Jeremy Ford woke up in Hialeah with a hankering for fresh fruit and nowhere to get it.
Ford, the recent “Top Chef” winner and head of the posh Matador Room in the Edition Hotel in Miami Beach, had stayed at a friend’s house and was hoping to buy fresh-cut fruit at a local market before driving in to work.
He couldn’t find it. His friend lived in a food desert, what the USDA defines as a low-income area where a grocery store or supermarket is more than a mile away.
“Why can’t we find a bag of fresh fruit or a bag of vegetables in a one-mile radius?” he said.
It’s one reason Ford has volunteered to be a spokesman to fight food deserts in Miami. He recently posted a selfie of himself with the hashtag #DrinkGoodDoGood, part of a national campaign in which Naked Juice will donate 10 pounds of fresh produce to a community in need for every selfie posted with a fruit or vegetable and the hashtag.
Food deserts are a pervasive problem in the United States, where nearly 30 million Americans (about one in 10) live far from a source of fresh produce. The USDA created an online atlas where the public can punch in their address and see local food deserts near them.
About 250,000 Miami-Dade residents (about 10 percent) live in areas with poor access to supermarkets, according to the Miami-Dade Health Department. Its report particularly pointed out Liberty City, Opa-locka and Hialeah.
That’s why companies are turning to food celebrities to get the word out. Ford and chef Michelle Bernstein, a Miami native, have been posting veggie and fruit selfies of themselves with the hashtag #DrinkGoodDoGood to raise awareness. Nationally, chefs Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence and José Andrés as well as celebrities such as the musician Common have taken selfies for a cause.
The company Wholesome Wave is taking Naked Juice’s donations and working with Miami’s Urban Oasis Project to make it easier for those living in food deserts to find fresh produce. A federal program allows those on food stamps in Florida using Florida Access Bucks to get $10 worth of fresh produce for free when they spend $10 of their food-stamp benefit at a participating market.
“Poverty shouldn’t be a barrier to access fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables,” said Skye Cornell, chief program officers for Wholesome Wave.
The company is working with farmers’ markets in urban areas without grocery stores to accept food stamps and the special tokens that allow shoppers to buy twice the amount of produce for every dollar. More than 90 percent of shoppers who sign up for the tokens use them, Cornell said. And that’s important when food stamp dollars make up more than $150 billion in the U.S economy, she said.
“This not only brings healthy food to those who need it most, but it also helps Florida farmers,” Cornell said.
Ford first learned the importance of fresh vegetables and fruits when his mother was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 8.
Jacksonville natives, they had grown up eating heavy Southern food (fried chicken, collards cooked with ham hocks, mac ’n’ cheese). But when his mother, Jeanne Tassinari, was diagnosed, the family went completely to a “clean eating” diet before it was cool.
“When it hits your family, it changes everything,” he said.
The family, which had grown vegetables for fun, started planting actual crops, from collards to beets, radishes and carrots. Ford built a greenhouse at his former Davie home with more than 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables, and it has deeply influenced his cuisine.
“It’s one of the reasons my food is so vegetable-forward,” he said.
Ford said he’s not usually a fan of taking selfies, but he’s making an exception.
“It’s for a good cause,” he said, “and I’m more than happy to do it.”