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Oasis builder

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Published 1/7/2009

In the heart of the city of Detroit, several blocks north of the New Center area, sits an oasis in a "food desert." Lisa Johanon is the executive director of Central Detroit Christian (CDC), a faith-based nonprofit whose goals include helping to run food-oriented businesses: The Freeze, an ice cream parlor, Mr. Fofo's Deli and Peaches & Greens, a produce market, recognizable by a colorful mural and a fresh paint job.

METRO TIMES: Peaches & Greens is somewhat of an anomaly in the city. What's it all about?

LISA JOHANON: Peaches & Greens opened Nov. 1. We purchased the building for $10,000 in February from the prosecutor's office from a drug sale. It used to be a dry cleaner. The city decided that we needed to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals. I said that it was commercial use-to-commercial use. They said that it's dry cleaners-to-retail. What should have been perhaps a month to six-week ordeal turned into three-and-a-half months. We filed on June 1, and we finally had our BZA hearing on Aug. 20. They had allowed us to do construction all along because they knew that no one was going to protest a produce market in the neighborhood. When I first went before the board, the first question they asked was will the market cause any harm or detriment to the community? The guy who was asking the question was actually snickering. He's usually being asked for use for a cell tower or liquor store or a strip club, not a produce market.

MT: Who runs the market? Are they produce people?

JOHANON: No, not at all. CDC is the mothership to Peaches & Greens. We've hired people from the community who work in the store. ... We're trying to educate people to understand the redeeming value of what we're trying to do, realizing that we're not in a market that they're in like Nino Salvaggio's or Westborn. They're all kinda like rooting for us, hoping that we're going to make it. Besides the market, we have a produce truck that goes out four days a week to target neighborhoods that are just a little outside of the immediate area of the produce market to try to provide access for folks, for senior citizens who are afraid to get out of their house or only get out when they take a taxicab or just don't have access. There is a food desert here in the city of Detroit, the lack of grocery stores. The reality is that 92 percent of food stamp recipients buy their groceries at a liquor store or a gas station or a pharmacy. You know there's no produce there. I talked to one of the city inspectors who came in. He said that he inspects liquor stores for refrigeration and that he would never buy at them. I don't shop at liquor stores, but I went to one to buy some cheese that I needed to finish a recipe. When I got home, I realized that it was three weeks outdated. It shouldn't be on the shelf. Our produce market is really about access — 1 out of 2 people in the city of Detroit don't have a car.

MT: Do you sell only produce?

JOHANON: We are all produce and some grains and beans. We also have a dairy case. We are providing a greater variety of fresh produce, fresher than what they're seeing in the grocery stores.

MT: Where do you get your funding?

JOHANON: The build-out of the produce market was all funded by a Presbyterian church in Plymouth. They paid for it and provided all the labor. We have a grant from the Skillman Foundation to help us roll out some educational programs. For example, we have a demonstration kitchen at the store. We're going to teach teenagers to teach others about nutritious eating and do food samples like they do at some of the high-end markets. In the process, they're learning healthy nutrition and good eating habits. People just aren't going to say, "Hmm — I wonder what rutabagas taste like. I'll take some home and do some research and figure out what to do with them." There's going to have to be some things that help people step out of the box and try new things like cooking greens without ham hocks, which take the nutritional value out of the greens. ... We also plan to give out recipes. Maybe it's also on a hot day in July you're slicing up a watermelon and you're giving chunks of it out, which encourages people to buy a watermelon. Also we had somebody who donated turkeys to us that we weren't expecting after we'd already done our Thanksgiving distribution at CDC. So you buy $5 of produce and you get a free turkey. You can't beat that. We hope to use lead-ins like that to drive people to Peaches & Greens. We are also going to have our own garden that we plan to use as a source for our market, as well as encouraging gardening in our neighborhood so that people who are doing this as a hobby can bring their produce to the store. We'll buy it from them and sell it at a way cheaper price because we've cut out the middleman.

Peaches & Greens is located at 8838 Third Street, Detroit.

Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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