Appalachian Ohio County a Haven for Local Food Economy

You might not expect Athens, Ohio to be a focal point for a thriving local food economy, but this Appalachian county (ranked "Distressed" by the ARC with a poverty rate of 32.8%) is getting regional and national attention for its efforts. The "Thirty Mile Meal" project connects consumers, Farmer's Markets, restaurants, and, of course, farmers and ranchers in a challenge for folks to source all their food from a thirty-mile radius. While this might seem like a daunting task, the plethora of local food resources in the Athens area are making it work. And Athens is becoming a destination for foodies because of it. As the Athens News reports, both the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and Audubon magazine have cited Athens as a place to be for locavores. "We came to realize," wrote the writer of Plain-Dealer's article, "while spending a couple of days in this Appalachian enclave, that one of Ohio's poorest counties is a blossoming destination for food lovers and a glimmer of hope for sustainable living."

Check out the entire Athens News article below to learn more about the 30 Mile Meal and all the great things happening to boost the area's economy. This article is the first in a series about the local and regional food system in Appalachian Ohio, so stay tuned!

 

Athens proudly sits near the top of locavore food chain

By David DeWitt

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Photo Credits: Photo by Julie Van Wagenen.
Photo Caption: Rich Tomsu sells his organic produce at a recent Athens Farmers Market.
 

They call it the 30-mile meal. From farm to fork, Athens County is blessed with one of the richest local food markets in the country. Within a 30-mile radius of Athens, farmers, specialty food producers, markets and restaurants work together to serve up meals for the locavore palate.

 

The 30 Mile Meal Project is a collaboration of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) and more than 130 local food partners. This initiative pushes the envelope on the growing 100 Mile Meal movement with its own "super-local" effort to assist visitors and residents in finding (within a 30-mile radius of Athens) local foods and places to savor the flavors and food experiences of the region, according to the Visitors Bureau website (www.athensohio.com/30mile/)

The mission is to increase, through collaboration and cross promotion, the visibility and sustainability of local foods, farmers, producers, markets, restaurants, bars and food events.

"Southeast Ohio's local foods community is a thriving, interconnected and collaborative partnership creating and promoting earning, learning and celebratory opportunities for the people, places, events and organization in our region," the project's vision statement says.

This was backed up in a recent glowing travel feature in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which crowed about Athens' local food scene. Freelance writer Wendy Pramik wrote, "we came to realize, while spending a couple of days in this Appalachian enclave, that one of Ohio's poorest counties is a blossoming destination for food lovers and a glimmer of hope for sustainable living."

The article also mentioned Audubon magazine's inclusion of the Athens Farmers Market as among the nation's best open-air markets several years ago.

The local 30 Mile Meal project has a number of guiding principles, including fostering collaboration, offering inclusion to all businesses that meet the project's criteria, and supporting the expansion of agri- and culinary tourism in Athens County.

The 30 Mile Meal project has a number of partners, including the Athens Farmers Market, Avalanche Pizza, Casa Nueva, Community Food Initiatives, Integration Acres, Ohio Food Shed, Rural Action Sustainable, Shagbark Seed & Mill Company, the Village Bakery & Della Zona, among many others.

Leslie Schaller, director of programming for ACEnet, said Tuesday that her organization focuses on producers and processors to create value-added products as well as helping with branding and marketing.

ACEnet annually assists more than 1,000 Ohio food and farm entrepreneurs through business incubation, training, and access to direct and wholesale markets.

The program saw a 40 percent growth in buyers, sellers and gross receipts in 2010, she said.

"We try to get people to think about the food supply chain," Schaller said. "We talk about it as a food value chain. At the start end (are) food producers growing food, and at the other end (is) the consumers, or the customers, eating local food."

From production to consumption, Schaller explained, the goal is to create a more localized and fairer food system, so everybody has access to local fresh produce that supports local ownership.

"What we try to do is tell stories all along the supply chain and kind of animate what's happening in this area," she said. "So you think about all of the farmers on the production end, and then you think about a facility like ACEnet's food ventures center."

According to the 30 Mile Meal website blog, the food ventures center was launched in 1996. The shared-use kitchen incubator includes a licensed commercial kitchen, thermal processing, packaging, food service and warehouse space for more than 240 food processors and area farmers. "The program has pioneered non-traditional strategies to develop infrastructure, market programs and distribution channels for family farmers and local food processors in southeast Ohio, while also responding to the growing demand from rural consumers for fresh, local foods," the blog states.

Future articles in this series will explore the farmers and food producers themselves, and then the markets where the food is sold, and finally the eateries and restaurants in Athens that feature local food.