Local food is ‘attached to a much, much larger vision’

February 19, 2012
By COURTNEY ALBON

ASHLAND — A movement to better harness local food resources could boost the health, economy, ecological sustainability and vitality of a community.

It may appear a lofty vision to some, but Brad Masi, former director of the New Agrarian Center at Oberlin College, has seen it happen. At least he’s seen it start to happen.

Masi spoke as part of Ashland University’s Center for Nonviolence Creating a Caring Community symposium. He highlighted efforts across Northeast Ohio to develop a more sustainable, regenerative local food system, including a movement in Oberlin to decrease the community’s dependence on non-local food sources. And he suggested ways counties could adapt some of those initiatives locally, though in some cases the community is already doing so.

“A local food economy is in many ways an approach to economic development that is focused on retaining and circulating dollars in the local economy while promoting regenerative forms of economic activity,” Masi said.

“Creating a local food economy is about asking how do we create something that’s more regenerative where we create the web of relationships that allow us to grow that system over time?”

Masi shared examples of urban farming projects in Cleveland, including one in the Ohio City neighborhood where an Amish farmer from Middlefield helped turn an empty plot of land behind some public housing units into an urban garden.

He cited an Ohio State University Extension Center study that found Cleveland’s 225-plus urban gardens occupy 56 combined acres and generate between $2.6 and 3 million in fresh fruits and vegetables for the Cleveland area.

“That’s a pretty enormous value. And for a lot of people, that’s actually savings; it allows them to stretch their budget a little bit further,” Masi said.

In Oberlin, Masi has been a part of an effort to better use local food production in surrounding counties.

Local individuals, markets restaurants and businesses have worked to increase collaboration with producers in Ashland, Wayne, Huron, Medina and Erie counties and have increased the counties’ overall local food consumption to 6 percent.

Masi said he thinks there is potential for the activity in Oberlin to be emulated in the Ashland community. Citing data from the 2010 Census, Masi said Ashland’s approximately 21,000 residents spend about $55 million each year on food, 40 percent of which is spent eating out at restaurants.

“These are dollars that are being spent every day,” Masi said. “That’s one of the economic drivers of the food market is we all eat. It’s a daily activity and it happens 365 days a year so in terms of market stability. It’s a guaranteed market.”

Masi recognized as a promising venture Local Roots — a Wooster-based farmer-producer co-op planning to open a permanent store this spring on South Street in Ashland.

To continue that movement, Masi said it’s important to work to increase collaboration with surrounding communities, grow cooperative networks with those communities and take small steps toward realizing a bigger vision for Ashland.

“Think about the Amish farmers bringing their horses up to Cleveland to help start an urban farm. Think about the Ashland farmers that are down here supplying food to Oberlin. Think about the Local Roots sprout that’s coming from the Wooster community to help an effort here,” Masi said. “Don’t underestimate the power of small acts, but think about how those small acts can be attached to a much, much larger vision.”

Marlene Barkheimer, treasurer for Local Roots, was in attendance at Tuesday’s event. She said the co-op has seen its presence in downtown Wooster impact the way people in the community think about local food.

“We try to do a lot with education, teaching people about different foods and demonstrating different cooking techniques,” Barkheimer said.

As people recognize local farmers are able to grow certain foods year-round with various techniques and as farmers realize the demand, the co-op has seen a shift in the way people think about local food.

“It’s sort of that chicken and egg idea, but we’re starting to see the demand from the consumers, which gives our farmers an incentive to produce,” Barkheimer said.