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Town hall trumpets importance of local food economy

*This story was also published in The Athens News

Community members gathered Monday night to share stories about the local food economy in the Athens area.

The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) hosted the town hall gathering at the Athens Community Center for attendees to share stories and ideas and voice concerns about the local food economy.

“We probably have one of the most unique food economies in the country,” ACEnet Director of Programs Leslie Schaller said. “Whether we’re eaters, food or farm entrepreneurs, market partners or supporters, we all play a role.”

The open microphone format allowed for consumers and producers alike to communicate with one another, both giving thanks and calling for action.

Fluff Bakery owner Jessica Kopelwitz expressed her gratitude to all the producers she works with. The restaurant opened in 2010 in the ground floor of the office building at 8 N. Court St., Athens.

She said she and her husband returned to Athens after graduating from Ohio University, for the unmatchable food community found here.

“These people work so hard, and they provide everything that we have,” she said. “I feel a huge responsibility to this community to use our business as a voice both in Athens and outside our community for local food.”

A common request from most of the producers attending the meeting was a call for more investors.

Kurt Belser, the co-owner of the newly founded Wing Nuttery, emphasized that need.

“We need investment; we need investment capital; we need investors,” he said. “We need people to look at people like me and see value.”

John Gutekanst, owner of Avalanche Pizza on East State Street in Athens, also offered a few ideas to strengthen the food community even further.

“What would really help me would be a local meat processing place around here,” Gutekanst said. “And we’d love to have some sort of composite website.”

Gutekanst explained that being able to order the products from a website would offer the type of convenience that he seeks when ordering from a corporation.

As evidenced by comments at the town meeting, the Athens area food economy has taken on the life of its own.

Chris Chmiel, of Integration Acres Ltd., and self-professed pawpaw man, stated that there are a lot of other ways that the local economy can benefit from local food.

“If we think innovatively and broadly with food, we can see how it can reach through our community to not only benefit people with healthy food but it’s a great opportunity for other types of economic development,” said Chmiel, founder of the annual Pawpaw Festival in Albany and a Democratic candidate for Athens County Commissioner in the March 6 primary.

The 30 Mile Meal Initiative has cashed in on the unique food system of the Athens area and was even recognized as the top tourism marketing campaign of 2011 by the Ohio Travel Association.

“Our local food economy is a gem, and I know that there are people in communities across the United States that want to come and learn more about our local foods economy and how we do things like the 30 Mile Meal,” said Project Manager Natalie Woodroofe.

The meeting was not entirely celebratory; some attendees voiced their concerns about how proposals for horizontal hydraulic fracturing for oil and liquid gas in Athens County could damage their local-foods efforts.

Christine Hughes, co-owner of Village Bakery, Della Zona and Catalyst Café, highlighted the threat that so-called “fracking” poses, with potential contamination of soil and water supplies.

“Our whole food economy is in danger because of this industrial development,” she said. “Farming and fracking cannot coexist.”

Warren Taylor of Snowville Creamery summed up the positive energy radiating through the room by looking to the future.

“There’s so much more for us to accomplish, but I don’t know what it’s going to be,” Taylor said. “Let’s never lose our sense of community, let’s never divide ourselves, and let’s always support each other.”

Schaller said she hopes that this will only be the first of many local food economy town hall meetings.

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About brendae

Writer and explorer. I have an undying love for travel, culture, people, animals and good food.

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