Inaugural event launches regional collaboration
By Patty Cantrell, Community Wealth Building Coordinator, New Growth
Big things start small.
These are the wise words spoken Tuesday, January 15 by one Osceola High School student at west central Missouri’s first Farm to Fork Summit. The Future Farmers of America (FFA) member was one of 102 farmers, consumers, health professionals, educators, civic leaders, and more who attended the event, filling the gym at Osceola’s Assembly of God Church.
All were there to explore the possibility and potential of greater local food production, consumption, and commerce in the region. The summit’s purpose was to build shared knowledge and next steps for building rural health and wealth through new local food connections. It was organized by West Central Missouri Community Action Agency, its community development corporation New Growth, and a number of partners and sponsors.
The day featured creative and innovative ways that people in the region and the state are connecting farmers, neighbors, and markets. Speakers relayed true stories of building local food sales and community health at the Hickory County Farmers Market, at El Dorado Springs’ Zoe SoZo’s Whole Life Market, in Vernon County schools, and more.
At one Vernon County school, local beef menu items are now neck-and-neck with chicken patties, the kids’ favorite, said Kelly Ast with the Healthy Nevada initiative. Area cattle producers and the state’s MO Beef for MO Kids initiative joined together to secure local beef for cafeteria meals this year at three of four Vernon County school districts.
The MO Beef for MO Kids program comes with marketing materials that feature local farm families. The kids see people they actually know in those photos, Ast said.
Summit participants also grappled with the daunting challenge of building local food businesses and culture in a global food world.
Presenters from the Kansas City Food Hub, for example, shared the organization’s experience as a cooperative of west central Missouri growers marketing produce to larger wholesale buyers. Demand is strong for their fresh-picked, locally grown lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and many heirloom varieties and certified organic items. Yet it is tough to match global food companies’ prices, volume, and advertising.
The potential to grow local food sales, direct and wholesale, however, is strong. After dramatic increases since the 1990s, local food again surged after the 2008-2009 recession. In just three years, from 2012 to 2015, direct-to-consumer local food sales increased 50 percent to $9 billion, according to a recent USDA Census of Agriculture Update.
The last session of the day had participants talking about what they learned and what they are thinking now. It produced a set of next steps that focus on building the community of people, right here in west central Missouri, who are ready and willing to help young farmers grow, ensure people eat well, and build rural economies with local food.
This next step list included buying and serving local food when possible, as the summit did with a lunch menu that featured local farm and food businesses.
At the end of the day, participants said: “It’s time.”
Too many people are hungry and sick because they cannot find or afford healthy food. Too many family farms and rural communities are crumbling because they do not fit industrial markets. And too many of our meals rely on a quite consolidated system. One bad batch of factory romaine lettuce can trigger a nationwide salad shutdown, as Americans experienced last year over Thanksgiving.
International expert and keynote speaker John Ikerd encouraged summit participants to forge ahead, knowing they are on the cutting edge of a major food shift.
Ikerd talked from his experience between the 1940s and the 1990s watching food and farming move from local to global. He sees a re-localizing well underway as people and communities call for more integrity and authenticity from farm to fork.
“The creation of a new sustainable/local food system for the future, is not just about a better way to fuel the human body,” he said. “It is also about feeding the human heart and soul.”
This is the essence of local food’s power since the late 1990s to defy all expectations. Summit participants explored the question: Can we build on this demand for greater food and farm security in west central Missouri?
Big things start small. These words from that Osceola FFA student at the summit sum up the hope and energy among participants after a day of building local food knowledge and relationships.
It’s a big job, they said. But we can start small and accomplish real change, together.