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Seeds of Change: How 3 Moms Provide Produce to Needy Families

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Tanikka Cunningham, 32

Founder and Executive Director, Healthy Solutions
Washington, D.C.

Sprouts of an Idea
Tanikka Cunningham
Enlarge Image
Malek Naz Freidouni

Tanikka was looking for a good way to earn income, and on a whim she answered an ad about providing wholesale produce to schools, military bases and prisons. She won the contracts, put into play the farming knowledge she'd acquired as the granddaughter of sharecroppers, and the company took off. But when she discovered that prison inmates were served an apple a day while fruit was only an occasional treat for local school kids, her business morphed into a mission. Tanikka began setting up nutritional outreach programs called Healthy Eaters Future Leaders in North Carolina. The plan was to provide wholesome snacks to students, and prizes for the classes that consumed the most servings of fruits and vegetables. But it soon became clear that more was required. "Mothers would tell me they were thrilled their children were eating well during the day, but they couldn't afford to feed their families like that at home," says Tanikka, a mom of four, ages 8, 6, 4 and 2. "I knew there had to be a way."

Taking Root

Around that time Tanikka discovered that small farmers were selling their produce at cut-rate prices, then throwing out what they couldn't sell, simply because they didn't have refrigeration. With a modest government grant, she arranged to buy those crops wholesale and hire trucks to transport the goods. She organized the project into the nonprofit Healthy Solutions, and set up distribution centers (which she calls "farmers' markets without the farmers") at churches and community centers.

Staffed by teenagers from area high schools, these outlets offer "Freggies," baskets that include a variety of in-season produce—kiwis from Pennsylvania, sweet potatoes from North Carolina and cherries from Maryland. A 20-pound container, enough to feed a family of four for a few weeks, sells for $25—about half what it would cost at a store. Tanikka accepts food stamps too, which has increased the project's impact on nearby households.

The Harvest

Bringing in more than 15,000 pounds of produce a month to Washington, D.C., Healthy Solutions feeds over 3,500 families. Tanikka's most recent venture is a market in Thomaston, Alabama, a rural town of just 354 residents that has never had a grocery store. "All it takes to change people's lives," she says, "is tying up a few loose ends and looking at challenges from a different perspective."

Tanikka's Summer Squash Medley

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Slice 2 large or 3 small yellow squash and 2 large or 3 small zucchini into 1/4-inch coins. Cut 1/2 of a sweet red pepper into large chunks. Put vegetables onto cookie sheet and toss with enough olive oil to lightly coat. Roast in 350 degrees F. convection oven for 10 to 15 minutes, 350 degrees F. traditional oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until squash start turning transparent and peppers begin to char. Some cooks like to include a sweet onion or tomato. Toss, serve and watch it all disappear!