Little Victories in Huntington’s Food Revolution

Little Victories In Huntington’s Food Revolution

Wed 20 Apr 2011

Story by Jane Black and Brent Cunningham
 

With the new season of Food Revolution under way in Los Angeles, it's easy to get caught up in the Big Ideas and high-stakes drama of the effort to change the way Americans eat. Will Jamie defeat the entrenched, regressive powers that rule our food system? Can our fast-food nation break its addiction to sugar, salt and fat? Will the legions of morbidly obese summon the courage, and find the help they need, to get healthy?

But in Huntington, WV, where Oliver started his campaign a year ago, the story today is more mundane: Can the supply of fresh, local food meet the growing demand?

That's the question Andie Leffingwell is trying to answer. She is the director of Huntington's Kitchen (formerly Jamie's Kitchen), which, in addition to offering cooking classes, aims to become a marketplace for local fruits, vegetables, eggs and, perhaps someday, meat. Called "Fresh Markets" – farmers don't come to the markets and sell themselves – the program was conceived two years ago as a way to bring fruits and vegetables to low-income families. Now, Leffingwell wants to link healthy food to the local economy. Instead of buying strawberries shipped in from California or tomatoes from Tennessee, she is trying to source her produce from local farms and build a market for small farmers.

Easier said than done, as we quickly found out when we moved to Huntington last fall to research a book on the city's efforts to develop a healthier food culture. Though Huntington, which sits on the Ohio River, is surrounded by fertile farmland, there are not many full-time farmers left here. This was traditionally tobacco and cattle country, and today the majority of farmers do it part-time or as a hobby. Most are skeptical of new marketing schemes, which is how a lot of farmers perceive the new obsession with local food. To succeed, Leffingwell needs to prove to local farmers that they can make money serving their community. But with many local customers on tight budgets, the numbers don't add up for everyone.

They do for Aaron Lewis, a fifth-generation farmer who works eighteen acres of prime bottom land in Miller, Ohio, just up the road from Huntington. He grows an impressively diverse array of crops—cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, strawberries—in a region that leans heavily on its holy trinity of half-runner beans, tomatoes and sweet corn. He sells wholesale, and has also built a vibrant retail business at a market on his farm. Most important, he understands that farming is a business and that to be successful you have to know your customers and know how to serve them. If that means selling tomatoes for $1 a pound to compete with local grocery stores—and that’s exactly what it means around here—then Lewis will grow enough tomatoes to be able to do that all season long.

This is exactly the kind of farmer that Huntington needs more of if it is to build a local food economy. If Lewis and Leffingwell can work together, it will be an important step toward turning those fresh markets into farmers markets—and one small victory for Huntington’s food revolutionaries.

About the authors: Jane Black and Brent Cunningham are writing a book about Huntington's efforts to develop a healthier food culture. The book will be published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

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