By Tina Dirmann
staff writer for BCBSLA Foundation
Judy Allen remembers a time, when she was just a girl, living on farmland with her parents in Natchitoches and was surrounded by the nourishing foods that eventually ended up on her family’s dining room table.
“We had chickens and fruit trees and vegetables in the garden,” Allen said. “And if we killed a pig, we shared it with our cousins and their family, because they lived nearby. And when they killed a cow, they did the same for us. It was true living off the land.”
So much so, that when she eventually shipped off to college, she was plagued with stomach illnesses.
“Because I started eating processed foods for the first time in my life and my body wasn’t used to it,” recalls Allen. “The doctor told me to give it a few months, my body would adjust to it.”
Now, as a retired professional who has returned to her girlhood home town, she wants to re-capture the healthier living habits she learned as a child. And theCentral Louisiana Local Foods Initiative wants to help her make that happen.
Last week, the program launched the Eat Local campaign, established to promote ways to eat more fresh foods — locally grown, locally sold. The campaign will eventually stretch into nine parishes: Natchitoches, Rapides, Grant, Avoyelles, LaSalle, Winn, Catahoula, Allen and Vernon.
It’s yet another innovative health reform program made possible by Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant dollars. Last fall, the foundation awarded $500,000 to theCentral Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, which contributed its own funding in addition to grant money from the Rapides Foundation — creating an impressive $1 million budget for the Local Foods Initiative.
It’s a critical need in regions such as Natchitoches Parish, where nearly 30% of residents have only limited access to grocery stores (living as much as 10 miles or more away from a store in rural areas). Combine that statistic with the lack of access to public transportation, and it’s not hard to grasp the problem. Too often, the ubiquitous corner market, hawking mostly packaged chips and canned cokes, becomes the main store for families.
Aware of the challenge, Allen — along with a few neighbors, a nutritionist and activists from other healthy eating coalitions — came together last week, under the guidance of CLEDA Regional Food Systems Planner John Dean… And began a journey to find solutions.
“To really strengthen a food system, every element of that system needs to be at the table,” Dean said during a break in the community meeting, held at the Northwestern University Campus. “Tonight, we are creating a vision of what the community wants that food system to be in the future.”
In the 90 minute meeting, participants listed their demands. Among them:
–Year round farmers markets, featuring in-season foods
–A collaboration program between local farmers and corner market store owners
–Local restaurants offering entrees featuring locally gown foods
–A farm mentor program to introduce more school kids to gardening/agriculture.
–More access to organically grown produce
–A food sharing program, allowing home gardeners to exchange produce
“You see, we just created this vision for our parish,” John said. “And that’s a really big first step. We took everything negative about the current food system and found a way to turn it into a positive.”
The group will meet once a month, each time, hoping to draw-in more community members, including corner market owners, local farmers, school representatives, gardening clubs…
“This is only the beginning,” John said, who led another Eat Local community gathering in Grant Parish this week. “This is a true community led initiative. And we can expect great things to come from working together.”