FoodChain expanding mission with kitchen, neighborhood grocery

September 20, 2015
Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain, an urban agriculture non-profit in the Breadbox building at West Sixth and Jefferson Streets, posed with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in a closed-loop aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants, primarily Smithtown Seafood in the next room. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain, an urban agriculture non-profit in the Breadbox building at West Sixth and Jefferson Streets, posed with greens being grown along with tilapia fish in a closed-loop aquaponics system. The greens and fish are sold to restaurants, primarily Smithtown Seafood in the next room. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The urban agriculture nonprofit FoodChain is trying to raise $300,000 for its next two links: a food-processing and teaching kitchen and a neighborhood green grocery.

The effort will begin Oct. 2 with Relish n’ Ramble, an event featuring tapas by four guest chefs and tours of the proposed kitchen and grocery space in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets.

Three years ago, founder Rebecca Self and her board raised $75,000 to create an aquaponics demonstration in a back room of the 900,000-square-foot former bread factory, which also houses West Sixth Brewing, Smithtown Seafood, Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, Bluegrass Distillers, Magic Beans Coffee Roasters and The Plantory, a shared office space for nonprofit startups.

Since September 2013, FoodChain has been producing about 30 pounds of greens and a dozen tilapia each week. The fish and most of the greens are bought by Smithtown Seafood. Blue Moon Farm distributes excess greens to other restaurants.

The aquaponics system works like this: waste grain from the brewery is fed to the fish, whose waste water provides the nutrients for lettuce and other greens to be grown under energy-efficient indoor lighting.

“You would never pinpoint this as a place to grow food,” Self said of the once-abandoned building. “But it’s actually a perfect fit.”

Sales of greens and fish have covered about 35 percent of FoodChain’s $100,000 annual budget, and virtually all of the cost of producing them, Self said. Funding for educational programs comes from donations and foundation grants.

To promote replication of its work, FoodChain has given more than 6,000 tours of its facilities, which also has provided revenue. “We’re unusual among nonprofits in that we have a revenue stream at all,” Self said.

This next phase will move FoodChain closer to its mission: developing systems to bring affordable local food to urban “food desert” neighborhoods, such as the West End.

Self’s husband, Ben, is one of four West Sixth Brewing partners who bought the Bread Box and have been renovating and leasing it. FoodChain’s kitchen and grocery will occupy the last 7,000 square feet of the building, the oldest part of which dates to the 1870s.

The kitchen and grocery will be on the west side of the building’s Sixth Street frontage, with the grocery in the corner. A lot of windows will be added to the solid-brick walls, bringing light and public visibility.

The kitchen will have an instructional area where neighborhood residents can receive food safety certification training for restaurant jobs and take classes to learn to prepare and cook their own meals with fresh food.

In the back half of the kitchen, FoodChain plans to partner with Glean Kentucky, other nonprofits and area farmers to collect, process and preserve food “seconds” that might otherwise go to waste.

“This is something that’s been talked about for a long time,” Self said. “We’re hoping that because we’re getting this food at pennies on the dollar on the seconds market that even once we’ve added in the labor costs it will still be at an affordable price for the store.”

In addition to fresh local food, the grocery will carry other foods and household necessities. Both facilities are being designed to meet the neighborhood’s needs based on focus groups conducted by the Tweens Coalition, a local youth nutrition and fitness organization.

The store and kitchen will create about a dozen jobs, and Self hopes to fill them with neighborhood residents.

“If there’s anything that comes out of the census data for this area it is the desperate need for jobs,” she said. “You can’t afford good food if you don’t have an income.”

Self said renovations to create the kitchen and store won’t begin until all of the money needed is raised. Ideally, she said, the kitchen would open in fall 2016 and the store in spring 2017.

“We’re just trying to show the viability of something like this,” she said.

If you go

Relish n’ Ramble

What: Fundraiser for FoodChain featuring tapas inspired by Indian, Latin and Asian street food from guest chefs Vishwesh Bhatt of Snack Bar in Oxford, Miss.; Ouita Michel of Holly Hill Inn; Jonathan Lundy of Coba Cocina; and Jon Sanning of Smithtown Seafood. Includes a West Sixth beer and souvenir glass and tours of FoodChain’s planned commercial kitchen and grocery spaces.

When: 6-9 p.m. Oct. 2

Where: Bluegrass Distillers in the Bread Box, West Sixth and Jefferson streets

Cost: $35 advance, $40 at door.

Tickets and info: Foodchainlex.org


UK seminar will focus on challenges of local food economy

September 22, 2014

Creating strong local food economies has become a trend, if not a fad, all over the country. But the prospects in Kentucky seem more promising than in many places.

Kentucky’s fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant water, central location and dispersed population have made the state an agriculture powerhouse for more than two centuries.

Since the collapse of the tobacco economy, more Kentuckians have been exploring ways to recreate and reinvent local food systems like those that prevailed before World War II.

But local food is not just an issue of local economics and self-sufficiency.

It is often more nutritious than food grown in huge quantities and shipped great distances. That’s a big issue as America struggles with an obesity epidemic, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and soaring health care costs. And local food also just tastes better.

But there are big challenges, from processing facilities to distribution networks. The biggest challenge is this: how can locally grown food be both profitable for farmers and affordable for consumers, especially those with low incomes?

Those questions are at the heart of this year’s Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues, an annual program sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. The seminar will explore these issues in three programs over the next three weeks, all of which are free and open to the public.

The seminar’s keynote speaker at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre is Robert Egger, who has spent 25 years feeding and providing food-related job training to poor people in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His talk is called, “Revealing the Power of Food.”

As a young nightclub manager, Egger volunteered at what he found to be a well-intentioned but inefficient soup kitchen for homeless people in Washington, D.C. The experience prompted him to start D.C. Central Kitchen in January 1989 by getting a refrigerated van, picking up food left over from President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration and delivering it to local shelters.

The non-profit organization uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to feed hungry people and train poor people for food-related jobs. During 24 years as president of D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger helped start more than 60 similar community kitchens around the country.

Egger recently moved to Los Angeles to start LA Kitchen, which recovers fresh fruit and vegetables for use in a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care or prison. He is author of the 2004 book, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All.

The seminar’s second session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Lyric Theatre, is a panel discussion called “Whose Farm to Whose Table?” It focuses on increasing access to local food in Central Kentucky’s underserved communities.

Panelists are community garden activist Jim Embry; Mac Stone, co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm and a founder of the Kentucky Proud program; Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots Inc. and the Fresh Stop Project; and Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington government’s new local food coordinator. The panel will be moderated by Lexington food blogger and cookbook author Rona Roberts.

The final session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at UK’s W.T. Young Library, is a panel discussion moderated by former UK Agriculture dean Scott Smith. It will explore challenges of getting local food into universities, schools, businesses and other large institutions.

Panelists are Sarah Fritschner, Louisville’s local food coordinator; John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Midway-based Local Food Association; UK agriculture professor Lee Meyer; and Tony Parnigoni, Aramark Corp.’s regional vice president.

The topic is especially timely given UK’s controversial move to outsource its dining services to Aramark, the giant food corporation that is putting up $70 million to build new campus dining facilities.

Amid pressure from local food advocates, Aramark agreed to contribute $5 million to a new local food institute at UK and to purchase millions of dollars worth of food from Kentucky farmers.

“There has been a lot of buzz about local food and enhancing access to local food and capitalizing on the agricultural economy of the Bluegrass,” said Phil Harling, a UK history professor who recently became director of the Gaines Center. “We’re trying to bring together a bunch of different strands.”

If you go

  • UK’s Lafayette Seminar this year focuses on local food. All sessions are free and open to the public.

    5:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. Robert Egger, founder of LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, speaks on “Revealing the Power of Food.”

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 1, Lyric Theatre. Panel discussion about expanding access to local food.

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 9, W.T. Young Library, 401 Hilltop Ave. Panel discussion about challenges of getting local food into large institutions.


Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013

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Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

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New gardener restoring Shaker tradition of sustainable agriculture

July 23, 2013

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Zach Davis, 22, picks string beans in his garden at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The garden is providing about 30 percent of the vegetables that will be used this year in Shaker Village’s restaurant. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

HARRODSBURG — When Zachary Davis was hired in November to grow vegetables at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, he took stock of what he had to work with: an antique hoe and a 200-year-old garden plot.

Actually, he had a lot more than that. Davis, 22, had a degree in sustainable agriculture and a good understanding of faith-based land stewardship. He also had bosses who saw his garden as a way to make the Shakers’ legacy relevant today.

“We want to demonstrate their principles of sustainability and how to use and care for the land, but we want to do it in a 21st-century way,” said Maynard Crossland, Shaker Village’s executive director, who was hired two years ago to bring new life and financial stability to the nonprofit property.

Most people don’t know much about the Shakers who settled in Mercer County in 1806, except that they belonged to a Christian sect that lived communally, made elegantly simple furniture and buildings, and didn’t believe in sex.

130710ShakerGarden0023The Shakers also were masters of what we now call sustainable agriculture, raising food to feed themselves and sell to neighbors, and running a large seed business before the Civil War. They were innovators and inventors, equipping their large dormitorylike homes with what were then the most modern labor-saving devices.

After decades of decline, the Shaker community disbanded in 1910. Since the 1960s, 33 Shaker buildings and 22 miles of dry stone fences on 3,000 acres have been restored and operated as a tourist attraction.

David Larson, operations vice president, has focused on improving Shaker Village’s famous restaurant. The veteran chef wanted to serve more fresh, locally grown food. So, he thought, what could be more local than a garden within sight of the dining room windows?

In recent years, the garden had largely been a living history exhibit, with a few heirloom vegetable varieties grown Shaker-style, Larson said.

“If the Shakers were here today, they wouldn’t be doing heirloom varieties,” he said. “They would be at the forefront of organic farming.”

Larson wanted to hire a skilled organic gardener, and someone who understood the Shakers’ spiritual attachment to the land and could explain it to visitors. “I called a friend at UK and he said, ‘I’ve got your man,'” Larson said. “Zach gets it.”

Davis, a Lexington native who comes from a long line of insurance salesmen, had struggled with whether to go into the Episcopal ministry or become an organic farmer. At age 12, he said he read Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, a 2002 collection of essays by Wendell Berry and others.

“I got really fired up about how broken our food system is,” Davis said. “The best way to address that, for me, was to get dirt under my fingernails.”

Davis graduated last year from the University of Kentucky’s new sustainable agriculture program. He also was a fellow at UK’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. He is engaged to Emma Sleeth, an Asbury University graduate, author of the book It’s Easy Being Green and daughter of Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, founders of Lexington-based Blessed Earth, a Christian educational non-profit organization.

Davis said he couldn’t imagine a better way to begin his career than by helping Shaker Village rediscover and build on its rich heritage of sustainable agriculture.

After purchasing a greenhouse for seedlings and a tilling machine, Davis and UK classmate Polly Symons cultivated just under one acre. They are raising about 50 varieties of 25 vegetables, keeping the restaurant well supplied and distributing the surplus to employees on “dividend days.” Davis gives public tours of the garden at 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

When I visited Shaker Village recently, Larson was bragging about the quality of Davis’ lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peas and beans, and eager for his eight varieties of tomatoes to ripen. The restaurant’s menu is adjusted each week, depending on what the garden is producing.

“The garden has been a resounding success this summer,” Larson said. “We had to rethink the way we did things, and we wanted a young person who had a whole new set of eyes for this place. We certainly found that in Zach.”

Larson said he has bigger ideas for the restaurant next year, including a healthy children’s menu and a kitchen composting system.

Davis is planning an expanded garden. He wants to add vegetables based on what the restaurant needs “and what I think the Shakers would be doing now if they were here,” he said. “Tourists like to see the time warp, but the Shakers were much more ingenious than that.”

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Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

April 9, 2013

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Wendell Berry, right, joined conference attendees on a tour Saturday of the farm at St. Catharine College in Washington County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Wendell Berry is a true conservative. He believes in conservation, the idea that God gave us the Earth to sustain our lives and the responsibility to care for it so it can sustain the lives of future generations.

Four decades ago, the writer and farmer was alarmed by the methods and economics of modern farming and mining, which were (and still are) destroying land, water and rural communities. So he wrote his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which has become an international classic.

That book and Berry’s subsequent work did much to spark the sustainable agriculture and local food movements, just as Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring in 1962 helped spark the environmental movement.

So it was no surprise that 300 people from 35 states and several foreign countries came to Louisville and Springfield last weekend for a sold-out conference revisiting the book. Well-known speakers discussed both progress and challenges, and they pondered this question: What will it take to resettle America?

The conference was organized by the Berry Center in Henry County, which is run by Mary Berry Smith to promote the philosophy of her father, as well as her uncle and late grandfather, both farmers, lawyers and conservationists named John Berry.

On Saturday, the conference was at St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the Berry Center has just begun a partnership to create undergraduate degree programs in ecological agriculture. The Catholic college campus includes an 800-acre farm the Dominican Sisters of Peace have operated since 1822.

The conference included an on-stage interview of Berry by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who will use it on one of his Public Broadcasting System programs. Other speakers included Bill McKibben, the best-selling author and climate change activist; Wes Jackson, a MacArthur “genius” award winner and founder of The Land Institute, a leading sustainable agriculture organization; and Vandana Shiva, a renowned author, scientist and environmentalist in India.

In his interview with Moyers, Berry blamed many of today’s ecological problems on industrialization, unbridled capitalism and political systems that favor wealthy corporations, which make big political contributions to reap far bigger returns in taxpayer subsidies and lax regulation.

“There’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world,” Berry said. “It’s not economically defensible. It’s not defensible in any terms.”

Berry, 78, lamented that the three and a half decades since his book’s publication have been marked by further environmental degradation, from strip mining and soil erosion to water pollution and accelerating climate change.

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that is not in danger,” he said.

Berry noted that black willows no longer grow beside his Henry County farm on the banks of the Kentucky River, 13 miles from where it empties into the Ohio River, but still flourish just upriver on the Ohio. There seems to be something in the Kentucky River’s water they can no longer tolerate.

“If the willows can’t continue to live there, how can I be sure that I can continue to live there?” he asked.

Berry, a lifelong Baptist, said the unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and many conservative Christians is “a feat which should astonish us all.”

“A great mistake of Christianity is speaking of the Holy Land as only one place,” he said. “There are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.”

But Berry noted that many faith communities are beginning to heed the Bible’s call to environmental stewardship and justice. That gives him hope, as does the growing popularity of organic food, local farmers markets and the sustainable agriculture movement.

“I don’t like to talk about the future, because it doesn’t exist and nobody knows anything about it,” Berry said. “The problems are big, but there are no big solutions.”

Berry said he thinks “resettling America” will require enough people living on and being able to earn a living from the land to take care of it. That will take individual initiative, better government policies and the political will to deal with urgent global threats such as climate change. Can it succeed?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Berry said. “We only have a right to ask what’s the right thing to do and do it.”

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Journalist Bill Moyers, left, and writer Wendell Berry autograph books after Moyers filmed an interview with Berry. It was part of a two-day conference revisiting Berry’s landmark 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America.”  Photo by Tom Eblen


Think global, act local with food choices

March 20, 2010

Do you ever worry about where your next meal is coming from? Maybe you should.

I don’t mean how you will pay for it, although that seems to be a concern for more and more people these days.

I mean literally where it’s coming from, what’s in it and whether the food and the methods used to produce it are good for your body, your community and your environment.

Those issues brought more than 100 people to Crestwood Christian Church last Thursday and Friday for the Bluegrass Food Security Summit. Organized by community activist and local dynamo Jim Embry, the summit was a place for farmers, educators, social workers, government bureaucrats and even clergy to talk about how to make this region better-fed and more environmentally sustainable.

The scientific and economic revolution that reshaped American agriculture after World War II did a lot of good, and a lot of bad. Many family farms were replaced by industrial agriculture that could produce more food cheaper and more efficiently. But cheap food has had other costs.

Pesticides and herbicides have contaminated soil and water. Overuse of antibiotics in animals has led to drug-resistant infections in people. Industrially processed food and fast-food culture have caused a decline in nutrition among many segments of the population.

Cheaply produced meat, vegetables and fruits are trucked great distances to market — something that will be less possible as oil supplies diminish and prices rise.

Controlled-feeding animal operations — such as the hog and chicken farms that plague many parts of rural Kentucky — produce huge amounts of waste that pollute groundwater and create an unbearable stench for miles around.

Things are changing, though, as more people seek healthier and tastier foods. Kentucky is making more progress than many states, thanks to wise investment of tobacco settlement money in agricultural diversification. And the family farm is being re-invented in many parts of the state, thanks to groups like the Community Farm Alliance, which is celebrating its 25th year.

Kentucky has seen tremendous growth recently in organic and naturally produced meat and produce, much of it on small, family-owned farms that sell through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) plans. The University of Kentucky now even has an organic farm and CSA operation — and a degree program in sustainable agriculture.

Co-op groceries that focus on fresh, locally produced food are becoming more popular. Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op on Southland Drive now has nearly 5,200 owners.

There also has been a lot of emphasis on starting school and neighborhood gardens, a focus of such organizations as Seedleaf (www.seedleaf.org) and Embry’s Sustainable Communities Network (www.sustainlex.org).

In Lexington, gardens have been created in many neighborhoods, at Bryan Station High School, the Chrysalis House program for women with substance-abuse problems, the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program and Employment Solutions, a company that provides vocational training to unemployed people.

Outside Lexington, many organizations are working to promote local food alternatives and environmental stewardship. One notable example is Sustainable Berea (www.sustainableberea.org), which offers workshops in gardening and related skills and helps people in the Madison County community plant berry bushes and fruit trees.

“It’s an issue of stewardship,” the Rev. Kory Wilcoxson, senior pastor at Crestwood Christian, said at the summit’s opening session. “When you read the Bible, the world was started in a garden.”

Many of Lexington’s community gardens have a strong emphasis on participation by children and youth, and there were many of them at the summit’s opening dinner and program Thursday evening. Embry believes that children are the key to steering society back to the local food and sustainability ethics that were the norm in America until the late 20th century.

“The great work of this century is to restore the sacredness of the earth and its connections to ourselves,” Embry said. “It means we have to find new ways of doing things. We don’t want our children to inherit the problems we created.”


As we give thanks, let’s give some help

November 25, 2009

As many of us prepare a big Thanksgiving dinner, it’s worth thinking about neighbors who won’t be so lucky.

There are more of them than usual.

In fact, food bank directors across Kentucky say there are more of them than they’ve ever seen before.

A report last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the number of American households struggling to feed themselves rose by 4 million in 2008, to a total of 17 million.

The report estimated that one in seven U.S. households — 49 million Americans — were “food insecure” (meaning without enough food) at times last year. It was the highest rate since the study began in 1995, and it included 506,000 families with children.

The numbers were based on a scientific survey of 44,000 households, including 1,881 in Kentucky.

When viewed state by state, food insecurity among Kentucky households was a little above the average, at 12.6 percent, with 4.4 percent of households considered “very insecure.” Kentucky’s numbers have been steady in recent years, although they’re much higher than they were in the late 1990s.

“We’re seeing a lot of folks who have never accessed food assistance before,” said Marian Guinn, chief executive of God’s Pantry, which operates a food bank in Lexington and supplies food to banks in 50 counties.

God’s Pantry and other Kentucky food banks report that demand is up about 30 percent from last year. October was God’s Pantry’s biggest month ever, with 2,400 families served locally.

Food bank directors say many families seeking assistance still have someone employed, but they have seen hours, pay or benefits cut. Others have been laid off or have seen contract work disappear; their unemployment benefits have run out, or they’re waiting for them to start.

“We have had the most people this year that we’ve ever had,” said Jerry Workman, volunteer director of the 30-year-old Berea Community Food Bank.

“Since demand is going up, it’s putting a strain on the food bank, so we’re asking people to be especially generous this season,” said Annette Ball of the Dare to Care Food Bank in Louisville, which has served a 13-county area since 1971.

“What we’re seeing are persons who haven’t been to a food pantry in a very long time,” said Debbie Long, director of God’s Food Pantry in Somerset. “For us, trying to keep up with the demand is very difficult.”

Debbie Amburgey, coordinator of God’s Pantry-East in Prestonsburg, which distributes food to 73 food banks in 12 southeastern Kentucky counties, said she expects the need to increase as the holidays approach. Relatives come home, and hard-pressed families use some of their food money to buy Christmas gifts for their children.

“It’s pretty serious,” said Thelma Willis, director of Helping Hands Food Pantry in Corbin. “There’s a lot of people laid off around here, and we’re having more elderly come in than usual.”

How can you help? Donating to your local food bank is an obvious answer. Beyond charity, though, there’s a growing movement to rebuild Kentucky’s capacity for community agriculture, especially in poor areas where quality of food is as big a problem as quantity.

One such group is a Lexington non-profit called Seedleaf. It works with neighborhoods to start community gardens and teach people how to grow, cook and preserve nutritious food. For more information, go to www.seedleaf.org.

Another effort is the Lexington Urban Gleaning Network, which collects leftover food from farmers, gardeners and fruit-tree owners and distributes it through God’s Pantry. For more information, e-mail John Walker at igrowfood@insightbb.com.

So as you sit down to your turkey, consider donating food, money or time to an organization that’s trying to meet Kentuckians’ immediate needs — or better prepare them to feed themselves.


Farm tour showcases good food in our backyard

June 16, 2009

It seemed almost inevitable.

Chris Canon’s family farmed hundreds of acres of cotton and soybeans in Mississippi. Sandy Canon’s parents raised begonias and fuchsia in California and finally “stopped entering them in fairs so other people could win.”

But the Canons had two sons, white-collar careers and a suburban home. Agriculture didn’t have a place in their busy lives until Chris got some 2x4s and built a raised bed in their backyard.

Then another. And another. And a dozen more.

“Chris kept planting more and more,” Sandy Canon said of her husband. “And I had to freeze it and can it.”

So, for the third summer, the Canons are selling vegetables once a week at the Lexington Farmer’s Market — most grown in their backyard and some in the fraction of an acre they cultivate on a wooded farm in Washington County.

“We make some pocket money, but a side benefit is that we’ve spent more time together than we have since before the children came,” she said. “And we really enjoy the people at the market. It’s a social experience.”

The Canons’ backyard on Duncan Avenue near the Red Mile is the smallest and most urban of the dozen Central Kentucky farms that will be on display Saturday during the self-guided Lexington Farmer’s Market Farm Tour.

Other farms on the tour include Abigail’s Apiary, which will demonstrate how bees work; Bleugrass Chevre, which specializes in goat cheeses; the Chrisman Mill and Lover’s Leap wineries; Henkle’s Herbs and heirloom tomatoes and the Barton Brothers’ sweet corn farm.

This is the 2nd annual tour sponsored by the Lexington Farmers’ Market, which recently moved its Saturday market to Cheapside and this week begins a Wednesday evening market at The Mall at Lexington Green. It also has a Sunday market on Southland Drive and Tuesday and Thursday markets at South Broadway and Maxwell streets.

The Lexington Farmers’ Market has been around since 1975, but its recent popularity coincides with growing public interest in locally grown food. Rona Roberts, a Lexington communications consultant who writes the Savoring Kentucky food blog, cites several reasons.

“Part of it is driven by a longing for flavor and the realization that the very best flavor comes from things closest to you,” Roberts said. “There’s a lot lost in transportation.”

That, along with more focus on health and nutrition, has prompted more people to buy produce from farmers’ markets and other local growers such as Elmwood Stock Farm in Georgetown and Honest Farm in Midway.

Many people are becoming more conscious of the environment. They’re concerned about agricultural chemicals and the petroleum used trucking food cross-country.

In addition, the economy has prompted people to look for ways to save money and make their communities more self-sustaining.

Local organizations such as Seedleaf are promoting urban gardening as a way to get nutritious, economical food to people at risk of hunger. Seedleaf teaches people how to grow food and helps establish community gardens.

On the farm tour last year, more than 50 people stopped by to see the Canons’ backyard garden. It inspired one woman to go home and build two raised beds in her backyard. “She said it changed her life,” Sandy Canon said.

More than anything, though, organizers want to inspire more loyal customers for local farmers. After all, that’s what it will take to grow and sustain a local food economy.

If you go

Lexington Farmers’ Market Farm Tour

Saturday, June 20, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

$10 adults, $5 students, younger than 12 free

More information: www.lexingtonfarmersmarket.com

Seedleaf: www.seedleaf.org

Savoring Kentucky: www.savoringkentucky.com