This Q&A is with the Athens County Visitors Bureau’s Natalie Woodroofe. She is the project manager for the 30 Mile Meal Initiative in Athens, Ohio. This initiative has narrowed the focus of local foods to assists residents and visitors in finding the region’s flavor.
Evans: What is the mission of the 30 Mile Meals project?
Woodroofe: To create economic opportunity for local farmers, local food producers and local restaurants.
Evans: When did it begin?
Woodroofe: It started about a year ago. It grew out of work with ACEnet, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, which is based on Columbus Road. They have been around for about 25 years and one of the things they have is a kitchen incubator that has launched hundreds of local food businesses including places, like Village Bakery and Casa. There is this whole history of growing the foods producing community and then we wanted to find a way to sort of brand them, promote them and draw attention to the impact they bring to our economy.
From the tourism bureau perspective, culinary tourism is really a major trend right now. We feel like it helps us promote Athens as a destination.
Evans: Is that why the Visitors Bureau got involved?
Woodroofe: Yes, we have been partnering with ACEnet over the years around ways of taking different aspects of tourism and melding them together with things like the arts, foods and heritage. We have been working collaboratively for five or six years and this became a mutual project.
Evans: What are the benefits of this? I know you mentioned economic opportunity but are there any health benefits of eating locally?
Woodroofe: I think so. Do you remember the egg recall we had a couple years ago? I talked to vendors at the market and they said their egg sales tripled in that period. So I think there is that issue of food safety that when you can put the face of the farmer to the food that sort of relationship remains in everyone’s interest to keep everything in the forefront. I think there’s the issue of the average ingredient in a meal traveling 1,500 miles. There is a reduction of energy use in local purchases. I think most of the farmers we are working with are committed to organic practices even if they’re not organically certified they’re mostly farming that way. I think it’s about freshness of food, safer food, more energy efficient food and then just the whole movement to support your local economy. One of the places where Athens is really ahead of a lot of communities is that it has a greater capacity to be self-sufficient around food. Shagbark Mill is bringing back heirloom grains like amaranth and spelt so we really could in a worst case scenario have our basic food needs met in a 30-mile radius of Athens.
Evans: That’s pretty amazing. Has the initiative helped Athens financially?
Woodroofe: That’s one of our next steps: setting out the parameters of an economic impact study. That’s something I am hoping we can do in this coming year. One of our partners that would be working on that would be the Athens Food Policy Council which is a whole collaborative effort of growers and people working around health issues in the area.
Evans: Are there any foods that are specialized in Athens?
Woodroofe: Well at least to the region is pawpaw which is now our official state native fruit. That’s something that was seen as just this waste fruit that has made its niche and is now made into everything from beer to chutney.
Evans: Why is this cause special to you?
Woodroofe: Well in the ‘80s I was a small market organic gardener, so I’ve had a lot of interest in farming but a lot of my background is in rural economic development and this seemed like the perfect storm of the “locavore” movement nationally and trends in tourism with environment impact.
Evans: Which one do you think is more important, organic or local?
Woodroofe: Local. For me that’s a very interesting shift because two years ago I would have said organic but I think that ultimately there is more accountability in local. If I had the choice of something that was locally grown here but not certified organic but using organic practices or something that was organically grown in Mexico, I would definitely go local.
Evans: Why do you think it is that our generation has moved away from eating local and seasonal foods?
Woodroofe: In my opening post of the 30 Mile Meal blog it talks about how we’re all just two generations removed from the whole notion of all our food being locally sourced. So I think it’s just part of our cultural context now. We’re so used to being able to acquire anything we want from anywhere in the world.
Woodroofe: Yes. I know when my grandmother was growing up you didn’t eat oranges in except for the few months where they were available from Florida. I think it’s coming back to the full sense of the value of that.
Evans: How has the community of Athens responded to this?
Woodroofe: Very positively. In September we had our first 30 Mile Meal week series of events and the mayor issued a proclamation of a 30 Mile Meal week and I think we’re seeing among city council members working with other not-for-profit organizations, it has been very positive.
Evans: What has been done to promote this?
Woodroofe: Well we’ve created obviously the webpage on the Visitors Bureau site, blog and Facebook page. We’re talking with food writers across the county about the project and I think that’s something we’ll further this year; putting together things like farm tours and a calendar of events.
Evans: Did this spur from the 100 mile meal movement?
Woodroofe: Yes, and I think that ours is the most local in the country. I haven’t seen anyone else doing a 30-mile radius which is a testament to what’s here.
Evans: What is the most important part of this?
Woodroofe: I think ultimately it will be the economic impact because what we want to do is keep these food producers sustainable. It all falls apart if they’re not there growing and raising the food.
Evans: Have you seen a gratefulness coming from the farmers who work with the project?
Woodroofe: Yes. Have you been to the farmers market? I find that to be a very exciting event.
Evans: What is your personal favorite part about this?
Woodroofe: For me, I only moved to Athens almost a year ago so it’s really a way to get to know people and businesses in the region. There’s some sort of exchange of ideas and gives me a way to feel like I am a part of making a difference
Evans: Did you move here for this?
Woodroofe: I did. I came from New Hampshire.