As a garden helper for the Frederick Food Security Network, Heidi Gonzalez Ramirez has seen the challenges residents have had getting food.

“There are specific communities in Frederick that struggle to get adequate, fresh food ... [and] it’s just unbelievable that even in a place like Frederick, we’re suffering from all these food deserts,” Ramirez said.

Over the last two years, a lack of storage and access to cold storage has hindered an effort by community gardens across the county to provide produce to those in need.

Now, the group behind the community garden efforts have a solution through a grant supplied by the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek.

Earlier this year, the club provided the Frederick Food Security Network (FFSN) with a $1,000 grant to build a cold storage unit to store food from community gardens and prevent spoilage. The unit was finished and put to work a few weeks ago.

Connie Ray, FFSN program manager, said the grant is helping them further concentrate on their main mission — improving food security and addressing food deserts, which she says the FFSN found across the county.

“You would see these very affluent communities and then, basically on the other side of Carroll Creek, have these food deserts that were primarily low income and didn’t have grocery stores,” Ray said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as “the ability of all people at all times to access enough food for an active and healthy life.”

Four conditions must be met to ensure food security. Food “must be available, each person must have access to it, the food utilized must fulfill nutritional requirements, and there needs to be stability in food access and availability,” according to the USDA.

Additionally, a food desert, as defined by the USDA, is an area where residents are unable to access healthful food, be it due to a lack of grocery stores or farmers markets.

The FFSN was launched in 2017 as part of the Hood College Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies to help address these issues. After setting up five community gardens over the past two years, the FFSN has harvested and distributed large amounts of produce. But it also lost a good amount to spoilage.

“Last year the trickiest part of distribution was how to keep the produce fresh, because we aren’t distributing on a daily basis but we’re also not harvesting on a daily basis,” Ray said.

She explained that the group had tried using coolers last summer but it became too complicated.

“We had a large cooler in the shed of the Hood garden, and that was just really challenging. We had to change out the ice packs daily, and even then you have a cooler in a hot shed, and it’s really hard to keep that produce cool,” Ray said.

Ramirez, a sophomore biology major at Hood, joined the FFSN after taking a course on sustainability. She said she was surprised to learn how many people in Frederick are affected by food insecurity.

Working as a garden helper, she spends a lot of time planting, harvesting and maintaining the plots at community gardens. She said the inability to keep produce fresh greatly reduced the amount of food that was distributed.

“We can grow as much produce as we can, but if we don’t have anywhere to keep it. ... [It’s] really difficult to make sure everyone gets the produce they need,” Ramirez said.

After identifying this challenge, the network approached Hood and asked to turn a room on campus into a storage unit. Hood approved the request, and the group then applied for the grant.

Mike Moore, president of the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek, said the decision to give the grant “was an easy yes” as it hit all the areas the club focuses on, such as environmental issues, underserved residents, and bringing people together in service.

“What I liked about this project is that it wasn’t only serving underserved individuals in downtown Frederick, children and families, but it’s also serving Hood, working with the students there to help their community members who are in need,” Moore said.

Set up in the basement of Carson Cottage on Hood’s campus, the cold storage room has insulated walls, lots of shelving, an air conditioning unit and a CoolBot — a mechanism that allows the AC unit to maximize its power, and through which the room is kept at a cool 50 to 55 degrees.

So far this summer, there has been no spoilage and almost all the produce harvested has been distributed to residents in need.

Ray says the next trial will be during peak produce season in a few weeks, when the capacity of the storage unit will be tested.

Additionally, Ray said the hope for the program is longevity.

“Our next venture is being able to grow for a longer period of the year,” Ray said. “Food security doesn’t just affect families during the summer ... so we would love to be able to distribute that produce year-round.”

Ramirez agreed, saying she hopes the new unit will allow even more produce to be distributed and show Frederick residents the impact of community gardens.

“Everyone takes something away from the garden, whether they’re taking away fresh produce, you’re meeting people, or you’re learning how to grow in your own backyard,” Ramirez said. “The community gets something ... [and] this is a way that people can come together.”

Ray is also optimistic and sees the new unit as a chance to continue their work in the community.

“We want to continue to be supported by and derived from the community,” Ray said. “We’ve seen so much support and really community ownership for what we’re doing, and that’s really what we want.”

Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter:

@katrynajill.

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