasis Project — which runs, among others, popular farmers' markets at the Upper Eastside's Legion Park and Tropical Park in southwest Miami-Dade — figured out a way, early in March, to get all of its vendors up on its website where shoppers can browse, order, pay, and do drive-by pickups at a designated location for their pre-packed boxes.

But what if a portion of your customers doesn't have a computer, or isn't especially tech literate, or lives in a fresh food desert that you've been serving for the past 12 years? How do you reach them with this new, albeit necessary, wholly online business model? These are the questions that worried Art Friedrich, who has a deep background in combating food deserts and injustices in both St. Louis, where he ran a chapter of Food Not Bombs, and Miami.

Friedrich founded Urban Oasis Project 12 years ago with G.I.V.E. (Gardens Inspiring Volunteerism and Education) in Liberty City. "We started building vegetable gardens with families and holding pot lucks to build the local group movement with the mission of 'more food, less lawns,'" he says.

Soon after, he connected with the local farms and food artisans, creating farmers' markets. Some of these markets – whether they're permanent, mobile, or pop-ups – are in areas like Miami Gardens or Little River, and accept SNAP/EBT benefits.

The problem with these markets going virtual is two-fold, according to Urban Oasis Project volunteer Lisa Palley. Those most likely to use SNAP/EBT generally don't have computers at home, nor can they access them at libraries during quarantine situations. Plus, phones may be restricted or shut off due to a lack of income. Meanwhile, the limit for SNAP/EBT spending at farmers' markets, which started at $10 back in the mid-1990s, has been capped at $40 per day per person.

Friedrich, who has been on food stamps himself in the past, brings up another point. Usually, he matches this money, up to $40 per week, for EBT holders through Florida Access Bucks, which is funded by Feeding Florida through a FINIP grant and other donations. But given current circumstances, it's still not enough. CDC guidelines recommend stocking up enough for two weeks, so people need to "shop big and shop once," he says. The money wasn't cutting it.

The result is the Urban Oasis Project's Food Justice Program. Under this new umbrella, Friedrich found the federal funds to match unlimited SNAP/EBT dollars. That means that holders can shop and spend as much as their resources as they have at one time, and it will be doubled. If they qualify for the maximum amount of $170 per month and want to spend it in the virtual store that opens every Wednesday at 9 a.m. for boxes to be picked up over the weekend, their spending power is doubled. Friedrich says that about "30-40 folks weekly" have now been taking advantage of the program.
click to enlarge A COVID-safe, pre-packed veggie box, ordered ahead of time from the Urban Oasis Project website. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA PALLEY
A COVID-safe, pre-packed veggie box, ordered ahead of time from the Urban Oasis Project website.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Palley
None of them might have known about it, however, if it weren't for Urban Oasis Project's partnerships with Finca Morada, (F)empower, and Food Not Bombs Miami, all of whom quite literally pound the pavement for their clientele. Finca Morada, which founder Christina Bouza describes as an "urban permaculture farm and community space in North Miami" that serves as a place for "compost drop-off, donations collection, garden resources, educational workshops, and mutual aid," has been integral in these efforts.

Activist, artist, and musician Bouza, who is also a native Cuban-American and identifies as queer, acts as Urban's Community Outreach Coordinator. While operations manager Chantelle Sookram picks up the produce from the 20-plus local farms, Bouza makes deliveries to the online farmers market customers, assists with packing up orders for pickup, and manages the Instagram page. "I noticed quickly that the new online platform wasn't accessible to everyone. It left out a lot of folks without computer access."

To combat the vacuum, Bouza put out a call for donations through the virtual store to help the homeless as well as the newly jobless, noting that for the economically secure, only $20 would provide a box of groceries to one person and $100 would feed a family. That call raised $3,000 in only two weeks. In addition, she set up a hotline (786-310-3250) in English, Spanish, and Creole, where you can call to provide information about families in need.

Because those preexisting struggles include being unable to afford bail for misdemeanors, and because staying in jail increases the risk of catching the virus with fatal results, Bouza also hired Ashley Varela of (F)empower to comb the neighborhoods looking for those who require assistance. Friedrich adds that Varela conducts interviews with those recently released from jail for minor offenses to figure out what they need, what they know how to cook, what they can use and store, and more. Then the team puts together supplies, which ranges from mangoes to masks. Nor is it a one-time thing. "We continue to give those folks every week," Friedrich says.

In short, for every box that masked-and-gloved volunteers and staffers pack up for customers, they're packing up a second one for someone in less-than-desirable circumstances.

Bouza also stresses that continuity is vital for "making a tangible impact every week, connecting healthy food to good people. I believe that eating local is one of the most important and effective ways we can improve the health of our environment and our communities – human and wild species alike!"

For the Urban Oasis Project, food justice is more than caring about your carrot's carbon footprint. "We bring awareness to our more privileged customers about the larger historical and ongoing issues of racism in the food system, and the ever-increasing marginalized and exploited peoples pushed into poverty as a result of capitalism and systemic oppression," Bouza says. "Food justice has a depth and legacy as a movement that we are aligning with and inviting our community of customers to learn more about."