Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That's part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).
"I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don't want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That's what drives me," says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,
Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community's African American population.
In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there's also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.
Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and give them tools to help themselves.
There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.
"NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development," she says. "We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.
"Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency."
Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.
Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, "They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important."
WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master's in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.
"It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets."
Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.
"I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground."
Around that same time she directed Omaha's City Sprouts program, whose mantra of "sustaining communities through gardens" fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.
"Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action."
Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College's Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.
"Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies," says Williams.
She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point "but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me," adding, "I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it."
"I'm passionate about this because I understand the power of good food," Williams says. "When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.
"Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development."
NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones.
"More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations," says Whitfield. "People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don't see it, you don't know."
NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.
Williams says 1127 will approach food "from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we're maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It's several different levels of sustainability built into this."
By year's end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.
NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.
"The universe is conspiring in our favor," says Whitfield. "Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There's been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.
"People are becoming more and more educated."
Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.