The USDA defines a food desert as a part of the country where people do not have access to fresh fruit, vegetables nor other healthy whole foods. The Appalachian region is being faced with a challenge that a lot of Americans take for granted. To combat these food deserts that stretch through Appalachia, citizens have cultivated sustainable local food systems. These systems ensure that families can put dinner on the table. Community Food Initiative is an organization located in Athens, Ohio, that helps to foster communities where everyone has equal access to healthy, local food. Systems like these are helping to rebuild local living economies throughout Appalachia and give everyone an equal opportunity to fresh food.
This infographic above is from the Appalachian Regional Commission and it shows a cluster of food deserts located in Southeastern Ohio, including Vinton County, Meigs County and Athens County. Appalachia once had flourishing economy driven by coal mining that supported rural towns like Murray City, Buchtel, New Straitsville, Piketon, etc. The coal industry has collapsed over time because of new shifts in alternative energy, like natural gas and renewable. Some economists have classified the Appalachian region as going through a great depression. In turn, because of this socioeconomic implosion, it has led superstores infiltrating the hills of these small towns. These superstores have displaced Appalachian grocery stores and local businesses that once were profitable.
Vinton County has a population of roughly 13,200 people and did not have access to a grocery store from 2013 until 2017, when Campbell’s Market opened for business. For four years, citizens in Vinton County would drive over thirty minutes to McArthur, Athens, Chillicothe, Jackson or Wellston to grocery shop. Also, Campbell’s Market employs 34 people, all of them are local residents. Also in 2017, Community Food Initiative distributed 90,000 pounds of local produce to food pantries in Southeastern Ohio. Their goal for 2019 is to donate around 95,000 pounds and to extend their reach into Hocking and Perry County. CFI goes to local farmer’s markets and gets money donations, in addition to food donations from produce stands. Once they receive donations they go back to their office on Columbus Road and create boxes of fresh food available for pickup on Mondays and Fridays. Some residents in Appalachia take advantage of programs like this for themselves. Others contribute their time as volunteers to support the cause. Older residents don’t have the ability to leave home and drive to these food pantry distributions, so volunteers in 2016 spent over 150,000 miles driving to distribute food.
Green Edge Gardens in Amesville, Ohio
Green Edge Gardens provides fresh, 100% certified organic seasonal vegetables, microgreens and specialty mushrooms. All of their produce is grown and harvested in a sustainable manner with future generations in mind. Green Edge is the home of Athens Hills CSA, providing 100% certified organic produce year round to the Athens and Columbus regions. The city of Amesville used to be a thriving town, like a lot of small towns in Southeast Ohio, but the only business currently open is the gas station. Not only is it located in a rural area but this area also happens to be in the center of a food desert, which gives Green Edge Gardens a chance to thrive as a business and to support the surrounding community.
Green Edge Gardens is the last organic farm in Athens County and they are also one of the few farms that are able to grow fresh produce during the winter time. To achieve this feat, they use high tunnels that are able to support year-round growth of a variety of vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, and kale. High tunnels are also an integral part of local food production systems in many parts of the United States. They aid fruit and vegetable crop production by extending the cropping season, providing protection from the harsh elements, and result in a more stable production system that poses less risk of crop failure.
Becky and Kip have owned this business since they moved here in 1982. After creating their own CSA summer program for people in the Amesville area, they quickly realized that it was the better option. The CSA is a great way to support the local economy and the sustainability of the region, and to receive fresh, delicious vegetables year-round. Click the button to enroll in the Winter 2019 CSA Program.
Double Play Ranch in Albany, Ohio
"This is not a really good living, but it is a really good life."- jeff niese, double play ranch
Double Play Ranch is a cattle-ranch operated by Jeff and Annette Niese. They have lived in Albany, Ohio for six years now. Before they moved to Southeast Ohio, they lived in Putnam County where they cultivated tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables on a commercial level. Double Play Ranch sells grass fed and all natural beef to local businesses and consumers. "Everybody in this area supports local grown products... apples to fruits to beef to vegetables, it's a little bit different than many places I've been around," says Jeff. Jeff's son, Jon Niese and former pitcher for the New York Mets, bought the cattle-ranch in 2016. The property was bought from Richard Jeffers, who utilized the land for his own livestock farm at the time. Jeffers included equipment and 300 head of cattle in the sale to Jon.
Community Food Initiatives in Athens, Ohio
Community Food Initiatives works to ensure everyone in Appalachia Ohio has access to healthy, local food. Every Monday and Friday, at their office on Columbus Rd. in Athens, Ohio, people pick up food and deliver it to those without means of transportation. Some homes depend solely on drivers and food drop off centers for their food. Local food drivers and volunteers like Mike Kubisek, Carol Costanzo and Deea Das load their cars up every week with fresh produce, meat and dairy products. All of this fresh, local food is donated to Community Food Initiatives by local food producers in Southeastern Ohio like Snowville Creamery, Green Edge Gardens, Crumbs Bakery and many more.
"Our belief is that by naming our assets—soil, seeds, and an Appalachian heritage of food production and preservation—everyone in Southeast Ohio can see their place in strengthening our community," -Community food initiatives
Mike Kubisek drops off fresh, local food at the Coolville Library every Monday morning at around 10 a.m. and informs the community via Facebook. Kubisek returns around 5 o'clock to pick up all of the food that has not been picked up. Certain foods are left behind because people are unaware of how to prepare it (i.e. squash varieties, sweet potatoes, yogurt, etc.).
Chris Loveland in Nelsonville, Ohio
Chris Loveland works for Athens County Children Services and works directly with families in Nelsonville. "I've been serving these families for a long time now," says Loveland. "I've got access to these folks, it's not anything that anyone told me to do... it's just kind of intuitive." Loveland makes weekly visits to check in with a number of homes in Nelsonville. Most of the residents in the area are acquainted with Chris and are aware of his presence in the community. Loveland has known some of these people for years now, including "Stretch." "Stretch" is partners with Brittany Davidson, mother of three kids, one boy and two girls. "I won't let anything happen to them kids," says "Stretch". During his weekly stops, Loveland will bring them fresh food he got from Community Food Initiatives. "He's like another family member, says Brittany. "We know he's always gonna be there."
Dollar General has been around for over 75 years and sells everything from food to cleaning supplies. Dollar General's website says, "Dollar General operated 15,227 stores in 44 states as of November 2, 2018." In Albany, Ohio there is a Dollar General tucked behind Fruth's pharmacy, a gas station and a thrift store. In September of 2018, Dollar General started construction not even 6 miles down the road from their store in Albany. "I hear it's supposed to have a produce section," says a Dollar General employee in Albany. Dollar General infiltrates rural communities where grocery stores are few and far between. They sell food that is affordable, but that does not contain the same nutritional value as healthy whole foods that can be found locally. Some customers who shop at Dollar General and other dollar stores use SNAP or EBT to purchase goods.
In February of 2018, President Donald Trump said that the administration had a new plan to cut cash payments through SNAP and to substitute that with packages of food. These packages of food would consist of shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, cereal and meat, amounting to $90 in foods. This plan would save a projected $214 billion over a decade, according to the administration. Around 1.6 million Ohioans - roughly 14 percent of the state's population - receive SNAP benefits, and most are families with children, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Also, Ohio House Bills 119 and 608 would make it harder for families to receive SNAP benefits. House Bill 119 addressed the potential for fraudulence in applications, although, this only occurs with 3-4 percent of recipients. "With respect to HB 119, the bill was designed to reduce fraud and make sure tax dollars go to those who need assistance," says Jay Edwards, Representative of Nelsonville. House Bill 608 would remove the option for Ohio to waive the three month time period for Able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) to meet work requirements before having to work 80 hours a month to be eligible. According to a 2016 Community Health Assessment from the Ohio Department of Health, 20 percent of people in Athens are food insecure, but only 14 percent of Athens County residents receive SNAP benefits.
All of the photos on the left side are food from the Athens Farmers Market and the photos on the right are of food from Dollar General. There are at least 20 Dollar Generals spread throughout Southeast Ohio that are open everyday, while the Athens Farmers Market is open two days a week. Although its open five days less, SNAP doubles when spent on fruit and vegetables at the farmers market. Consumers who shop with SNAP can get more out of their dollar by attending the AFM at least once a month. Spending money at the farmers market not only helps boost the local economy, but food has more nutrients in it. Eating seasonally can benefit the environment and promotes a safer food supply. Most food from Dollar General is transported long distances that increases the total cost into the product being bought. Food that is grown further away has a potential for food safety issues when being washed, distributed and shipped to the local store. Also, fruits and vegetables lose their optimal nutritional value right when they are picked. Once picked, vitamins C, E, A, and some B vitamins begin to deteriorate and thus decrease. By purchasing from the AFM, consumers take home produce at peak-nutritional value and freshness.
Dollar General does not have a fresh produce section. It was reported in March of 2018 that Dollar General is expanding produce sections to 450 of its stores. “Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America," says Garrick Brown, director for retail research at the commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield in an interview with Bloomberg Weekly. "It’s based on the concept that the jobs went away, and the jobs are never coming back, and that things aren’t going to get better in any of these places."
A food panel discussion was held at Alden Library on Ohio University's campus, that consisted of some very influential people in the Athens area. Joe Barbaree, Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture & Forestry Program Manager, Dane Salabak, the School of Applied Health Sciences and Wellness Professor, Mary Nally, director of the Center for Campus and Community Engagement, Paul Tomcho, owner of Creekside Farm and Joy Kostansek, Food Studies Graduate Assistant were the panelists. The main goal of the discussion was to find out how food can create positive change in Southeast Ohio. Panels that discuss local issues facilitate conversations between food professionals and community members that educate and motivate people to act in support of initiatives.
The poster above is from the National Agricultural Library's online collection for American food posters related to World Wars I and II. The online exhibit was put together by Cory Bernat, a designer, creative director, content strategist, professor, curator and food historian. Bernat sat down for an interview in 2010 with The Smithsonian and addressed why these posters were made in this first place. The posters created throughout wartime were directed toward the consumer, never the producer. The U.S. government's goal was to modify the population's consumer behavior for the national good. A similar approach could be seen several years ago when Michelle Obama was trying to influence people to change their eating habits to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity. Bernat states, "as the Food Administration's publications director put it to state officials back in 1917: 'All you gentlemen have to do is induce the American people to change their ways of living!'"
Cooking Classes in Nelsonville, Ohio
DANIEL LINHART & NICKOLAS OATLEY