Oct 21, 2013 at 6:00 AM
Oases of healthful foods are blooming in central Toledo neighborhoods where fast food is cheap and plentiful and nutrition often suffers.
Behind the trend are people such as Toledoan David D. Johnson.
He grows fresh produce in the central city, brings in produce from other growers, and sells fresh fruits and vegetables at his Johnson Produce Market. He has transformed the site from a bare lot into a welcoming place with a blue and white barn. In the warm months, motorists often see Johnson tending the corner where he's planted attractive green plants and colorful flowers.
Even when nothing was there, he sold produce in an empty lot. Then he sold it from underneath a gazebo. All of that is a show of Johnson's drive. His mission is threefold: selling "quality" fresh fruit and vegetables, setting an example for others in his neighborhood, and employing young people.
"The trend in most cities is going toward urban agriculture and that's partly because of the blight and razing houses and leaving open spaces," Johnson, 48, noted. "The considerate politician will consider using that land in a positive manner, and it almost seems as though it's a progression to regression: We're going back to doing what we used to do, such as gardening, and that's the positive of this city blight."
Key officials have noticed what he's doing.
"Mr. Johnson is amazing. To me he is making a difference for the neighborhood. It's critical that he's meeting a need for convenient access to fresh vegetables and fruits," said Toledo City Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson.
The venture is so important to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Toledo, that she made time on the third day of the federal government shutdown to talk about him.
"I view him as a transformational figure in that part of our community. He has been literally planting fruit trees in the city, and he's a modern era Johnny Appleseed," said the long-time representative, who has watched Johnson develop "very closely with great pride. I have noticed that he started small and has grown slowly, methodically."
The increasing interest in community gardening and a return, albeit slow, to consuming fresh produce is an essential part of battling skyrocketing rates of obesity and its accompanying ills. The poor health of many Americans has been partly blamed on the absence of fresh produce in diets.
That's why the site of Johnson Produce is key. He is really doing something that so many others have not: He is providing fresh fruit and vegetables in a part of the community that lacks good nutrition," Kaptur said.
He returned to his hometown after attending Florida State University. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education at the University of Toledo. He must complete his dissertation for his doctorate, he said. In Toledo he has been a teacher and an elementary school assistant principal. He was the principal at a county high school in Georgia while living there for a few years.
Though his academic pursuits and career in education differ from agriculture, there's little doubt that farming runs through his veins. He's been in the produce business since he was 5, when he learned to roll melons off a truck.
Johnson grows produce in Swanton just outside Toledo and has a small orchard and garden near his home and business. He also has owned farms in rural northwest Ohio and Georgia, and brings produce to sell here from Georgia and Indiana.
"And what we don't have we get from local farmer friends," he said.
He employs high school and college age students in summer, offering them some education as well as a job.
"They learn a whole lot about the earth that they live in that they never thought about, and they get to see what fresh really is," he said.
Instead of moving to loftier grounds, Johnson stays because that's where his heart is.
And while he continues to underscore the need for quality fresh produce in the central-city neighborhoods, he also notes the importance of making it easy for customers to buy. He accepts senior nutrition coupons, SNAP, and WIC as well as cash.
"My whole purpose is to put high quality fresh produce in the inner city. I want it to be as good as you can get anywhere," Johnson said. "We should have something of quality in our neighborhood that you don't have to go somewhere else for. That's a continuation of what the civil rights movement was all about."
During the height of civil rights battles, some of Johnson's relatives marched and were jailed in Georgia. He said things were different in the North; this is where he realized the necessity of being socially aggressive. He was particularly impressed with the Black Panthers who began the school breakfast program.
"I took from that that we have to do for ourselves. You probably won't find anyone who wants to build here," he said, referring to the site of his business and home where he has lived for nearly 30 years.
"People in my community need to see me go to work in the morning and if I take myself out of the community, I take myself out of the equation," he said. "When people see me work from sunup to sundown, I feel like I'm doing what I need to do."