Does local food have a future here in Kentucky?

I spent about a year and a half of my life in and out of hospitals during the last days of a loved ones life.  During that time I witnessed a lot of younger aging people suffering from preventable diseases:  diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, obesity.  During my time I was able to talk to patients, listen to family members and collect some very valuable insight to the changes that happened during the last half of the 1900’s that sent us down a path of processed and packaged foods.  We’ve seen fast food, large corporations and commodity crops partner up with government subsidies to serve us a diet that is in a very real way taking our lives.  Not only did these changes alter our ability to make a living for ourselves serving the basic needs of others, but it prevented many of us from a realistic accessibility to fresh, locally grown food. 

“During this period (introduction of electricity) there was a decrease in the need of home-produced or home-preserved foods and an increase of foods purchased from stores and restaurants. Thus, as the use of adaptive technology available to individual households increased, its use declined. This pattern is a manifestation of a process that is almost universally associated with modernization-that of delocalization, or the increase in dependency on energy and other resources from outside the community.” Food & Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, Willigen & Willigen

What began as a very underground movement across the nation for the most wealthy is now being recognized as hope for a healthier future that is more inclusive-especially right here in Kentucky.  Words like organic and gourmet are being replaced with words like food access, economic development and food justice.  None of us would argue whether fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy for us and few would say that purchasing them locally is a negative thing, but how can we continue to work on distribution, affordability and increase interest in healthy eating? 

The local farmers market is necessary in many ways.  It provides a steady income for farmers some of whom can then invest into the infrastructure that will allow them to move into institutional markets.  It also helps keep the diversity of a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available locally.  For example, most institutional buyers are going to start with the basics:  lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, grapes, apples.  Farmers markets and CSA (community supported agriculture) programs help keep the integrity of the diverse fruits and vegetables that can be grown year round on Kentucky farms:  kohlrabi, swiss chard, pawpaws, turnips  (we grow over 100 fruits, vegetables and herbs on our farm).  Other products such as meat, milk, bread, cheese and other staples usually find their way first at the local markets.   

This is really a discussion of what we’re designed to eat and then taking a good long hard look at what we really do eat. All of us-the rich, the poor, the educated, the busy, the sick, the wore out, the addicted, the farmers, the mothers, the caregivers, the kids.  Then we can look at solutions. Who better to engage in that conversation than our farmers who live next door?  The conversation of local food is now going mainstream as we urgently look to improve health and replace the economic impact of local agriculture that we all took for granted.  The local markets bring back that sense of community that was founded in regional tobacco houses and the downtown businesses that thrived for a few months each year.  People working hard and bringing their food together to be supported in a social environment feeds more than our stomachs.  That said, the food purchased by institutional buyers represents the reality of how most of us consume our food each day.  The two really do go together.

Community Farm Alliance recognizes that transforming our food and farm economy is hardly an easy undertaking; it will require steadfast cooperation by our citizens, nonprofit organizations, government and public institutions, as well as the private sector.” Bringing Kentucky’s Farm & Food Economy Home 2003

I’ll leave the topic of farmers markets at this point in the conversation simply because I believe that as a community we’ve already done that well.  Let’s take a moment to celebrate the other ways we’ve achieved success and consider where we may be headed.  We’ve already seen institutional buyers making a commitment to local farms.  HOME Cafe’ & Market has set the bar high in their efforts to not only source as much locally as possible, but to put in the extra effort of marketing those products on their seasonal menu.  HOTEL INC (a local food pantry) has been revamping their shelves to include an increasing amount of locally sourced fresh food and teaching their clientele how to prepare it.  The Bowling Green City Schools have done an amazing job sourcing local, implementing an all you can eat salad bar and providing 100% free lunch to a school with hungry students.  Western Kentucky University is sourcing local tomatoes from a farmer who is focusing on what he does well and increasing his product to meet the need.  Community Action as well as several mom-and-pop restaurants like Boyce General Store are showing interest and making the connections to source local.  All of these changes come from consumer demand, incentives from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and passionate people in positions of influence who can change the landscape of our local farms and plates.  While this is not a completely inclusive list-nor is it the only solution-it is a great first step in the right direction.

At first glance many might not think that this conversation relates to their personal circumstances.  But if your children eat in a public school or if you or a family member eat at a preschool, hospital, prison, food bank or restaurant then this conversation is about you-it’s about all of us.

“We should focus on what we are eating and how healthy we can be. Farm to School initiatives can be the game-changer in the fight against obesity.  When we grow our own fruits and veggies and buy local….we profit by consuming foods that contain more nutrients, develop and expand our local economies, and improve overall health.” Bill Wickliffe, Kentucky Department of Agriculture

Let’s be realistic here.  The same business models that fought for consumer buy in at the end of the last century have already started grasping for a piece of the movement.  A grocery store started putting up “buy local” signs with produce transported from pretty far away, ran hard-hitting media campaigns and flooded the market only to pull out as suddenly as it started.  Purchasing fresh food anywhere is a good option, but it doesn’t help us address the issue of food security (something for us to consider).  Companies producing fast-foods will continue to thrive particularly because of government funded subsidies and addicted consumers.  Thankfully, with the new farm bill we are seeing a slow, but steady move in the right direction with a slight decrease of subsidies to corn and an increase of grant opportunities for farmers markets, food access programs and value added processing.  This is the point where local farmers can leverage funding and partner with public health agencies and non profits to engage the community for change. In addition, we need to use creative means to encourage younger people to take up farming while helping them be successful.  We do that by creating local food systems built on good policy and being vocal if government or large entities try to take control.  Truth be told-the burden in the field by heavy working conditions and seasonal uncertainty leaves little room for beginning farmers to face the often silent challenges presented by abuse of power.

We learn from the small scale farmers of the past that this will be a difficult task and this is why many of us are spending half of our time in the field and half of our time volunteering, engaging our communities and sharing our stories.  We must be careful not to allow this movement to simply turn into a replay of history.  As we look at meeting this increased demand for local food it could be easy to allow a few farmers to meet that need and put the smaller operations in compromised situations (very similarly to what happened with the tobacco buy out).  We have already learned that this division of opportunity only results in the best food going to those with the highest financial means and the cheap food going to those who are the hungriest.  Now more than ever individual consumers and farmers are having their voices heard by large agencies such as the FDA and USDA.  Releasing more power back over to farmers and eaters will help us as a society overcome the negative consequences that have occurred due to too much legislation and control over our food.  The same can be said of farmers and eaters leaning in and listening to the research and resources that are available from government agencies and non profits who are equally working towards positive change.  Negotiation is part of the process.  Learning to work together is critical in creating a new food system that benefits everyone.

“Based on our discussions with farmers, the research community and other input we have received, we have learned a great deal, and our thinking has evolved.” Michael Taylor, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods

An observation of what’s on the horizon tells me that we are on our way to meeting the needs of those who are privileged enough and willing to meet their food needs locally through successful farmers markets, CSA programs, retail locations and locally sourced restaurants.  It appears that we’re starting to fill the gap by leveraging SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) and Double Dollar programs at farmers markets, distribution through the mobile farmers market to those without transportation, and filling the shelves of food pantries with fresh food.  All of these local efforts are being looked at and considered for duplication across the state and country and we should be proud in a very humbled way.  But what about everyone else?  What about the single moms who do not qualify for SNAP, the busy professionals who are unable to shop at the farmers market, the busy family who is overwhelmed and those who are addicted to the fast-food diet we were raised on?  This is where the work becomes more difficult and the solutions muddied, but through collaboration we are not giving up after a few first steps.

“Food-stamp debit cards should double in value whenever swiped at a farmers’ markets — all of which, by the way, need to be equipped with the Electronic Benefit Transfer card readers that supermarkets already have. We should expand the WIC program that gives farmers’-market vouchers to low-income women with children; such programs help attract farmers’ markets to urban neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is often nonexistent.” Michael Pollan

Even with my previous background in local food I found myself as a new mom becoming dependent on the same fast-food and convenient options that are so readily available (and still do from time to time today).  It was only once I experienced a few life changing moments that I stopped to think about how important food is to our health.  Discovering that we were designed to drink breastmilk as our first food, losing loved ones to preventable diseases and having a child suffer from severe food allergies opened my eyes to the health crisis before us.  Realistically, we as a society will continue in increasing numbers to face these sorts of awakenings and food will continue to be the solution.  It can feel as if things will never change, but I truly believe that it is in these moments when we are forced to stop and think that we’ll see dramatic improvements in the way we eat.  We must be ready to meet the demand for fresh food as it increases.  Farmers cannot do that on our own.  We must be partnering with those who have a similar desire for increased fruit and vegetable consumption.  Government and non-profits agencies that are already providing resources and services, teachers who are educating our children, food service personnel.  But it must be the right people-those who have the desire and willingness to let farmers be the experts at farming.  That is happening right here in Bowling Green with the BRIGHT coalition (formerly Community Health Planning Council) and the most recent partnership of [eat] Local Food For Everyone and Buy Local Bowling Green.  We have all of the information we need to grow food in Kentucky and no one would argue that fruits and vegetables are important to our health.  Getting all of the right partners around the table (the people who want to be there) and working through each obstacle one at a time will ensure that we are successful right where it matters-on the plates of everyone in our community.

“Increasing access to fresh, local foods is one of the goals of a subcommittee of the Barren River District Health Council, which has the ultimate goal of improving the health of the area.”  Crissy Rowland, Barren River District Health Department