Melinda Aponte has never met a barrier she and her child nutrition team at YWCA of Asheville couldn’t overcome, and the same was demonstrated in her relentless pursuit of collaboration throughout the pandemic crisis. The nutrition program at YW serves 50,000 meals to 600 children annually through two separate programs. Forty-three percent of children in their Early Learning Program and 90% of children in the Empowerment Childcare program qualify as low-income.
Aponte uses her role to improve food equity in her community. She serves on the Western North Carolina Food Justice Planning Initiative, a body centered on collectively improving the food system for Western North Carolina. The need for this group and Aponte’s insight is critical. YWCA of Asheville is in a food desert—there are no full-service grocery stores within walking distance of the neighborhood, and 36% of community-members in the neighborhood around YW do not have personal transportation to reach food resources outside the area.
Access, education and equity are emphasized on plates in the center too. Aponte developed a “Farmer’s Market Friday” fruit and vegetable tasting curriculum for students to get hands-on experience with a food they may not have had before. Children from food deserts are most likely to experience low diversity canned and frozen produce, but Aponte evens the playing field for her students. She stays up-to-date on the newest research and information regarding child nutrition and offers meals that highlight the diversity of cultures present at the center.
With Melinda Aponte already doing so much for the children of YWCA of Asheville, who could be surprised when she outmatched and overcame the pandemic too? Nearly 40% of the childcare centers in Asheville closed at the onset of the pandemic, and YW encouraged many staff to begin working from home. Indeed, many of the nutrition staff were even furloughed. Aponte remained onsite with a skeleton crew, serving meals to the children of essential, frontline workers. The food needs remained the same, but the staff was smaller and burden of risk was higher.
Aponte developed critical partnerships across Asheville to help meet the needs of her center and community. She worked with Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, an organization that connects farmers to local communities, and she called upon Grace Covenant Church’s volunteer garden. These relationships flourished and generated fresh produce and strengthened community partnerships in a time of great need. Even better, the emphasis on locally sourced produce promotes sustainable eating habits and helps reduce YW’s carbon footprint, another aim of food justice.
Luckily, Aponte doesn’t keep her wealth of knowledge and skills locked away. She energetically collaborates with other local CACFP providers and meets quarterly with the regional director to report and give feedback. Her close working relationship has allowed for Aponte and the YWCA of Asheville to have a great deal of understanding and influence with the CACFP.
From professional relationships to community nonprofits, Aponte’s collaborative work earned her a spot as a finalist for the Inspire Collaboration award.