Eating locally grown and produced foods has begun to catch on as a movement in the recent years. “Think Globally, Act Locally” bumper stickers have begun to adorn cars and organic proponents are being swayed by the additional benefits but not everyone is willing to pay for those benefits.
As a largely liberal college town, Athens has not avoided the push to go local. In many ways, the city is coming out on top of the local food scene. With thriving companies serving local goods, plenty of farm land and numerous organizations dedicated to bringing it all together, Athens has all the makings of a successful local food community.
Despite the preparedness of the city to go local, not all consumers are willing to do so. Local foods can mean higher prices for certain items and sacrificing certain fresh items out of season.
These speed bumps along the way pale in comparison to the accomplishments that Athens, Ohio has been making over the past 38 years. The blended ideas of students, faculty members and residents have spawned many one-of-a-kind initiatives.
The 30-Mile Meal project, headed by Natalie Woodroofe is the only known local foods challenge with that narrow of a radius. As a spin-off of the 100-Mile Meal Diet, this project is a “super-local” initiative to bring attention to all the city has to offer.
This project packages the growers, sellers and producers in a way that draws visitors and residents alike to experience the novelty of the region’s local flavor. The initiative is housed by the Athens County Visitors Bureau which has created events such as the 30-Mile Meal Week and the Wellworks’ Gathering to both educate and entertain. These events are attended by community members but they also function as attractions for visitors.
The novelty of hosting events helps the local economy in many ways. “From the tourism bureau perspective, culinary tourism is really a major trend right now,” Woodroofe said. “We feel like it helps us promote Athens as a destination.”
According to Woodroofe the 30-Mile Meal project creates economic opportunity for local farmers, local food producers and local restaurants. But with the influx of people in the area, it helps the whole of the local economy.
Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture’s coordinator, Tom Redfern also pointed out the additional business that comes into the south-eastern Ohio area during the Chesterhill Produce Auction. “When people are traveling to the auction,” Redfern said. “They also utilize the businesses in the area.”
This type of purchasing makes the local economy even stronger.
The other obvious beneficiaries of the push to eat locally are the food producers themselves and the Athens area has plenty of them. The Athens Farmers Market alone attracts over 85 registered vendors and not all area farms even participate.
Natalie Woodroofe and the Athens County Visitors Bureau’s mission with the 30-Mile Meal project is to help those producers thrive in the Athens area. The next step in their project is to set up an economic impact study to evaluate the process that has been made.
With more and more organizations and businesses popping up that are supporting local foods, those numbers are expected to be relatively impressive. Redfern has said that he has seen the positive economic impact on the local economy for himself.
Created in 1991, Rural Action grew from a grassroots movement. It now encompasses many aspects of revitalizing Appalachian Ohio.
To Rural Action, the quality of local foods can be worth the occasional price difference. “We work on the production side trying to help people grow more food,” Redfern said. “We don’t want to make it more affordable per say as we do more accessible.”
Redfern, the coordinator of the sustainable agriculture side, sees Athens as a trendsetter. He likened it to “an island of progressiveness.” The intellectual influence of the university has allowed the town to start thinking about local foods before many areas did.
Another grassroots organization, Community Foods Initiatives, focuses less on production and more on assisting low income families in Appalachian Ohio to access and understand fresh and nutritious food.
Executive director of Community Food Initiatives, Ronda Clark, agrees with Redfern that Ohio University has had a great impact on the thriving local food scene in Athens. “I think it’s because it’s a college town,” Clark said. “We have so much innovation streaming through here. It’s a liberal city on the cutting edge of liberal ideas. It seems to work here.”
Not only do the ideas generated from Ohio University help the movement, some of the food generated there does as well. According to Matt Rapposelli, the university executive chef, the OU has been using local suppliers for quite some time. About five years ago though, there has been a more concentrated effort to do so.
“It’s a very small percentage of local food that we use,” Chef Rapposelli said. “But when you look at the volume of food that we go through it would be difficult to make a tremendous dent in that number.”
According to Rapposelli the networking amongst producers is their biggest ally. “Now that we’ve been at it for this long growers are starting to work together and say, ‘Hey, OU can use all of this particular item and we can grow it.’ So that’s what they’re starting to do,” Rapposelli said. “And that that does make a dent.”
The Chesterhill Produce Auction, put on by Rural Action, has been a main supplier for Ohio University. “The produce auction enabled us to reach a lot of growers in one fell swoop and in a location where they could see what we were interested in.”
Rapposelli also said that Ohio University is currently constructing an add-on to the culinary facility to house a cook-chill operation. This will enable the dining services to better preserve any excess ingredients they may come across.
The people of Athens are such an integral part of the movement. “The customer has been very well trained, in a good way,” Clark said. “To understand the value of this food that is being offered to them and they’re willing to pay the price for it.”
According to Clark, Athens residents understand the value of their farmers and are willing to pay the price. “They see value of that coming back to them in the value of community and they feel it is worth it to pay $3.50 for
a dozen eggs.”
Athens Farmers Market customer, Jessica Markowitz, says that she looks for
quality rather than savings when shopping for food. “I like to support local our businesses and the Farmers Market allows me to do that, plus it’s fun,” Markowitz said. “I love to buy Crumbs Birdseed bread and The Farmacy also has a really good prepared foods section that I like to take advantage of.”
But not all shoppers value quality the most. Walmart customer Dan Olander says he shops there because it has low prices and convenience. “It has all my simple grocery needs in one place,” Olander said. “But I do go to Seaman’s if I desire nicer and fresher meats and produce.”
Olander said that he may occasionally buy locally produced items on accident but he doesn’t actively seek them out.
A price increase will deter most buyers. Even Ohio University cannot afford to pay a large price difference if a commercial company offers a better price. “We have the golden handcuffs of a budget,” Rapposelli said. “But often times what happens is we will get stuff for way less than we would commercially when there is a really abundant item at the auction.”
Abundance is key. When items are in season there is going to be a surplus and therefore it will be cheaper. Another Walmart customer, Erin Seed, said “The only time I can really afford the fruits I like are when they are in season. I won’t buy strawberries when they’re $4 a pack, but love them when they are $1.”
If price is the issue than there are seasonal sacrifices that a customer will have to make, but for some that sacrifice is worth feeling the sense of community. “What you’re doing is taking your money and reinvesting it in your local economy,” Redfern said. And judging by the abundance of support, community means a lot to Athens residents.
Local items are everywhere in Athens. It’s just a matter of educating the public, and there are plenty of organizations that are ready to do just that.
If a customer is not ready for the Farmers Market or a restaurant like Village Bakery, Redfern suggest looking for items with the Ohio Proud label at Kroger. He added that people have to be willing to eat seasonally to eat locally at a reasonable price.
“I don’t think we need to be purist about it. We can do a lot with just a few seasonal items,” Redfern said. It can be hard on a student, but people with large freezers and people who have the time to preserve or can foods can do much more.”
Listen to part of the interview with Ronda Clark from Community Food Intiatives: