Laresia and Austin Avery have big dreams. They want to see food waste and food deserts eliminated, helping vulnerable communities get access to fresh, healthy food and mitigating the impacts of waste in the process. They want to see it happen on a national scale, but first, they’re trying to eliminate waste and hunger in Memphis.
The couple behind Fish-n-loaves, a Memphis nonprofit dedicated to eliminating food waste and feeding people in food deserts, have seen success with an aquaponic farm and food distribution center in Frayser. Now, they’replanning to open another sustainability hub in Orange Mound, the next step on their journey to keep Memphians healthy.
“Why is Orange Mound the next neighborhood? … I wish we could say we sat down, we had this big vision, God said, ‘Ahhhh!’ But that’s not (what happened),” Austin said.
The Averys considered the history of Orange Mound and its importance in Memphis as well as data from the American Heart Association about areas with high rates of food insecurity.
“We’re all about … eradicating food waste and eradicating food insecurity and eradicating food deserts,” Austin said.
And they’ve made significant progress on that goal in Frayser.
Each month, Fishes-n-loaves serves more than 500 meals in the neighborhood and saves more than a ton of food waste, Austin said, based on reports the organization sends to its partner organizations, including the American Heart Association and the Care Foundation. It serves meals and gives out food from the aquaponic garden and donations from individuals and restaurants.
‘It’s a transformation’
Choosing Frayser for the first location was an easy decision — Laresia grew up in the neighborhood. The Frayser Sustainability Hub was a concept they pitched to the American Heart Association hoping to try something new in Memphis and eventually expand. They found a location and got to work fixing it up, creating an aquaponic garden and feeding neighbors.
“We got a piece of land and then we started just hodgepodging pieces together,” Austin said. “We want every place that we go into to look better than when we arrive.”
The Averys lead a team who work at the garden and in the neighborhood cafe — the food distribution center — growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables from greens to tomatoes. That food, salvaged food from restaurants and donated boxed or canned goods are given out for free to those who come by the cafe.
As they made changes to the property, they saw homeowners around them make changes to theirs as well. Flower beds popped up in yards, Laresia said, boards got taken off windows and renters moved into formerly vacant properties.
“People started coming over and talking to us, and it was amazing. It’s a transformation. Which is what we wanted to do. We wanted an oasis in the middle of a neighborhood,” Austin said.
Fish-n-loaves also partners with Christ Community Health Services, which refers patients to the nonprofit to help people with diabetes and other conditions find easy access to fresh foods. Healthy eating is something Laresia is passionate about.
Growing up, she saw the impact lack of access to fresh food had on friends, neighbors and classmates. And once the couple started a family, Austin made a decision to change his eating habits because of his polycystic kidney disorder, a decision Laresia was only happy to help with.
She started incorporating more chickpeas, kale and other healthy foods into their daily meals, a big change for Austin, who grew up on the Gulf Coast and loves Creole and Cajun food. The two have compromised somewhat — Laresia will make cheesesteak but replace the meat with mushrooms.
Her lessons about fresh fruits and vegetables also have made an impact on kids who visit the sustainability hub. One day, she noticed that while they were handing out food, kids stopped asking for candy or cookies and instead were looking for apples and oranges.
“They were saying, ‘I don’t want sweets today. I want some fruit,’” she said.
The Orange Mound location, which is planned for a vacant lot at 2854 Douglass Ave., won’t be a copy of the Frayser hub. The Averys said they want it to reflect the neighborhood.
An application to the Memphis and Shelby County Board of Adjustment outlines plans to build another aquaponic garden with a food pantry and soup kitchen as well as one studio apartment.
Ultimately, Austin and Laresia want to inspire others to address food waste and see the model rolled out across the county, helping eliminate food deserts everywhere. It’s all part of a wider “Hungernomics” program, meant to eventually address food waste and lack of accessibility on a large scale.
For now, they’re focusing on expanding within Memphis, on initiatives in St. Louis and along the Gulf Coast, and on a new student ambassador program, the Junior Food Waste Council, to engage students in Shelby County Schools about healthy eating and eliminating food waste.
“We had a lot of youth who were asking us, ‘What can I do?’ and ‘What can I be involved in?’” Laresia said.
One of the first student ambassadors, Amaree Williams, 10, said he wants to help eliminate food waste and is encouraging his classmates and friends to do the same.
“(I want) to help my community and help other people’s communities and help people help their communities,” he said.
Corinne S Kennedy covers economic development, soccer and healthcare for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at [email protected]