Chatham Views

Alumna Profile: Dianne Shenk, Master of Arts in Food Studies ‘12

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The decline of the steel industry hit Hazelwood—a Pittsburgh neighborhood of one-and-a-half square miles—hard. Today, it’s classified as a “food desert,” which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as an “urban neighborhood or rural town without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”

Dianne Shenk, Master of Arts in Food Studies (MAFS) ‘12, is working to change that. She sells fresh, locally grown produce out of a farm stand that started life as an old hay wagon, and is now parked at one of the busiest intersections in Hazelwood. This is Dylamato’s Market (named for the first syllables of her children’s names), and from May through October, Shenk sells ripe, shining fruits and vegetables that would make a chef sigh.

But—and here’s what makes Shenk an activist as well as an entrepreneur—she doesn’t just want to sell to members of the community. She wants to go into business with them.

“I’m looking to create an opportunity for someone to become a business entrepreneur who has no access to credit, no savings, no investments. Someone who needs to make a profit immediately and really low overhead. Micro-micro-micro-businesses.”

There are types of produce—including herbs, lettuce and other greens—that Shenk can’t get as fresh as she wants from local wholesalers, and she wants involve the community in filling that gap. “I pay the growers two-thirds of what I can get,” she says. “If I think I can sell a bag of lettuce for $1.50, I’ll pay them $1.00. If someone brings me a little single serving bag of lettuce, if they bring me five bags every day, all week—and I’m here six days a week—that’s $30 a week. That’s just income for them.“

The mission of Dylamato’s Market is to partner with other locally-owned micro-businesses to create viable livelihoods and access to fresh, healthy foods in the Hazelwood community.  The Marketplace created by this partnership will be a positive social space in Hazelwood, and generate financial capital for community residents by capturing the local food economy.

Dylamato’s Market is part of a greater initiative too, what Shenk calls the Summer Marketplace: vendors on the same site offering a variety of foods. This past summer, Dylamato’s was joined by four of these “micro-businesses” selling baked goods, sausage sandwiches and grilled lunch foods, snow cones, and chicken and waffles.

Shenk sees the Summer Marketplace as a space to bring the community together around more than just food. For example, the site also has a stage for performances. “This summer we had a group of older people who had gone through Gladstone High School and played music together,” she says. “This is about thirty years later, but they still live in the area, and still get together and perform. So we had them here on a Friday evening, and we had like forty people here. This is a racially mixed community and it was a racially mixed crowd, and people brought their pets and kids.”

During her time in Chatham’s Master of Arts in Food Studies program, Shenk focused on underserved urban communities. She wrote her thesis on “Food in Hazelwood: Making the Case for Fresh Produce in a Low-Income, Urban Community” and interned with Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, Paragon Foods, and Matthew’s Family Farm.

Chatham’s interdisciplinary Masters of Arts in Food Studies emphasizes a holistic approach to food systems, from urban to rural, and from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption.