Building Community Food Security

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My husband and I have been developing our central-Ohio homestead for the past 10 years, and it now produces most of the food we eat. Our Dutch Belted cows and Dorking chickens give us meat, milk products and eggs. The animals also contribute to the compost that creates our excellent garden soil, which grows our nutritious vegetables and fruits that, in winter, fill our root cellar and line the shelves of our basement pantry. Bees from our own hive sweeten our food and pollinate our crops.

We’re thankful that we have healthy food and that our farm can sustain itself largely without outside inputs. That said, we realize the majority of people in our community buy their food from grocery stores. The availability of such food is totally dependent on oil. It’s farmed with large tractors and petroleum-based chemicals, and it’s transported, processed, packaged and refrigerated using fossil fuels. As petroleum reserves dwindle and oil continues to become more expensive, food prices will go up, causing some people to go hungry.

If my family were hungry, I wouldn’t think twice about climbing over a neighbor’s fence to steal a chicken or two. If our neighbors were hungry, I would expect them to do the same. Given this, none of us can feel secure about our own food supply until the food supplies of our neighbors and communities are also secure. If we use what we learn while producing our own food to help our community members produce food of their own, we can take great strides toward reaching community food security.

Creating a Healthy, Sustainable Community

Those of us who grow food have valuable skills to teach. However, introducing new ideas in a community takes more than just having knowledge and a willingness to share it. Many good ideas never take hold, and that’s why I was excited to find a model that works.

Local Matters, a nonprofit food advocacy group in Columbus, Ohio, seems to have it figured out. The group’s origin traces back to 2002, when a collaboration among several local organizations created community gardens and a nutrition education program with a food security grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They started some of the gardens at Head Start schools (Head Start is a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families). It was at this time that I met some of the Local Matters members, and they offered me and my husband the opportunity to invite the Head Start children to our farm to show them the animals, garden and orchard. The visits helped give the children a sense of where their food comes from, and familiarized them with whole, healthy foods many hadn’t seen before: A fresh apple, green beans, a potato and corn on the cob were foreign to some of them.

Now, several years later, Local Matters has matured to address all aspects of the Columbus food system. It considers the community’s talents, assets, dreams and needs, and helps to implement the best local food system projects.

Success Is in the How

The what is where people usually begin: They help create gardens in vacant lots and backyards, consider city farming opportunities, establish a farmers market, encourage a “farm-to-fork” program to promote local food, teach nutrition classes in schools, etc. These projects come from the realization that healthy food needs to be available, people need to know how to prepare it, and they should be motivated to eat it. Volunteers usually begin with what they have to offer and what they think is needed. Unfortunately, if the community doesn’t think it has a need for what’s being offered, these projects won’t garner the energy necessary to keep them going.

The folks at Local Matters have captured the community’s enthusiasm and created the synergy required to energize projects for the long term. Their secret? Listening.

Schools don’t easily open their doors to incorporating classes about food. Teachers are busy and the curriculum is already crowded, so Local Matters listens to what school leaders, teachers, parents and students think is needed. One school wanted green space for recess time, so Local Matters recruited volunteers to plant green areas, add paths through them and incorporate running water, statues and small vegetable gardens. Teachers and children alike were excited to spend time in their new green space, and they began growing more food in the gardens. Soon this food was being served in the school’s lunchroom. The principal then had the idea to teach the students more about whole foods so they would be excited about eating the goodies. The school instituted courses that included bringing parents into the classroom and homework of trying healthy recipes at home.

Another school wanted food gardens that could serve as an extension of the classroom, so Local Matters brought together parents and landscape-architect students from Ohio State University to create beautiful and productive gardens. Fruit trees became part of the green area, and nutrition classes then became part of the curriculum.

Educating People to Eat Healthy

Michael Jones, Local Matters executive director, thinks that educating people about food begins with children. “By beginning with children at a young age, we can develop an audience that will be willing to eat healthier foods in the school cafeterias and make healthier food choices in general,” he says.

Local Matters uses Antonia Demas’ Food is Elementary program of “whole food education” for Head Start children (ages 3 to 5) through second-grade students. Volunteers and teachers spend one lively hour each week familiarizing children with the nutritional value of healthy foods that the students then help prepare and eat.

This education helps make kids more likely to eat wholesome foods. The younger the children, the more likely parents are to focus on them and their activities, so the recipes children in these courses bring home have a good chance of becoming regular family meals.

The other class Local Matters teaches in grade schools covers the ecology of food. It includes composting, water harvesting and growing an organic school garden. These activities help children understand the connection between healthy food, a healthy body and a healthy planet, and empower them to find and grow their own local food outside of school.

Making Healthy Food Available

Urban cities are often thought of as food deserts, but many rural communities fit this description, too. The trick is to have healthy, local food available as education helps increase the demand for it.

Local Matters uses a store, The Greener Grocer, as the hub for a farm-to-fork program, in which local farmers sell their produce at a price that supports their labors and farms. Most communities already have people who understand that buying food that was grown in a sustainable manner can come at a higher price than food that was grown in the industrial agriculture system using power from fossil fuels. Some already realize that industrial food’s cheaper price tag comes with hidden costs to the environment, the workers, and the community’s economic and personal health. They vote with their food dollars for what they see as the best bargain — locally and sustainably grown food. Food education programs, and simply more engagement with the food system, help young community members make such connections.

People who shop at The Greener Grocer know their money helps support nutrition programs in local schools. In addition, the store offers a “Weekly Fresh Market Bag,” which is modeled after a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, providing inexpensive produce when it’s in season and most abundant. For a while, this same fresh produce was sold through Local Matters’ “Veggie Van” at an affordable cost in underserved areas.

The organization received a lesson in listening when locals had a sluggish response to the option of buying produce from the mobile van. Residents saw education and economic development as greater needs. Because the community already had several small stores (selling, among other things, cigarettes and lottery tickets), Local Matters instead began working with community partners and store owners to encourage the inclusion of fresh, local produce in these stores in place of the veggie van.

Area chefs use Local Matters and its farm-to-fork program to access local food. An increasing number of farmers are now growing whole foods for the expanding local market, and residents know where to go if they want assistance starting a garden.

Engaging the Community for Success

I now consider some of the dedicated people of Local Matters to be close friends, and they have inspired me to work for changes in my own rural community. I admire them greatly, and I’m relieved to see they’re not single-handedly creating city gardens and teaching school classes. What they’re accomplishing through their nonprofit status and talented staff is impressive, but the key to their long-term success has been twofold: They listen to what the community says it needs, and they synergistically weave residents into these efforts.

Noreen Warnock has been working on local food issues for Columbus since 1998. She was a co-founder of Local Matters and is now the organization’s director of public policy and community relations.

“I believe every community has indigenous knowledge about what they need, how they need it, who in their community has good answers to their problems, and what works best for them,” Warnock says. “It is not for Local Matters or anyone else to tell others what they need. It is our job to build honest, long-term relationships, work with others, and have complete respect for them and their knowledge of their community. The operative word is with. We work with communities who invite us to work with them to build healthy food systems.”

Try this as your own community engagement process: Look “through the lens of food,” and imagine what you want your community to be. Do you see grass and pavement converted to gardens? Are school and community classes part of what you imagine? How about more neighborhood stores selling fresh produce? Or some city farming initiatives with more local farmers finding success in selling healthy produce in their own communities?

You may have in mind a community garden, farmers market or nutrition class, but recognize that your project is more than what you alone can do — you will want and need cooperation from others in your community. If you listen to what the community wants, you’ll find that nutrition and wellness can become the driving forces behind many positive changes.

Think long term and think in terms of your overall vision. Evolve as you respond to what the community says it needs. Connect with others to plan for long-term funding. Encourage the dreams of others who are working for a healthy community. You will see there isn’t one formula for all communities — individual personalities, talents and dreams will make each community’s local food system unique and, in turn, more secure.

We can help our communities become healthier now and more resilient should troubled times come in the future. I think this is the best way to also build food security for our individual families.

What You Can Do in Your Community

  • Ask teachers and school leaders how they think food education, cooking, gardening or farm-to-fork lunch programs could best be incorporated into local schools.
  • Ask parents what school programs they’d most like to see their children participate in, and ask how the parents themselves would like to be involved.
  • Check whether children in the community could visit a local farm to learn about food production firsthand.
  • Locate local organizations that work with children to see whether food-system goals could be incorporated into their existing programs.
  • Ask market and convenience store managers to consider adding locally grown produce to their selections. Try to foster connections between stores and farmers in the community, and set up a CSA program if one doesn’t already exist.
  • Encourage chefs and restaurants to use more produce, meat and dairy products from local farmers, and support the businesses that support the local food system.

Mary Lou Shaw and her husband are “retired” on a 13-acre homestead where they produce most of the food they eat. Read blog posts by Mary Lou in The Happy Homesteader blog.

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