By Jeanne Janson, NFU Intern

National Farmers Union (NFU) represents a diverse group of 200,000 family farmers and ranchers and food advocates, united by the belief that strong farm families and rural communities are vital to the health, security and economic well-being of our nation. In our Member Spotlight series, we will be sharing stories about their connection to the land, to their communities, and to Farmers Union.

When you talk to Donna Pearson McClish, you get the sense that there is no challenge too large or complex for her to tackle. She’ll assure you, “My heart is set and I’m going to get it done,” a refreshingly optimistic attitude amidst the never-ending disconcerting Covid-19 news. 

Donna is the owner of Common Ground Producers and Growers Inc., a mobile market in Wichita, Kansas, that brings local, farm-fresh produce directly to senior centers and low-income housing units. Improving a community’s access to healthy foods is a critical – but often overlooked – step towards improving health outcomes and increasing longevity.

Inadequate access to healthy food disproportionately affects those living in rural areas, communities of color, and low-income neighborhoods. Low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer chain supermarkets compared to middle-income zip codes. If the closest grocery store isn’t within walking distance, driving or taking the bus isn’t always an option; in most of these communities, a lack of access to transportation is also a major challenge.

Seeing these problems in her community, Donna felt compelled to take action. “My responsibility is to feed the people,” Donna said. “I feel very strongly that that mandate has been given to our family, so that’s what we’re going to do.” 

She and her family founded Common Ground in 2014, starting with 11 senior centers. They now aggregate produce from local farmers (including their own) and deliver it bi-weekly to 33 sites, mostly senior centers and public housing units. They sell the produce at prices comparable to what you’d find at a grocery store, and they accept alternate forms of payment including EBT and senior market vouchers.  

The services provided by Common Ground are always important, but they will prove particularly crucial in the coming months as their clientele recovers and rebuilds from the Covid-19 pandemic – particularly because seniors and minority populations have been hit the hardest by the virus.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that eight out of ten deaths reported in the U.S. have been adults 65 years or older. Additionally, though African Americans comprise just 13 percent of the total U.S. population, they account for 33 percent of patients hospitalized for Covid-19. There are several reasons these communities are more susceptible to the novel coronavirus, including food insecurity and related health complications. 

Donna hopes this is an opportunity to really address the root causes of these problems. “I’m sad that the circumstances are what they are, but I’m also thankful that it’s causing us to take a look at our present systems, how we do things, how people are affected behind the scenes and we never know,” she said. “Now it’s kind of all laid in the open for everybody.”

If there’s anyone who has the heart and determination to solve the complex inequities in our present systems, it’s Donna – and she’ll do it with a smile on her face while asking how you’re doing. 

“Who would’ve thought that we would be here in this time and that’s what our family would’ve been prepared to do? That’s what’s so mind boggling to us. We’ve been doing this all of our lives and now we’re at this point where we know what to do and we can put it in action and implement it to feed people, to feed lots of people.” said Donna. 

The Pearsons have been farming in Wichita since 1968, when Donna’s parents bought the land that she and her brothers now farm. They quickly became local food leaders, educating their neighbors on the importance of local food, starting a community garden program, and creating a farm that doubled as a space where people could gather and spend time together.

This collectivist mentality that was instilled in Donna from a young age built the foundation for Common Ground, although she may not have realized it at first. When talking to a friend and trying to trace the beginnings of the project, she had an epiphany. “It suddenly dawned on me: your dad did this way back. It’s nothing new. We’re just continuing that legacy.” 

This mobile market setup is proving especially beneficial these days. While many farmers are having to adjust their business models and adapt to new supply chains, Common Ground is mostly going to be able to maintain business-as-usual, save for the additional PPE and social distancing measures. This will enable the organization to stay focused on getting local, farm-fresh produce to those who need it most right now.  

“Our mission and motto is, ‘All are fed. No one is hungry.’ When we provide food, we’re providing a life substance and that’s a connector,” Donna noted. “To me it says, ‘You care about me. You care about my health. You care about my mental welfare.'”

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