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Farm to Vehicle: Veggie Van brings affordable staples to those in need

Linda Lee Baird

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Bushels of greens, squash, tomatoes, beans, and peppers are laid out on tables under a tent on Cleveland Avenue—the organic produce clearly labeled as such. I’m munching on fresh peach salsa, and holding a recipe card listing the ingredients I’ll need to make the recipe at home. It feels like an upscale farmers market, but it’s a different take on the concept. This is the Local Matters Veggie Van, a mobile, affordable market that brings fresh food into neighborhoods under-served by traditional grocers. Every week, the Veggie Van makes regular stops in the city’s Linden, Hilltop, and King-Lincoln neighborhoods.

“Our goal is for you to be able to make a complete meal for under $10,” said Monique Williams-McCoy, Local Matters’ Community Food Access Coordinator. To achieve this, the Veggie Van sells staples such as lemons and limes, and shelf-stable items like beans, rice, and olive oil, in addition to seasonal produce. While the “local” part of the organization’s mission is brought in through food farmed from Local Matters Community gardens and relationships with Ohio growers, what matters most to Williams-McCoy is making sure people have healthy food on their shelves. “It’s important for us to be able to get it local, but it’s more important for people to have access,” she said.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

Accessibility goes beyond presence; it’s also about knowledge of how to prepare what’s available. To assist, Williams-McCoy leads cooking demos and hands out samples of prepared foods using the ingredients which are for sale that day. “I’ll have recipe cards. I’ll take them right up here to the market … [and] show them what they need to get,” she said. “We may not have anything fancy like ugly fruit or jackfruit, but we will have those things that … you know how to go about preparing them— where you’re not going to be intimidated.”

First launched in 2009, the Veggie Van didn’t resonate with customers as hoped the first time around. “It was way before its time,” Williams- McCoy explained. But when Kroger’s Northern Lights location closed in early 2018—leaving the Linden area without a major supermarket— staff at Local Matters began thinking about pursuing the idea again. With issues such as food justice, accessibility, and smaller-scale food production garnering attention over the past decade, the timing felt right. Local Matters was selected by the University at Buffalo to participate in a study about the role of mobile food markets on increasing food security and improving fresh food access in communities under-served by grocery stores. The Veggie Van relaunched in July.

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Community support and partnerships became the key to the project’s success this time around. Ijeoma Nnani, Owner and Pharmacist at Trio Pharmacy, said she was committed to the project. “When Kroger closed down, the whole area became … a fresh produce desert. So I thought of what I [could] do to get people to eat fresh,” she said. Nnani heard about the Veggie Van through conversations with people in the community, and she reached out to Local Matters. “They came, we had a meeting, and that was it.” The Veggie Van now sets up shop in front of her business every Tuesday.

Williams-McCoy said the Veggie Van is well-received by patrons. “They love the display of the market because they feel like they’re shopping with dignity, and they love that everything’s fresh, and they love that the prices are very reasonable,” she said.

In addition to accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Local Matters offers Produce Perks, doubling the value of SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables. The community pitches in as well—sometimes people will leave extra money when they make their purchase for others who need it. “People are paying it forward here,” Williams-McCoy said. “I don’t want anyone to walk away from my stand hungry.”

The potential benefits from this project extend far beyond the conclusion of a satisfying, home-cooked meal. Reliable access to healthy foods, as well as the knowledge and skills required to shop for, prepare, and cook healthy meals on a budget, are key aspects of increasing food security and preventing diet-related disease, a point Nnani emphasized. “Even though my profession, my business, is to give people medicine, I tell them that if you eat well, you don’t need my medicine. You may put me out of business—who knows—but I’d rather that you’re well!”

If you ever spot the Veggie Van around town, Williams-McCoy invites you to come by. “You need to stop and get your shopping done, and know that you’re supporting something that’s really needed in the neighborhood.”

Visit local-matters.org/veggie-van for the Veggie Van’s weekly schedule.

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Arts & Culture

Ohio animator creates tribute, parody video of DeWine & Acton

Wayne T. Lewis, Publisher

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Video at bottom of story

About three weeks ago, when the world was starting to fall apart, Dave Stofka was looking for something to take his mind off the stream of daily bad news. A freelance web developer and animator since 2007, Stofka had just the idea.

"I watched Governor DeWine and Dr. Acton's press conferences, and all the Facebook comments I was reading conveyed a sense of great appreciation of their leadership. At some point I jokingly thought to myself that all they need is a theme song. Growing up in the days when every show had a theme song, the "Laverne & Shirley" theme popped into my head for some reason, said Stofka.

With some encouragement from his wife, he dug into the project putting to work his previous experience making animated parodies. Stofka says he put about 100 hours over 2.5 weeks into the video project.

"I knew technically how to pull it off. The jokes started flowing the more I worked on it and bounced ideas off my family and a couple friends. It snowballed from there," said Stofka.

The 1:20 video offers a light-hearted take on the state government's efforts - led by DeWine and Acton - in combating the coronavirus pandemic. The video is based on a hilarious take on the "Laverne & Shirley" theme song, performed by Stofka's friend, Elisa Grecar.

"My goal in this was to bring smiles to people's faces. It's so easy to focus on the negative and difficult to focus on the positive -- not just in times like this but in life in general. I love that Ohio's motto is "With God, all things are possible" -- it made a perfect tagline at the end -- and personally it has given me a lot of hope to get through this," added Stofka.

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Arts & Culture

CCAD Spring Art Fair goes virtual

Mitch Hooper

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The COVID-19 outbreak has all but canceled every event slated for April, but that isn't stopping the Columbus College of Art and Design from finding ways to safely move forward. Though there won't be an in-person Spring Art Fair this year, folks can still support these students and their artwork through the first ever virtual installment of the showcase.

Spanning April 10 to April 12, the CCAD Spring Art Fair will have its students projects, designs, and creations available for purchase online. The day kicks off on Friday at 5 p.m. and ends Sunday at midnight. All proceeds from the event will go directly to the artists, makers, and designers.

CCAD is also running a giveaway for anyone who makes a purchase during the Art Fair. If a visitor spends $50 or more and posts their receipt (without their personal information visible) to Instagram with the hashtag #CCADArtFair, they will be entered in to win a $50 gift certificate to CCAD’s Continuing & Professional Studies classes. Three winners will be selected randomly on April 13.

To find out more about the Art Fair, visit ccad.edu/experience-art/art-fair.

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Community

Listening In Place: The story behind the front porch cello concert heard around the world

Linda Lee Baird

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Inspired by scenes from Italy of socially distancing neighbors standing on balconies, singing together, Clintonville resident Rebecca Tien (who is also a longtime (614) contributing photographer) had an idea for how her family could make a difference in their neighborhood. Across the street, Tien’s elderly neighbor Helena Schlam was under a self-imposed quarantine due to the coronavirus. Tien knew Schlam loved classical music, and she also knew her children, Taran, nine, and Calliope, six, had to keep practicing on their cellos, even if the school orchestra was canceled for the foreseeable future. So Tien planned for her kids to hold a concert for Schlam on her large front porch, keeping a safe distance away.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

If you were anywhere near Twitter that day, you know what came next: another neighbor, Jackie Borchardt, tweeted a clip of the performance. And thanks to Borchardt’s many followers in the media, (she is a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer), the Tiens’ performance exploded across the internet. Taran and Calliope soon landed on national news broadcasts from NBC, CBS, and CNN, as well as in Time magazine and The Washington Post. The story was retweeted by George Takei and the kids’ cello idol, Yo-Yo Ma. 

Now that their 15 minutes of fame is winding down, (614) caught up with Calliope and Taran to learn what the experience was like. 

Turns out, they found fame not only early in their lives, but also early in their cello careers. Both began playing in fall 2019, with Taran joining his school orchestra, and Calliope taking private lessons (Taran soon began doing the same). It’s an instrument the Tiens took to naturally. 

“I tend to speed ahead a lot,” Taran said. “I printed out the Bach cello suite and I’m working on that. I bought new music that’s really advanced today and I probably can’t play it but I want to because I always want to.” 

It’s the music they can make on the cello that motivates them. "I just really love the sound,” Calliope said. Taran adds that when he was younger, he pretended almost everything was a cello.   

With that motivation, they took the Suzuki Level One cello book over to Schlam’s for their concert.  “We played multiple songs. One was a Bach minuet. And then there was Twinkle Twinkle,” Taran said. Although he’s the more advanced musician of the two, having played four years of classical guitar before picking up the cello, part of coming together under quarantine circumstances means playing together. In this case, that meant they stuck to songs both of them were comfortable with from Calliope’s book. The song they became internet famous for was called “Song of the Wind.” 

Even before the tweet that changed their lives, the Tiens knew they were about to play for their first international audience when they made their way to Schlam’s porch. Schlam had her relatives in Israel on FaceTime; she wanted them to see what her neighbors were doing for her, and told the Tiens their music would be heard around the world. (Little could they have predicted that it would also be broadcast on the BBC a few days later.)

When the news coverage began, the Tien family was surprised, but Taran and Calliope took to it pretty well. “It was really, really exciting!” Taran said. “I was, like, feeling a little shy, but also pretty excited,” Calliope added.  

Rebecca was concerned all the attention might be too much for her neighbor during her period of isolation, but Schlam enjoyed it,  telling Rebecca, “I feel like a little kid. I guess I like all the attention. I think this is wonderful.”

Taran and Calliope had different replies when asked about the best thing to come out of this for them. For Taran, it was the retweet from his cello hero, Yo-Yo Ma. “It was literally the best thing ever. Like, I’ve really wanted to meet Yo-Yo Ma and play with him and stuff, but, at least this is a step towards that.” Meanwhile, Calliope said she was glad to make her neighbor happy.

One reason the concert resonated across the internet and around the world is that the Tiens managed to find joy and connection during a time when both are in short supply. So what advice do the kids have for others trying to navigate this moment? “Play a musical instrument. Sing. Do something you really like. And just do one of your favorite hobbies and don’t get bored and have a good attitude and be kind to everybody,” Taran suggested.  

And remember at the end of the day, this moment is about all of us; our own health and happiness is tied into that of our neighbors. For Calliope, the best part was helping Helena. “She was like ‘bravo! bravo!’” 

Taran also remained focused on the bigger picture. “This is all for Helena. It’s all to make her happy. Not to get all famous and stuff. It’s cool that all this is happening, but it’s just for Helena.”

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