How to Build a Local Food Community
When it comes to food satisfaction, few things compare to eating lettuce from the yard, eggs from your neighbor’s chickens and butter from cows raised on a farm you’ve visited yourself. Besides locating better-tasting, more nutritious and fresher food, buying locally puts you in the center of a web of food producers, transparently connecting economy and nutrition. But for those of us who don’t live on or next door to a farm, finding local food sources can seem difficult. Where do we start? How do we find others who want the same thing? All it requires is a little research, relationship-building and action.
The first step in building a food community is meeting the right people. Search for local farms via websites such as localharvest.org and eatwild.com. Find farmers market listings at the United States Department of Agriculture or visit “Our Markets” at LocallyGrown.net to find online farmers markets. When visiting area stores and restaurants, look for signage that indicates local products are sold there. Once you track these down, start talking to people about where and how they source their food. “Like” farms and other producers on Facebook, or visit their websites to see if you can sign up for emails or other communication.
You might also make good connections by tapping into the foodie culture in your area. Check bulletin boards at the library, natural food stores and grocery co-ops for cooking classes and speakers. Try culinary academies, area colleges and libraries. Check event listings on the websites of local publications and the chamber of commerce. When you meet people who seem connected with area food culture, ask them how they stay in touch—many groups have listservs, enewsletters, websites or Facebook pages dedicated to communicating with one another.
Straight to the Source
Food sourcing doesn’t get more direct than buying from the farm. Find farms at LocalHarvest, then call to see if they sell direct to consumers. Buying directly often results in lower prices, especially if you pick it yourself. For example, Clark’s Pecan Grove in Mayflower, Arkansas, lets you take home half of what you pick for free. Berries are 20 percent off if you pick them yourself at Blue Heaven Blueberry Farm in Springdale, Arkansas.
Or buy an entire share of one year’s harvest from a farm by joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Most CSAs provide ample opportunity to connect with other members. When I was the farm manager for a small CSA in rural Arkansas, it was incredible to see the relationships forged over fresh produce. At weekly pickups, strangers realized they were neighbors and members shared recipes, traded gardening tips and made plans to attend food-related events together. Find a CSA program near you through the USDA’s National Agricultural Library.
Work it at Work
Your workplace might be a surprisingly fruitful place to build and grow a food community. For the person playing the role of workplace organizer and outreach coordinator, “fostering the relationships” is the foundation, says K.C. Compton, Senior Editor at Mother Earth News. Over the last few years, she has helped Ogden Publications, publisher of this magazine and home to about 130 employees, increase access to good food—right at the office. She helped the development of an on-site food garden by putting the word out, developing a step-by-step plan, identifying what resources would be required, then scheduling a meeting with the boss to ask permission. Now a volunteer garden crew dons rubber boots and clogs during breaks to weed, water and harvest fresh produce throughout the growing season. “Having a garden on-site provides new exposure for those that don’t garden,” Compton says.
Compton also coordinated with a food co-op, Door to Door Organics, to deliver organic food straight to the workplace. A “foodie” email listserv within the company spreads information about local food opportunities—for example, to go in on a bulk purchase of quality olive oil or attend a weekend cider-pressing event. With numerous hobby farmers and gardeners on staff, additional offerings include eggs, poultry, beef, lamb, goat, honey, bread and baked goods. “The whole culture of Ogden has shifted toward a more concerted focus on food over the last few years,” Compton says. To foster workplace food community, find fellow employees who support the idea and reach out to management in your organization.
Good for You, Good for Farmers
While consumers are often searching for sources of good food, area food producers also have a vested interest in building community. Searching them out can unleash a flurry of connections to other producers. Cody Hopkins of Falling Sky Farm in Marshall, Arkansas, sells sustainably raised meat direct to consumers through farmers markets, retail outlets and an online farmers market he started. To build a strong food community and support a local food system, Hopkins says a “critical mass of farmers and customers is necessary. It takes people on both sides.” To build that critical mass, he spends time reaching out to customers, educating the community and building business partnerships. Track down producers like Hopkins through featured stories in area newspapers and websites, farmers markets, local food-tasting events and advertisements for special holiday food orders. Once you find good food producers, jump right in and order half a hog to really get started.
Get in the Garden Together
Community gardens present unique opportunities to connect, in addition to getting some sunny gardening space. To thrive, they rely on dedicated individuals who are often as committed to building community as they are to growing produce. Don Bennett of Tri Cycle Farms in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has developed a two-acre community farm in the heart of an urban neighborhood. Today a strong network of individuals raise produce for sale, share and donation. Together, they educate neighbors about food through cooking classes. “I now know that it is community we are building through this vessel of food,” he says. Find community gardens through community members, blogs and social media, or try the American Community Gardening Association.
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