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Roanoke-based LEAP Shifts Online to Provide Local Food

Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ

Living with COVID-19 has meant some may be experiencing food insecurity for the first time. One Roanoke Valley non-profit group was able to pivot at a time when access to healthy and affordable food is crucial.

Brittany DeKnight has been visiting Roanoke farmer’s markets for years, and that hasn’t changed, now that she has to order online ahead of time. 

“My 2-and a half year old Bennett’s favorite place to go is the farmer’s market, even still, even when we don’t get out of the car,” she said.  

It’s a different look these days at LEAP’s two Roanoke area markets, offering touchless pickup on Tuesdays and Saturdays at different locations, or through home delivery for a small fee.

DeKnight is enrolled in the local farm share, getting a weekly pre-packed box of locally grown produce.

“It’s like Christmas very Tuesday,” she said. “Vegetable Christmas.”

LEAP, or Local Environmental Agriculture Project, started in 2009 at a co-op in Roanoke. It quickly expanded to something larger, with an expanding base of area growers, small businesses, and customers.

The non-profit offers both farm shares, and as well as an online marketplace.  The organization closed its walk-thru farmers markets in late March, needing about two weeks to move everything to the web.  It also relies on community partners, like the United Way and Head Start, to distribute food to those without internet service, or people with transportation issues.  

Director of Strategic Planning, Maureen McNamara Best, says as the pandemic hit, LEAP got on the phone with all of its farmers about staying safe.

“We were able to have quick conversations with all the different communities that we serve, and taking all that information into account, we were able to roll out a plan very quickly," she said. Best also spent time looking at how farmer’s markets in other parts of the country were already learning to adapt. 

LEAP Director of Programs and Operations, Sam Lev, says access has always been an area of concern for farmer’s market customers in Roanoke’s West End. 

“We really committed, when we started this market, to making sure that, as best as possible, people weren’t falling through the cracks that ordinarily took advantage of this, or people that suddenly found themselves in hardship could also take advantage,” he said.

LEAP also offers 50-percent discounts to those enrolled in the USDA’s SNAP program, WIC, or Medicaid. Lev says the non-profit adapted quickly because of its existing relationships with shoppers, market vendors, and farmers like Cameron Terry. 

He’s the founder or Garden Variety Harvests, which farms small plots at three sites around Roanoke.

Credit Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ
Garden Variety Harvest's Cameron Terry works at one of his farm plots in Roanoke.

“At a time when global supply chains seem to be having hiccups, whether it’s with food, or toilet paper or what have you, that’s the time for a local supply chain to shine,” Terry said.

He’s a big fan of salad greens, but enjoys introducing LEAP’s farm share customers to something they may not choose if they were shopping at a typical farmer’s market, like bulb fennel. One customer said it tasted like licorice.

“When you’re sentenced to cooking all of your meals at home, the way a lot of us have been, people want new and exciting ingredients to keep them coming back to the kitchen with excitement,” Terry said.

LEAP’s Sam Lev says with the onset of the pandemic, things were a bit chaotic, but the staff has developed a new way of doing business, and it’s paying off.

“As wild as the world’s been in the last couple of months, it’s comforting to know that the farm season, the agricultural season still happens, right?”

Sales show the product may be even more popular online in current times. LEAP’s farm share sales are up 70% from a year ago, and those at its West End Farmers Market are nearly triple what they were in May of 2019.  The organization’s incentive sales (half price for SNAP, Medicaid, and WIC families) are up nearly 90% from a year ago.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.