Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio

by Community Food Initiatives
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio
Feed Families in Appalachian Ohio

To get to the Vest Berries farm you drive on roads that wind back and forth and up and down hills, between fields, and beneath arching trees that turn road into tunnel.  Other than a post displaying the address, there’s no obvious sign marking your destination, but through the fence and down a short lane you can clearly see you’ve arrived at a place that knows produce: High tunnels and carefully tended fields create a patchwork of greens and browns on gently rolling land bordered with trees.  

 

Anyone who’s worked in a garden or on a farm knows that the labor is tiring and the hours long, that fields don’t magically produce food.  So while the beauty here is serene, it also represents countless hours of sweat, exertion, and persistence. Today we learn that maybe there’s magic here after all -- in the fact that effort put toward growing and harvesting food is rendered enjoyable and rewarding through cooperative effort.  I’m not a full-time farmer, so maybe those who’ve spent more time in the field would disagree, but from my experience, to toil alone can be back and spirit breaking. To toil together can be energizing and healing. Today we’re harvesting potatoes, together.

 

When I arrive farm owners Rick and Terry meet me.  Three of CFI’s incredible AmeriCorps volunteers, Alex, Bailey, and Sierra, have been harvesting for more than an hour, and they’ve already managed to fill several 30-60 pound sacks of potatoes.  We head down the hill to join them, Rick taking the tractor and a potato-harvesting implement to unearth another row. The potatoes were planted in long hummocks, and as Rick pulls the implement along one of the hummocks a sort of conveyor-belt of posts passes under the soil to lift the tubers up from darkness.  It’s not an exaggeration to say the whole process effectively transforms this humble, staple vegetable into something incredible and beautiful. (We do occasionally cross paths with a rotten potato. These are smelly and less beautiful.)

 

Sierra, Bailey, and Alex have established an efficient system for harvesting and I’m able to join without interrupting the flow.  Sierra and Alex move along the row gleaning the potatoes that the potato harvester exposed completely, while Bailey and I follow, kneeling against the hummock and raking through the soil with our hands to find any taters that remain buried.  The rhythm -- repeatedly reaching into the dirt, seeking with both eyes and fingers for the little bulbous treasures, depositing treasure into potato sack, moving down the row -- is meditative. The four of us ride waves of conversation then quiet, learning more about each other as we work, listening to the sounds the world makes when we’re not covering its hum with our chatter.  

 

Berry Patch Cat either keeps us company or silently judges us from an adjacent plot -- depending on your perception of feline friends.  We are dirty, and with noon approaching the sun has gotten warm enough to make us sweat, but there’s next to no complaining. Most comments revolve around how therapeutic it is to feel the dirt against our skin and be working out under the sky.  I don’t mean to overly romanticize this sort of labor; on the contrary, doing something like this for just one morning makes you all the more aware of how difficult it can be, and how unjust a system is that doesn’t compensate field workers fairly.   

 

Alex, Bailey, and Sierra need to go so that one of them can make it to a COMCorps commitment, and I stay to finish a row.  A new rhythm of picking up surface potatoes and then digging in the dirt emerges; what seemed like silence after my colleagues first left quickly fills with bird and insect songs.  After a little while Rick comes and helps in order to speed up the process, and we load the final crates into the back of his tater-gator. (So, it may not have actually been a Gator, but tater-gator was irresistible.)  The next day, Alex and another volunteer return to harvest one final row, for a grand total of over 600 pounds of potatoes donated to CFI from Vest Berries -- that we then easily distribute to pantries and other food assistance organizations.

 

Over and over again in the midst of this busy harvest season I find myself thinking that the name Community Food Initiatives is appropriate in so many different ways.  Today, the togetherness that naming something “community” implies is obviously apparent. The communal effort of growing and harvest food supports a community of people that, in turn, will be able to better return the invested time and energy.  It’s a beautiful model of resilience, all packed into the humble skin of a potato.

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The Donation Station at Community Food Initiatives in Athens, OH, is in the midst of yet another busy season!  We’re at our local farmers market every Wednesday and Saturday, and at a local produce auction every Monday and Thursday, which means that we’re spending the majority of our time out gathering produce to distribute to people in need.  During this time of peak produce we host an extra day of distribution, and are even sometimes able to call on pantries for a special one-time pickup if auctions and markets are especially fruitful. Just last week we received nearly 2,000 pounds of produce at the produce auction alone, enabling us to distribute more than a ton of fresh, local, food to pantries and other organizations working to fight food insecurity in southeastern Ohio.  

 

It’s inspiring to be partnered with so many individuals, volunteer groups, businesses, and non-profits in this region of Appalachia that share a common goal of providing equitable access to healthy food.  Nelson Mandela wrote that “overcoming poverty is not an act of charity, it is an act of justice,” and at CFI we firmly believe that everyone deserves to be able to eat -- not just food, but food that will support their health and well-being.  Well-being on an individual level increases community-wide well-being, so work being done to address food insecurity is critical for resilient and sustainable communities. Thanks to our partners and to the amazing, continued support of generous donors, we’ve been able to distribute 38,085 pounds of food so far this year, and have invested thousands of dollars back into the local economy, directly supporting farmers who are producing food that is good for people, good for the planet, and therefore good for the economy.  A truckload of potatoes, apples, winter and summer squash, melons, tomatoes, onions, greens, beets, and other gorgeous fruits and veggies -- all for distribution -- is truly a beautiful thing!

 

In addition to handling tons of produce (literally!) each week through the Donation Station, CFI is in an exciting period of growth with new staff and volunteer members.  Executive Director Scott Winemiller, Gardens Program Manager Molly Gassaway, and Donation Station Program Manager Susie Huser all joined the CFI team this summer; Caitlin Garrity moved into the new position of Special Projects and Outreach Coordinator; and an outstanding group of new COMCorps and VISTA members started this summer as well.  Additionally, CFI continues to work on the SEO Foodlink project, an initiative creating a valuable resource hub for a people-centered, resilient food network. Only in its second year and still evolving, the project has already received considerable interest and positive feedback from community members.

 

As many from this area are aware, Ohio is ranked 47th in the nation for food security.  Within Ohio, food insecurity is worst in this southeastern region we love and call home, which means demand for the food and services we provide at CFI is great -- so great, in fact, that it often exceeds our supply.  It can be overwhelming to think about all of the people facing food insecurity, but one of the most encouraging things about experiencing what we do at markets and auctions first-hand is seeing the cumulative impact of many hands.  At market people drop donations in the jar and bring produce from their garden, and each person -- whether a young kid, parent, college student, or someone who’s been supporting the Athens Farmers Market for multiple decades -- knows they’re making a difference.  Coming together as a community, supporting the community, supported by the community -- This is a model for resilience, and we’re thrilled to be part of it.

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The Donation Station team at the AFM
The Donation Station team at the AFM

Summer is almost here, and that means the Donation Station at CFI has gotten a lot busier since we last checked in with them. So far this year, we have distributed 15,000 pounds of local produce and food products to pantries and social service agencies throughout Southeast Ohio! At this time last year, we had only distributed 11,370 pounds, so we are well on our way to increasing our reach, in large part thanks to donors like you.

Locally, you can find our Donation Station at the Athens Farmers Market every Wednesday and Friday and at the Chesterhill Produce Auction every Monday and Thursday where you are almost certain to find a few of our volunteers and Donation Station Manger, Caitlin Garrity. Caitlin is from Columbus, Ohio, and has been managing CFI’s Donation Station for about a year: “I have always been interested in working with communities and understanding the how the history of a region can impact it,” said Caitlin. She chose to work at CFI because parts of her family are from Appalachia and, as many of us in the region can attest to, she has always felt a connection to the rolling hills of Appalachia. Caitlin was struck by the “positive, progressive and innovative community development work happing here in Athens County,” and chose to bring her talents to CFI has become an integral part of that network.

Both the rates of poverty and of food insecurity throughout Appalachian Ohio are higher than the national and state averages, and many in our community are negatively impacted by the lack of access to healthy foods. For Caitlin, “food insecurity is the root of negative health outcomes for lots of folks in the region-- leading to bad economic conditions for their families. I think it's at the base of what keep people in poverty.” Our Donation Station directly addresses individuals’ most basic food security needs and directly fights hunger, while also helping to reduce poverty by supporting local farmers and food vendors.

While we receive much of our support and donations from local farmers, as Caitlin sees it, there is room for everyone in our community and beyond to get involved: “I think we provide a space for everyone to participate in giving back to someone who has less. Every week at the farmers market I see the same people put one dollar in our fishbowl- money that we later use to purchase food at the market. Hundreds of people every week add one dollar to our jar. That [adds up to] a large contribution.”

While one dollar or one apple donated to fight hunger in our community might not seem significant, donating through the Donation Station assures that any donation, no matter how small, is a part of a larger system that assures healthy, local food ends up in our food banks and food pantries. From there this food ultimately finds its way to the tables of individuals and families in our region who need it the most.

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Rick Vest and AmeriCorps member Janice Brewer
Rick Vest and AmeriCorps member Janice Brewer

When youre hungry, you cant think, you cant work, you cant do anything, said CFI Board Member and Athens County farmer Rick Vest. Rick is one of many local farmers and food vendors who have joined us in our efforts to reduce hunger in our local community in Southeast Ohio. Youll frequently find him donating unsold produce at weekly markets or taking advantage of our Harvest Hotline to donate excess crops during harvest season. Its farmers and food producers like Rick who help make our Donation Station program so successful.

Our Donation Station receives both food and monetary donations each week at local farmers markets and produce auctions from customers and vendors. We use the monetary donations to purchase fresh foods from market and auction vendors. The food that is donated or purchased is distributed to social services agencies in five Southeast Ohio counties.

We started this program in 2007, and our unique model has received widespread support from farmers, food vendors, and pantry coordinators alike. Monna Taylor, the Food Pantry Coordinator at Bishopville Food Pantry in Morgan County often comes to our distributions. She says, Getting fresh produce every week is greatits fresher, tastes better, and sometimes I joke with patrons that I picked it all myself!

The Donation Station is successful because it addresses poverty and food insecurity in our region while simultaneously supporting the growth of the local food economy, working towards a more equitable local food system for everyone. We believe in this model, and we can measure its success.

In 2017, we distributed 90,410.5 pounds of local produce and food products distributed to 41 food pantries and social service agencies in five Southeastern Ohio counties. We also invested $13,632 back into our local food economy by supporting famers and food producers.

We have three goals for 2018 to strengthen our program and extend our reach to meet the needs of our region. First, our distribution goal for 2018 is 95,000 pounds, 5,000 pounds more than we distributed in 2017. Second, in 2018 we will also work to deepen our reach in nearby counties outside of Athens. We currently serve Athens, Meigs, Morgan, Vinton, and Washington counties, with most of our distribution remaining in Athens county. We will work especially closely with pantry coordinators in counties beyond Athens to ensure that their needs are being met. Finally, we will share this model throughout our region. Our goal is to replicate the Donation Station, so that each community can benefit from a similar program buying products directly from local farmers and food producers and distributing those products to people in need.

Nearby Ross County, Ohio launched the first pilot replication of the Donation Station in 2017. In their first year they distributed 11,016 pounds to Ross County food pantries and invested over $5,000 in farmers market vendors. In 2018, our goal is to replicate this program in at least one other community in our region. Your support will help us make this goal a reality, and we look forward to sharing our progress with you! 

The Ross County Donation Station is up & running!
The Ross County Donation Station is up & running!
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Organization Information

Community Food Initiatives

Project Leader:
Maribeth Saleem-Tanner
Athens, OH United States
$40,216 raised of $50,000 goal
 
692 donations
$9,784 to go
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