As the Asian-American liaison for the City of Cleveland’s community relations department, Chia-Min Chen knows that the residents of AsiaTown tend to be cut off from the rest of the city.
“It’s very insular,” she explains. “There’s a language barrier and, historically, no one has been able to help the community because we didn’t really know what their needs were.”
Earlier this year, Chen noticed a lack of fresh produce available in the neighborhood during a bitterly cold winter. It was particularly disturbing because of the community’s aging population.
“I’ve been watching how the community has changed over the years, and looking at an older and older population as a younger generation has moved away for jobs,” Chen observes. “There are two or three houses on one lot, and most people are on a fixed income with no car. I was walking through the neighborhood and I saw how many people were trying to grow their own food in toxic buckets or milk containers.”
Chen brought her concerns to city hall—citing lack of fresh produce and lack of transportation—and city officials stepped in to help.
For the first time, the city and the Greater Cleveland Food Bank have come together in a collaborative effort to get fresh produce to seniors living in AsiaTown. On the first Wednesday of each month, the Food Bank comes out to Sterling Recreation Center (1380 E. 32nd St.) for a Senior Produce Market.
The effort began in December. “We ordered 2,100 pounds of food, and the Food Bank came with more than 4,000 pounds that was distributed in 50 minutes,” recalls Chen. “In January, they came with 6,000 pounds and it was gone in 40 minutes.”
Cleveland Department on Aging director Mary McNamara says she was skeptical about the turnout they would attract in those first couple of months. “It was a cold day in January, and I thought it would keep people away,” she recalls. “And then I saw seniors pulling their small shopping carts in the snow. When you’re serving each other like that, it just makes me smile.”
Because of the distribution’s popularity, officials have decided to host it each month. McNamara says they have averaged more than 150 people the last two months, and the amount of food they get will feed a family of three or four people.
According to Chen, the next distribution will be this Wednesday, February 7, from 2 to 4 p.m.—this time with 8,000 pounds of food available. Anyone can come to the distribution, as long as they bring an ID and a grocery bag.
Chen is always on hand as an interpreter for the Asian community, and the city is working on securing a liaison for the Spanish-speaking community. All visitors to the rec center will also receive information from other agencies offering support programs, such as heating assistance, property tax re-assessment, and employment.
In the meantime, the city and the Food Bank are looking for volunteers to help out each month—including this Wednesday. “We need more volunteers,” says Chen. “We need younger folks to help us unload the truck and set up.” Anyone interested in volunteering can email or call Chen at 216-664-2319.