CANTON — StarkFresh moved into a new building and opened its third urban farm this year. The nonprofit also has plans to open a southeast grocery store and supermarket in the coming year.

Executive Director Tom Phillips said the expansions further the agency’s mission to reduce hunger and poverty in the community. Moving from an office in the Deli Ohio building to the former Turnaround Community Outreach building at 321 Cherry Ave. NE will allow StarkFresh to provide “more complete wraparound services.”

The two-story Food Justice Campus has office space to share with similar agencies, a basement for small farming operations, and a kitchen to process food from StarkFresh’s three urban farms. The secure parking lot also should protect the mobile grocery vehicles, which have been vandalized in recent years.

“So having a gated area where we could keep those safe, that was something we were trying to do,” Phillips said.

Faith Family Church owned the property until March. Deli Ohio owner Ryan Miller purchased the building and is leasing it to StarkFresh.

With Turnaround’s closure in 2018 and Refuge of Hope’s recent move, Miller said, he began to feel a little isolated on Walnut Avenue NE. The neighboring service organizations brought people to the area for meals.

“We’re kind of down here on this corner where there’s not a whole lot of public interaction aside from Deli Ohio,” Miller said.

He contacted church staff to inquire about their plans and, ultimately, bought the building. A block away, it seemed a better location for StarkFresh than a tiny office at the back of the deli.

“They basically outgrew that space the first day they moved in,” Miller said.

Phillips, a frequent collaborator on community projects, and Miller also jointly operate an adjacent pocket park. Miller described it as an urban garden, with produce used by his family or in some of the restaurant’s seasonal offerings.

Cooperative farm

Eggplants the size of avocados, sweet peppers and squash grow alongside other produce and flowers at the new cooperative farm. The corn has yet to sprout, but volunteers haven’t needed to water, thanks to the abundance of rain this year.

Founded in partnership with ICAN Housing, the underutilized city park on 19th Street NE beside Crenshaw Middle School now has about 10,000 plants on two acres. There’s also a windrow composting operation on the roughly 6.5-acres of farmland.

“This is the biggest of our three farms,” Phillips said.

StarkFresh also has a training farm in the 600 block of Rowland Avenue NE and a teaching farm in the 2200 block of Winfield Way NE.

ICAN Housing, which assists homeless people with mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders, helped found the Rowland Avenue farm. A $5,000 grant from the Aultman Foundation paid the wages of about five ICAN participants who worked on 19th Street.

“Initially, you got a big old field, it’s a little bit hard to imagine the undertaking, but they bought in right off the bat,” said ICAN Executive Director Julie Sparks. “They understood the vision, and they went right to work.”

ICAN clients installed fencing, repurposed from Nimisilla Park, and planted seeds in late May and early June. It provided StarkFresh with the needed workers and the workers with experience and references to help them obtain steady employment.

Sparks said partnering with StarkFresh also produces “powerful” effects for ICAN participants. They gain knowledge, confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

“So for them, there’s a transformative quality that that’s where the huge value comes for them as individuals,” she said.

Although the employment grant ended, ICAN clients were offered plots of their own and continue to volunteer at the farm.

Phillips said StarkFresh relies heavily on volunteers and has three AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) on staff this year. One manages the farm, one manages the campus and programs, and one manages grocery and supermarket plans.

StarkFresh board president Eva-Leigh Houghton, who also is president of the Harrisburg Royal Neighborhood Association, said the goal is to eventually engage neighbors and the nearby middle school at the farm. The first year is always the most difficult.

“As time goes by, it will get easier for planting,” she said.

There will be a day community members can visit the new farm later this summer, Phillips said. This year’s produce, grown without pesticides or herbicides, will be used in StarkFresh’s mobile market or sold wholesale to restaurants, the proceeds from which go back into programming. In the future, it could be sold in the southeast brick and mortar markets.

People interested in being a part of the cooperative farm should complete a contact form at starkfresh.org, Phillips said.

Grocery and supermarket

The new headquarters on Cherry Avenue is expected to have a grocery store in the first quarter of next year.

“That’ll come online first,” Phillips said.

Then, he said, a supermarket at 1317 Gonder Ave. SE could open as early as the third quarter of 2020. StarkFresh has a multi-year lease for the former child care center.

The site was selected after community meetings last year in southeast Canton, which lacks a grocery store. The first step is cleaning the vacant building, and a Facebook event was created for a volunteer cleanup day on Aug. 23.

In the meantime, StarkFresh’s mobile market will stop there from 12:45 to 1:15 p.m. Thursdays until Sept. 26.

“Already, the feedback has been very positive,” Phillips said.

The city of Canton awarded StarkFresh an $8,500 federal Community Development Block (CDBG) grant for the mobile market, which is in its sixth year, according to a city news release. The “veggie mobile” has 11 stops, including senior and public housing complexes, throughout the county. Five stops are in Canton this year.

In the future, a request for CDBG funds to support the grocery or supermarket is “not out of the question,” Phillips said.

He said about 10 employees would staff the Cherry Avenue grocery and 30 to 50 people would work at the Gonder Avenue supermarket. They would operate as nonprofit stores, a model used in communities nationwide, which keeps overhead costs low and makes funding easier to come by.

“Our role is to help get it going and then be able to pull back from that and it just becomes a store that’s truly community run,” he said.

 

Reach Kelly at 330-580-8323 or kelly.byer@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @kbyerREP