A Moveable Feast

SOTW_4-25-12LocalFoodsBANNER

It is no secret that local producers are increasingly becoming a driving force for the local economy. Today, farmers’ markets and “buy local” campaigns comprise what a recent Main Street Now article described as the “New Localism.” That is, in the midst of a precarious economic climate, Americans are returning to the idea of community investment in local business.

Community residents are particularly focusing on agriculture-related business opportunities that take the form of farmers’ markets, urban gardens, local food co-operatives, and more. These opportunities represent a growing trend in which people have started to pay close attention to where their food is grown. Increasingly, Americans yearn for a connection with their producers and an intimate understanding of how their food is produced. In fact, in his Main Street Now article “Beyond Farmers’ Markets: Building Local Food Systems,” Dan Carmody of Detroit’s celebrated Eastern Market Corporation comments that food systems are shifting to favor local vitality and sustainable agricultural practices.

With such a growing demand, community leaders, nonprofit organizations, institutions, and businesses are all trying to dissect the issue of healthy eating and active living in America. While there are many pieces to the puzzle, access and awareness are often major issues involved in the movement to encourage Americans to seek local food options. When it comes to raising awareness, there may be no better channel in America than the White House.

Healthy Eating, Active Living

First Lady Michelle Obama has championed the promotion of healthy food options for American youth in her program, “Let’s Move.” Let’s Move is a comprehensive program targeting childhood nutrition, physical activity, and the overall reduction of obesity among youth. In Delaware, the Coalition for Healthy Eating, Active Living (DE HEAL) is ensuring that Delawareans implement strategies to increase physical activity, encourage nutritious eating, and prevent obesity. The Coalition is made up of a network of more than 200 professionals and 65 member organizations, including hospitals, local government health and planning agencies, hospitals/medical centers, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. DE HEAL is assisting local communities to develop comprehensive plans that will assess their walkability, bikeability, and overall “healthiness.” 

Organizations from coast to coast are responding to growing demands to fill gaps in access and health awareness. In West Oakland, California, a model community organization called People’s Grocery runs diverse programs on food security, education, and social justice. One of the organization’s relatively newer programs is called the “Grub Box,” in which consumers make small, regular payments to receive a box of fresh, local produce each week. People’s Grocery has made a strong effort to reach out to low-income communities in the West Oakland area, offering discounted payment plans and delivering food directly to underserved downtown areas. Each Grub Box is priced at $15, includes about 12 items of fruits and vegetables, and comfortably feeds a family of four for a week. Furthermore, People’s Grocery is providing discounted boxes to patients in nearby Highland Hospital and accompanying it with educational programming on how to lead more active, healthy lives.

On the East Coast, a self-professed “food hub” in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, runs a successful farm-to-business program which links local farmers with downtown restaurants to ensure that Pawtucket locals eat food that is as fresh and local as possible. Farm Fresh is an energetic organization that boasts a strong, trusted reputation in the Pawtucket community.

On the Delmarva Peninsula, community reinvestment and local agriculture are quickly becoming a high priority. In March 2010, Delaware Governor Jack Markell unveiled the new Farm-to-School Agreement that spans all of Delaware’s public schools. The program is comprehensive, connecting students to local agriculture through nutrition education; the introduction of local, healthy food options in school cafeterias; and active living programs. The agreement even makes provisions for the development of school gardens so students can have a direct connection with the “seed-to-plate” process.

Local Foods and Delaware Downtowns

Interest in bringing local, affordable food options to Delawareans is not exclusive to the gubernatorial level, however. In the vibrant college town of Newark, Delaware, droves of students and local community members can be seen meandering the aisles of a homegrown food co-operative (co-op) boasting a current membership of more than 3,000 households. Located on the town’s main thoroughfare, Newark Natural Foods is open to members and non-members alike, which contributes to its ever-increasing popularity. Membership at the co-op means discounts on all purchases, participation in all decision making, and access to certain social and educational functions. Despite the sophistication of its business operations now, the lineage of Newark Natural Foods is rather modest. The co-op got its start in the late 1960s as an informal buying club among a small group of families who simply wanted a way to access local, unrefined, organically grown food.

SOTW_4-25-12NewarkNaturalFoodsLogoToday, as the co-op grows, the town of Newark is learning to harness its community’s demand for local, healthy foods as a business development and downtown revitalization tool. In season, Newark Natural Foods has a very popular farmers’ market in the parking lot of its retail space. College students, downtown business proprietors, and residents who live close by are known to frequent the market. For those seeking fresh foods in the winter months, Newark Natural Foods has recently opened a winter market indoors that runs from December through March. Additionally, the co-op hosts speakers, cooking demonstrations, and other activities that are open to the entire community. Not only does the co-op meet community demands by selling local and affordable foods, it has a distinct presence among the downtown community with its creative, educational outreach efforts.

Another notable force in Delaware’s “locavore” movement is the Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH). DCH is a nonprofit community resource organization that promotes knowledge of floriculture, horticulture, and conservation. In its own words, DCH’s goal is to strengthen the social fabric of Delaware's communities by developing healthy, sustainable living environments. DCH has partnered with Greater Brandywine Village Revitalization, Inc., a participating Delaware Main Street community and a National Historic District, to build a community garden in Wilmington’s underserved Brandywine Village area. Community volunteers supported the project’s development; and last year, a small-scale farmers’ market was established to sell the produce. While it has struggled to gain footing in the local community during its first year, the market is designed to offer Brandywine residents easy access to fresh, organically grown produce. Perhaps more importantly, however, the garden’s open call for volunteers and its central location contributes to its important role as a unifying force in this underserved downtown community.

With 40 percent of Delaware’s land area being used as farmland, local agriculture is uniquely poised to contribute to local economic growth. In August 2011, family-owned and operated Fifer Orchards in Kent County, Delaware, was awarded a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant to introduce its produce into downtown restaurants in the state’s famous beach areas. Nage Restaurant in downtown Rehoboth Beach proudly buys from Fifer and other local vendors. In his own words, Chef-owner Kevin Reading is “a pioneer in bringing the locavore movement to Delaware,” by insisting upon using freshest seasonal, organic foods he can find.

Many restaurants like Nage are benefiting from the USDA grant, which ultimately enhances downtown appeal and connects communities. On Fifer’s 2,400-acre plot in Camden-Wyoming, Delaware, stands an inviting, open-air country store which is open to the public on weekdays through late December. Only local foods are offered, including fresh milk from Hopkins Dairy and Creamery in Lewes, Delaware and Fifer’s own marinara sauce made with ingredients found on the premises. 

Community engagement in downtown areas, specifically as it relates to the local foods movement, is especially important in times of economic uncertainty. These kinds of innovative local foods venues hold an exceptional business opportunity for community development, as they encourage local consumption through competitively priced locally grown foods. They also present an opportunity for long-term sustainability of local economies by way of property reinvestment, while addressing both a trend and a need for healthy, affordable food. Carmody says that there is “no blueprint” for this kind of work and that we are all working toward the same goals, but doing it in ways that make sense to our individual communities.

Whether it is the establishment of a small-scale buying club at a nearby church, holding a seasonal farmers’ market on a town’s Main Street, or cultivating an urban garden in an underserved downtown area, the intersections of local agriculture and downtown revitalization efforts are ever increasing. These points of intersection not only represent opportunities for community members to reinvest in their downtowns, but they also encourage community stakeholders to unite in the fight to promote healthy eating while stimulating the local economy. 

For More Information

People's Grocery: "The TFT Interview: Nikki Henderson of West Oakland's People's Grocery," The Faster Times.
People's Grocery: Grub Boxes
"From farm to table via public transit," Metro Magazine
Delaware Farms to Schools Agreement l
Delaware First Lady Plants Seeds of Volunteerism: Vegetable Garden Will Provide Food for Homeless Shelters
"The New Face of Farming," Delaware Today.