By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Rita Hubbard-Robinson is one of those Buffalonians who might be called a civic activist.
She has worked in government and the private sector, but over the past five years has been charged with helping to develop staff at Erie County Medical Center and, in her work at director of institutional advancement with the ECMC Lifeline Foundation, forge closer ties between the hospital and its surrounding community.
Hubbard-Robinson also pitched the benefits of the Farmers' Market at Grider, which opens for its fifth season from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday.
The fun – and meaning – of the market starts immediately, because opening day is “Plant Day,” in which those who register in advance will receive a “Garden in a Bucket” – plants that can help those who receive them start a small garden in their yard that, by the end of summer, will bear fresh produce to make salsa. Tomatoes, peppers and basil will be among the plants offered. To register, call Hubbard-Robinson at 898-3509 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The market and Plant Day are important in the 14215 ZIP code, which is considered a food desert because the nearest grocery stores are out of reach for many residents.
“This area has a number of challenges,” Hubbard-Robinson said. “Food is one of them. Poverty is one. Transportation is one. You put these together and it’s no wonder why people are ill.”
Because of the economic dynamics in the community, fast, processed, and packaged, high sodium foods are often the kinds the show up on the dinner table.
“Poverty has a major impact on what people find affordable and filling for their families,” Hubbard-Robinson said.
The farmers' market is an attempt to change that.
“Our market is local, seasonal and fresh,” she said.
When the market first opened, the number of hospital workers outnumbered those from the neighborhood when it came to customers. No longer.
And tastes have changed.
“We were offered Swiss chard at the market and it wasn’t moving,” Hubbard-Robinson said, “so we had a food demonstration and people loved it. Now, we can’t keep Swiss chard on the tables.”
The market also features exercise during part of the lunch hour, including tai chi, Silver Sneakers and salsa dancing, as well as cooking classes and other educational programs. One of the pastors who regularly attends lost 20 pounds, and plans to continue the weight slide. “She attributed part to the education and part to the access to fruits and vegetables – and she says she’s not finished.”
What are the top sellers?
“People love their leafy green vegetables, corn when it’s in season. People love their tomatoes when they’re in season, and strawberries, blueberries and apples.
“Some interesting things you can get at the market are Brussels sprouts, which are still on the horn. Otherwise, they’re processed, and our farmers don’t process them.
“We also have canned preserves and jams and chilis. One woman told us her father has fallen in love with the jalapeno jelly and he’s looking forward to the market reopening.”
Code Blu juicery also will be on hand for the first time. I wrote about the business, and owner DeChantell Lloyd, last June.
“Having her and her energy at the market is going to be wonderful,” Hubbard-Robinson said, adding that people will still need to buy fruits and veggies to get their fiber.
After Lomeo arrived at ECMC in 2009, she said, “we were engaging in growth on the hospital campus. What he did not want to see was a fantastic, beautiful hospital campus across the street from sick people living in poor conditions.
“We wanted to have an impact in this community, be part of something that would not just improve our campus but also improve the community.”
That meant providing more health care jobs for people in the surrounding community and engaging with neighbors in more meaningful ways.
A series of community meetings led to a community mantra: “Growing healthy together.”
“Our farmers' market is part of the initiative that reflects that,” Hubbard-Robinson said.
The goal of the market, she said, is to improve access to locally grown food, promote healthier lifestyles, increase the number of community gatherings, and provide more information and education when it comes to health and wellness.
The market opened in hospital parking lot in the spring of 2009 and moved across street, into its current location at 351 Grider, in July of that year.
Vendors provide fresh fruits and vegetables and “treats,” she said. Amy’s food truck or another healthy food option, also is available each week.
Hubbard-Robinson, a Queens native, is among those in WNY who came here for school – in her case, University at Buffalo Law School – and liked the area so much she planted roots.
She lives in the Hamlin Park section of the city. Her husband, Mark E. Robinson, will mark 30 years in the Buffalo Fire Department this fall. They have two children, Jason E., an Air Force retiree, and daughter Journee A., a mathematics education major who just finished her junior year at SUNY Buffalo State.
Along with her work at ECMC, Hubbard-Robinson is among the leaders of her neighborhood improvement group.
She relishes both opportunities to serve, and believes the market helps fulfill an important part of the Lifeline Foundation’s mission.
“People are becoming wiser,” she said. “We know we have an epidemic around obesity.”
If Americans, including those in our region, don’t change behaviors, she said, young people will be first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
“It’s going to take everybody,” she said, “doing what they can.”