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Pilot program successfully helps young children living in food deserts access more fresh, locally farmed foods in Phoenix

A woman in black t-shirt is handing a bag of produce to another woman.

A pilot program in the First Things First Phoenix South Region is helping to get more fresh vegetables and fruits from local farms into the homes of families of young children.

In the span of three months, about 360 families each month have received bags filled with produce through the Fresh Connection pilot program and 95% of families reported the produce bags helped their family eat more fruits and vegetables for the week.

“Many families in the region don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables,” explained FTF Phoenix South Regional Director Jeanine Bashir. Pockets of the region suffer from food deserts, where the grocery might be miles away and family might not have transportation to get to the store.

“If I have to walk to get my groceries, that creates an additional hardship,” Bashir said.

The FTF regions in Maricopa County have been working to address issues of early childhood hunger and nutrition for the past few years. Each regional council looked at the needs in their district and was able to respond differently.

In the FTF Phoenix South Region, which is primarily the southern part of the city of Phoenix (south of Thomas Road), there are 65,000 children under 6 years old and 42% of those children live in poverty.

“The FTF Phoenix South Regional Council met for over a year to see what we could do around nutrition and the needs of families,” Jeanine Bashir said.

That work led to the development of the Phoenix South Early Childhood Nutrition Team, a partnership of early childhood service providers, faith-based agencies, and community-based nonprofits. The group decided to partner with the Fresh Connection program, which is based on a similar program that helps seniors get bags of fresh food.

The farm-to-family model works to distribute locally grown produce to families of babies, toddlers and preschoolers through FTF’s early childhood partners. Local farmers, which include Spaces of Opportunity, Orchard Learning Center and Sun Produce Cooperative, grow and harvest the fruits and vegetables, said Cynthia Melde, a consultant with Pinnacle Prevention, who along with Community Alliance Consulting, serve as facilitators for the early childhood nutrition team members.       

The packing and distribution of the produce bags is done by community health workers from Unlimited Potential, a local grassroots organization.  They also include information about the produce and a recipe in the totes since the fruits and vegetables may be unfamiliar to some families.  

To make sure the food is fresh, it is delivered to FTF’s partner early childhood organizations, such as family resource centers, to distribute to families on the same day.

“It comes and goes out on the same day,” Melde said. “Most centers don’t have the volume of cold storage needed, and we also want families to get the food as soon as possible.”

During the 3-month pilot, 462 families and 534 children birth to age 5 received fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The results were impressive,” Melde said. “Every month after distribution, the programs would contact their families about a week after the produce was delivered. They asked questions like, ‘Does this help with your food budget? Does it help your family eat more fruits and vegetables?’ We summarized that data across the board and most families said they were using the produce.”

  • 97% of families reported using all or most of the produce in their bag.
  • 95% of families reported the produce bags helped their family eat more fruits and vegetables for the week.
  • 89% of families reported the produce helped with their family’s food budget for the week.

The FTF Phoenix South Region recently voted to expand the program for an additional five months in 2022. It is a seasonal program, so the bounty of full harvesting is typically January through June and the program will run January through May.

“The cooler weather is needed for storage and transportation, and maintaining the quality of the food,” Melde said.

The plan is to secure matching and future funding to continue and expand the program.

“The way we see it, it’s a double-win,” Melde said. “Families are getting fresh produce and farmers that are living in the area are provided with job opportunities and economic resources for their families.”

Ofelia Gonzalez is a public information officer at First Things First. You can reach her at​

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