John Cotton Dean’s official title is “regional food systems planner with the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance.” Sounds a little wonky considering his true calling, here in Central Louisiana, is to galvanize communities into action. He is charged with coordinating Eat Local community coalitions in nine parishes across our central state. The effort is supported, in part, through a $500,000 grant from our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana program. This month marks the one year anniversary since Dean’s first Eat Local meeting (in Natchitoches). Since then, there have been many rewards, many accomplishments — and some hurdles (like introducing grass roots food activism in an area better known for sky-rocketing rates of obesity and related health issues). Below, Dean discusses the Eat Local campaign of the past year… And reminds us all that the region’s second annual Foodapalooza is just a few days away!
By John Cotton Dean
A local foods economy requires many parts working together — farmers markets, buyers clubs, regional food hubs, local growers… And so, developing a strong local foods economy takes significant patience and determination. And this is especially true in the rural areas of Central Louisiana.
To make real progress in these rural areas, communities must be engaged. And that can be a challenge in itself — finding dedicated volunteers who want to take charge, know how to take charge, in the name of real change. In a community not used to such grass roots “eat local” campaigns, this has been a true hurdle to overcome. Volunteers have to truly want to come to meetings after a long work day, make calls to important contacts, maybe canvass neighborhoods and area grocery stores, etc… That takes true commitment and some leadership skills from all involved. And on that end, we are still evolving. Still, enough members of the community do see and understand the goal. And so, some small but important victories have already been accomplished.
Members of the local community came together for an Eat Local Rapides meeting last April.
For the past year, through a BCBSLF Challenge Grant, the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA) and its partners have worked tirelessly to engage our region’s mostly rural communities. Our most important tool has been in teaching the power of Eat Local groups. Eat Local groups are community-based coalitions — neighbors, farmers, teachers, food banks, concerned citizens — focused on strengthening a community’s local foods economy. The first Eat Local meeting was exactly one year ago this month, in February 2013. Since then, we’ve developed five local food coalitions that now meet on a regular basis. The power of these Eat Local groups is that they, themselves, determine what opportunities are within their own backyards — and what challenges they must overcome.
For example, in Grant Parish it was determined by the community that a lack of fresh food access in the rural community hurt the health of many of Grant Parish’s residents. But it also offered a real opportunity for the many vegetable growers who reside throughout the Parish to fill that void. At monthly Eat Local meetings, local food advocates and growers alike worked together to develop an informal farmers market in downtown Colfax. The market itself hosts as many as sixteen produce vendors during the peak season months of late spring and the fall (making it the largest produce market in Central Louisiana). To date, Eat Local Colfax has made significant progress in making local foods more accessible to the people of Colfax and surrounding Grant Parish.
And our Eat Local Natchitoches coalition has made significant progress. They joined together to create the Natchitoches Community Table at the weekly Cane River Green Market. The community table operates as a cooperative, where local gardeners and small-scale growers are able to sell collectively as one vendor at the farmers market. Not only does this minimize the market vendor fees (each community table member pays a small amount that adds up to the weekly fee), the community table method allows for growers and local residents to build partnerships around local foods. Due to the immediate success of the Natchitoches Community Table, other Eat Local groups in Central Louisiana, including in Rapides Parish and Vernon Parish, have developed or are planning to develop their own community tables. In less than one year, the Natchitoches Community Table has worked towards building a strong local foods economy, and community, in Natchitoches Parish and beyond.
Building off the momentum of our Eat Local groups, community engagement must also include opportunities to share the many successes and challenges with others who are focusing on similar goals of improving local foods economies. With the help of the Challenge Grant, Central Louisiana is lucky enough to be hosting the second annual Foodapalooza. The day-long event will feature skill-building workshops, locally-sourced meals at our region’s restaurants, local food and farm activities, as well as nationally-known presenters. This year’s keynote address will be presented by the Indian Springs Farmers Association, a small group of farmers in rural Mississippi who decided to band together to compete with larger growers, and is now selling its produce from New Orleans to Memphis and all the way to Toronto. This year’s Foodapalooza will take place in downtown Alexandria, beginning at 8:45 on Friday, February 21st. You can learn more about Foodapalooza, as well as register, by visiting https://foodapalooza2014.eventbrite.com.
With Foodapalooza and the projects being led by a number of Eat Local groups, Central Louisiana is in position to strengthen its local foods economy through the power of its own communities. As others look towards improving their own local foods economies, one must look no further than places such as Natchitoches and Grant Parish to see the power of community engagement.