Rural Action.

July 30, 2019; Civil Eats

Food deserts are not just an urban problem; indeed, 75 percent of the nation’s food-insecure counties are decidedly rural, desperate for fresh food despite rich natural assets and farmland. In Athens County, Ohio, nearly one in five residents lack sufficient access to nutritious and affordable food. For children, the rate is 24 percent, double the national average.

Appalachian Ohio comprises 32 heavily rural counties, many of which were once dependent on coal and timber extraction. Now, centered in Athens, Ohio, a network of nonprofits is coming together to create and sustain an infrastructure that aims to reduce food insecurity levels. The approach being developed strengthens and connects small growers, links to local institutions, educates the public, engages regional and national funders, and makes fresh food available in remote locations.

Serving as the umbrella for this regional food ecosystem is the Appalachian Accessible Food Network, anchored by the notion of a local food value chain. Key players in this network are two nonprofits, ACEnet and Rural Action, backed up by a close-knit set of local, regional, state, and national partners. ACEnet was founded in 1985 to help low-income people start worker-owned businesses in Athens. Now, it supports hundreds of small and startup businesses in the food and service sectors in the region. It operates a Food Ventures Center that serves 65 food-related businesses and runs a 94,000-square-foot Business Center and Food Hub.

Rural Action began in 1991 as a membership organization focused on sustainable development. Today, its 600 members, 24 staff, and army of AmeriCorps members focus on six strategies—environmental education, forestry/wood products, watershed restoration, zero waste, energy and sustainable agriculture.

As a key player in the region’s local food ecosystem, Rural Action operates several key programs—the Chesterhill Produce Auction, Country Fresh Stops, Ohio Foodshed, and Season Creation—that focus on linking producers and consumers, supplying remote areas, marketing, and training:

  • Chesterhill Produce Auction is a rural food hub that aggregates produce from multiple growers. Much of the local produce, eggs, and meat that makes it way to ACEnet’s food hub comes from the Chesterhill Produce Auction.
  • Country Fresh Stops provides fresh produce to corner stores, gas stations, pop-up markets, and roadside stands in towns and villages that have no access to fresh food. Hosts receive signage, point-of-purchase materials, handling guides, and refrigerated displays along with the fresh produce deliveries, sourced mainly from the Chesterhill Produce Auction. Nearby health clinics provide produce vouchers through the national Wholesome Wave initiative that allows healthcare providers in low-income communities to provide fresh produce as part of a treatment plan.
  • Ohio Foodshed is a free online directory of regional food producers and supporting businesses, including caterers, community support agriculture (CSA) groups, farmers markets, groceries, growers, nurseries, and restaurants.
  • Season Creation is a peer-to-peer education initiative that brings together value chain partners to train educators who can pass on sustainable food system practices to others in their region.

Rural Action also operates a Summer Food Bus in tandem with a local school district that offers groceries free to any local resident with children, responding to the lack of transportation options for many rural residents by delivering food weekly to remote community locations. Importantly, each distribution site is designed to be fun, with cornhole games, soccer balls, hula hoops, art supplies, and staff ready to engage. This works to erode some of the stigma attached to getting free food.

As Appalachian Ohio demonstrates, rural food insecurity is a challenging issue. But a powerful network of visionary and stubborn nonprofits, supported by local and regional institutions and philanthropy, is taking that challenge on.

As Nicole Rasul writes in Civil Eats, “Public and private organizations working in the region are increasingly eyeing the area’s rich terrain, traditional foodways, and native plant products as an economic development lever for citizens living there, all while taking into consideration the area’s unsavory extractive past to ensure that the power structures controlling and profiting from the land’s bounty are rooted in local ownership and economic networks.”

Tom Redfern, who works at Chesterhill Produce Auction, sums it up: “It’s about resiliency and local control. Through food we can address health, poverty, and economic empowerment.”—Debby Warren