EAST ST. LOUIS — Like many urban areas, this town is a "food desert" where grocery stores are few, and where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find.
"In our population down there, there is just Ramen noodles and fast food, and everything that's not healthy," said Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, the East Side Health District administrator.
To fill this gap, Patton-Whiteside led an effort last year that resulted in the creation of a community garden and farmer's market near the health district's main office at 20th and State streets.
The garden and market, known collectively as Food Raised at East Side Health, or F.R.E.S.H., were a huge success, she told the Governor's Rural Affairs Council, which met Wednesday at the Southwestern Illinois College campus in Granite City.
Using a wide variety of recycled materials -- from old car tires to bricks from nearby abandoned buildings -- F.R.E.S.H. and local volunteers built a series of gardens on a half-acre plot of land last spring and summer. There they grew sweet and Irish potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, among many other edibles, and then sold them at the market.
In addition, elderly volunteers were paired with children, who raised food of their own in a special children's garden at the site. Lessons were also offered on growing the food and cooking it. Seed money came from a $38,000 state grant, Patton-Whiteside said.
Many of the market's customers bought their food using state vouchers distributed to seniors and participants in the Women Infants and Children nutrition program, she said.
"It been an overwhelming success for us because we can take food from the garden and bring it down to the farmers market," she said. "And we tell them we grew this right down the street. They will go back down the street and they will look and see where this was grown and how it was grown."
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn took notice of the program's impact. In late November, the Governor's Hometown Awards program bestowed one its Governor's Cup silver trophies upo F.R.E.S.H., recognizing it as one of the state's best volunteer programs.
F.R.E.S.H. will expand later this year with the help of a state program to fund wireless technology, enabling low-income customers to use their LINK cards -- which replace the old food stamp system -- to buy food from the market.
"This is only the beginning," she told the council. "We see it going on and getting larger."