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In fight against food insecurity, Peoria Grown is doing a lot of listening

Community members giving and receiving food at the Market 309 Logan Recreation Center location
Julie Eliathamby
Community members giving and receiving food at the Market 309 Logan Recreation Center location

After the Kroger located on Harmon Highway in Peoria closed its doors in 2018, South Peoria has been a known food desert struggling with food insecurity, especially the 61605, 61604, and 61603 zip codes.

Peoria Grown founder Julie Eliathamby and her team have been hard at work since 2018 to not only tackle food insecurity, but the related health crisis that has plagued these communities for years.

“For a long time everyone looked at food insecurity as hunger … but the issue has changed … it’s more about getting our families the right type of food because in Peoria, we are not short of food … we are getting food into people's hands, but it's just that we need to give them the right type of food, because right now just giving families any type of food and saying this is good enough, it’s not helping them …we’ve kind of created another issue, which is the health issue,” said Eliathamby.

Julie Eliathamby, founder of Peoria Grown
Jody Holtz
Julie Eliathamby, founder of Peoria Grown.

Through interviews with people directly dealing with food insecurity, Eliathamby reported that many of the families said they wanted to eat healthy and specifically wanted to pay for that healthy food as opposed to going to food banks. But they couldn’t afford the produce at the grocery stores, and/or didn’t have physical access to the store at all.

“A lot of these neighborhoods … they don’t have any grocery stores. What has actually cropped up is more fast food stores and more convenience stores … and with families that are dealing with health issues, diet related food is a big part of managing your health … nutrition has to become part of the equation when we talk about food insecurity, and for a long time, it’s not,” said Eliathamby.

Thus, Market 309 was born as a way to bring a transportable market of fresh produce directly to people in these food-insecure communities at a price point they can comfortably pay while still budgeting for their families other needs.

“That’s why a lot of the pricing you see at Market 309 is a dollar, because that was the price point most of our families said that’s where we’re at right now,” Eliathamby said.

Eliathamby remarked that many people thought a program like this wouldn’t be successful or take off, as there are many misconceptions surrounding the food insecurity issue, some being that these families don’t want to have to pay for the food, or don’t want to eat healthy in the first place. The results of the market showed that those ideas couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We started in January of 2021 with only 10 produce. Within three months, we started creeping up … and now we carry over 80 different produces and different varieties of grocery items, and all of it stemmed from the families telling us what to bring in,” said Eliathamby.

Potatoes and onions being sold for 4 for $1 at Market 309
Julie Eliathamby
Potatoes and onions being sold for 4 for $1 at Market 309

The volunteers at Peoria Grown keep a running list of products or items that the attendees say they would like to see at the next market. Then, Eliathamby says it’s as simple as listening and holding up their end of the bargain.

“All of us need to pay attention to what the community is asking, because they know what they need … because a lot of time I think we think we know the answers, and so we’ve been very careful about not doing that. So all the programming that has happened at Peoria Grown has all been a direct response to what the community has asked us,” explain Eliathamby.

For a long time, having healthy affordable access to food in these deserts has not been made a big priority, according to Eliathamby. Solutions and initiatives were crafted without any input from the individuals they were aimed at serving, and quickly fizzled out.

The almost-instant implementation of customer feedback is a key point that distinguishes this initiative from others in the past. It’s also why Eliathamby says that while this market is quickly expanding and growing more and more successful, that could change at any time.

“We need to keep looking at reevaluating it, because right now we know we’re meeting the needs and the community is supportive and they want it, but that could change any time, and how are we going to be adaptable to that? That’s something that we as a group are always being very careful and making sure we always re-look and re-evaluate,” Eliathamby said.

But as of now, that data the organization collects measuring its success in increasing healthy food consumption in these deserts has been remarkable. In the first quarter of the market, attendees of the market were reporting they typically eat zero to one serving of fruits and vegetables per week, and were only spending about $4 per weekly visit at the market. By the end of the fourth quarter, that weekly fruits and vegetables serving increased to 4 or 5 servings, and the average family bill at the market was roughly $15 to $20.

“When we talk about how we can change food insecurity, this is a simple idea, just bringing the food into the community. Make it accessible. Make it affordable for our families,” explained Eliathamby.

Peoria Grown is able to consistently run this market thanks to a partnership with Hy-Vee on Sheridan road. The grocery outlet allows the nonprofit to buy all produce at cost, then Peoria Grown subsidizes anything left over to keep a price point that is affordable to attendees. However, the nonprofit's goal for the upcoming year is to partner with more local organizations.

“I know that a lot of local farmers would love to work with us. It’s just figuring out some logistics like price point. For a small nonprofit like us, we do not have a lot of inflow of cash to be able to buy at a higher cost. So that may not make it very enticing to sell to a small group like us because you won’t make as much as a margin,” Eliathamby says.

While the financial side of things pose a unique challenge, it’s clear the community is in support of initiatives like these, and are trying to find ways to get involved. Evan Barry from Down River Farm, located in East Peoria, has already partnered with the group, offering a mutual aid CSA (community supported agriculture) program that allows his clientele to buy vegetables on behalf of Peoria Grown, which is then sent directly to the nonprofit throughout the harvest season.

Unique solutions like these are the first step to not only combating food insecurity, but doing it in a sustainable, healthy way that considers the needs of the community first and foremost.

Currently, Market 309 is operating in two locations, the North Valley Commons on Tuesdays from 4-6 p.m., and the Logan Recreation Center on Sundays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. The market is also hosted on the campus of Bradley University during the school year to help food insecure college students.

For information on Peoria Grown’s other programs, produce lists and prices, volunteer information and more, visit its website.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.