When you think of Appalachia, of Ohio and West Virginia, of the Mid-Ohio Valley and Southeastern Ohio, what comes to mind?
Like many of us, Mary Nally, Executive Director of Community Food Initiatives, grew up in Appalachia and received more negative messages than positive messages about what life was like or could be like in this beautiful region we call home. “I received a lot of negative messages, that this was not a place where I could thrive. There weren’t going to be good jobs here, this wasn’t a place to raise a family, this wasn’t a place with hope.”
She moved away after college, but as fate would have it she came back to attend graduate school at Ohio University. “My last quarter of grad school, I had a professor who challenged my sense of place, challenged me to redefine what it meant for me to be from here and that really shook me to my core. To look at those messages I’d gotten critically, and to ask myself if I really thought those things were true, and if there were, was there something I could do to change that? That’s why I love what I do here, because it gives me a chance to constantly be looking at that and to invite other people to look at that message more critically and to ask ourselves, how do we want to talk about ourselves as people from SE Ohio and Appalachia?”
Community Food Initiatives is a key player leading the way in changing how we think about Appalachia, and more specifically how we think about food in our region.
“We need to make sure we are not losing the knowledge and skills of growing our own food and raising our own livestock, preserving food and using those skills and abilities to continuously develop the local food economy.”
CFI is a nonprofit organization that has predominately served the Athens community throughout its 22-year lifespan. It is a membership based, nonprofit organization, which was started by a group of individuals who were passionate about ensuring that local food would be available to everyone in their community.
“We live in one of the most bio-diverse regions in the entire nation. We are able to grow food here year round, we have a beautiful rural landscape, people in our community who know how to grow and save seeds, raise their own livestock, and put up all of that food for the winter months. We have all of this other kind of wealth that maybe doesn’t always look like dollars and cents, but that is the heritage that has sustained us for generations. These are things that the rest of the country is sorely lacking. If we don’t change the way we talk about ourselves and look at ourselves, we will lose these things too.”
The Community Garden Program is CFI’s longest running program. For many years, they managed the West Side Community Gardens in Athens, but in 2009 the program expanded to include six different gardens throughout the county. The goal of the community gardens is to increase access to fresh, locally grown foods for everyone, regardless of income. At each garden site, free seeds and plant starts are available for gardeners, as well as easy water access, tools and soil. The only thing asked of those who participate in a community garden is a 10% tithe of what they grow, which can be given back to CFI at the Donation Station and then distributed to someone in need, or to a local food pantry or friends and family in need of food.
One thing CFI does annually is their Seed Giveaway. This program is such an important event because it gives anyone access to seeds regardless of income or address. There are spots throughout the county where people can go to pick up seeds and seed potatoes, mostly social service organization or public libraries. This year alone, thanks to efforts from CFI, Seed Savers, and other community partners, 32,000 pounds of seed potatoes were distributed across ten different counties in SE Ohio and 4,028 seed packets of 407 different plant varieties were distributed in Athens County as part of the annual Seed Giveaway.
CFI also runs a School Garden Program in multiple schools in the county and surrounding communities. These incredible programs make it possible for students to learn about nutrition in an applicable hands-on way, to grow and harvest their own food, and to develop life-long skills valuable in and out of the classroom. The School Garden Program currently serves Athens county schools, Vinton Middle School, as well as social services organizations and day care centers. CFI assists with curriculum development, the planning process, and also helps schools identify key players in the community who could help keep these programs running, even through summer and winter breaks.
While programs such as the Community Garden Program and School Garden Program are focused on long-term food access through providing people the opportunity to grow their own food and to learn where it comes from, the Donation Station is more focused on providing immediate food access to people who are hungry today. Athens County is identified as having the highest rate of food insecurity in the state of Ohio, and many neighboring counties are in the same boat.
CFI’s Donation Station can be found at the Athens Farmers Market and in Morgan County at the Chesterhill Produce Auction, soliciting for financial donations, which are in turn spent at the farmers market or the auction respectively. Many people and vendors also donate food. The food bought and donated at these events is then brought back to CFI and stored in their walk in cooler, and then distributed to local pantries and charities within the community. Because of CFI’s efforts and the generosity of people donating at these events, in 2014 CFI spent $14,720 in the local food economy, which translates to 79,452 pounds of food being distributed to over 30 food pantries and social service agencies within Athens and Morgan Counties.
One more super exciting thing happening at CFI is their Seed Sovereignty Program. Seed sovereignty plays a huge role in developing sustainable food security. Where does your food come from, and whom are you supporting with your food purchases? The Seed Sovereignty Program seeks to support local seed savers and to increase the community’s access to these seeds. Southeast Ohio Seed Savers is an effort from CFI to support seed sovereignty throughout Appalachia. Twice a year, CFI hosts a seed exchange event in which seed savers have the opportunity to gather in one place where the community is welcome to come and purchase seeds from these individuals to plant in their own gardens, and to hear the beautiful stories behind the seeds which have often been grown in the same family for generations. This project has already identified several seed savers to work with, including a couple people from Washington County.
This year’s pilot project for the program has been very promising, and Mary is excited for the project in the coming years. “My goal over the next few years is to be more deeply connected with our neighboring counties.”