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Helping Fight Hunger in the Heartland

Created by AARP and local partners to address food insecurity in and around Shawnee, Oklahoma, people shop as if they're in a grocery store. They just don't pay at the end

Fruit bins and a sign stating Community Market Pottawatomie County

Photo courtesy the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

Food comes to the market from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodities program, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and local grocery stores. The emphasis is on healthy and fresh food.

Located in the heart of Oklahoma, Pottawatomie County has a population of 75,000, and nearly half of them live in Shawnee, the county seat.

In a 2014 AARP-commissioned study, almost half the residents surveyed reported that "they or someone in their household has experienced food insecurity," and two-thirds said someone close to them (such as a neighbor or friend) has experienced the problem. The revelation spurred the community to respond in a way that upends traditional approaches to feeding those in need.

"Our focus is not just on feeding the line; it's on shortening the line to create more self-sufficiency."

— Daniel Matthews, executive director, Community Market of Pottawatomie

The Community Market of Pottawatomie has been open since July 2016. By the end of that year the market had provided nearly 1.4 million pounds of food, helping some 1,800 families a month.

The Shawnee-based facility is intentionally called a market, and not a food bank or food pantry. People using the market shop as if it's a grocery store, explains Daniel Matthews, the market's executive director: "They have total choice. The only difference is that they don't pay at the end." The design and management of the market seeks to remove the "stigma of the handout," he says. 

A shopping cart handle with a plaque that states Fighting Hunger ... Feeding Hope


The shopping carts explain the market's mission.

Unlike in a typical grocery store, the market connects people with financial literacy advice, substance abuse counseling and job assistance through initiative's including the Senior Community Service Employment Program. To introduce or enhance food prep and culinary skills, the market offers cooking classes in an on-site kitchen and distributes healthy recipes. (The one for pear cake looks yummy!)

Among the market's founders and partners: Community Renewal of Pottawatomie County (We help neighbors restore community through intentional relationships), AVEDIS Foundation (We're here for good), the Gordon Cooper Technology Center (It's time to get a plan), the Oklahoma State University's Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Services and AARP Oklahoma

Matthews is especially proud of how the market is helping the area's children and older adults. "Every kid deserves a chance, none should go to bed hungry," he says. "And our seniors deserve our honor and respect, and to live out their days with dignity after giving so much to us as our parents and grandparents."

This article is an excerpt from the "Health and Wellness" chapter of the AARP book Where We Live: Communities for All Ages — 100+ Inspiring Ideas From America’s Community Leaders. Download or order your free copy.

Reporting by Steve Mencher | Page published October 2017 

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