John Dean mingles at the Colfax Farmers Market.
John Dean mingles at the Colfax Farmers Market.

By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation

It’s nice to imagine that if a community is offered a chance at change — give them, say, the tools they need to lead better, healthier lives — members of that community will seize that chance. Make the most of it.

And yet, as anyone who has worked at the grassroots level of change can attest, it doesn’t always go down like that. The old “if you build it, they will come” movie line? Not always so true in the real world…

“I love that quote,” laughs John Dean, charged with launching Eat Local community groups on behalf of the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative (a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported program).  “But yeah, it’s not that easy. Getting a community engaged takes a lot of patience. It takes a little while for people to appreciate the opportunity to make a difference on their own.”

I felt that, first hand, during a recent Food Policy Council meeting Dean led in Alexandria earlier this month. The meeting was supposed to be made up of community volunteers from the various Eat Local groups in Central Louisiana. But in the end, there were more empty chairs than filled ones. Not enough for a quorum, Dean noted. No meaningful votes would be taken this day.  Of course, it was a bad weather day, and that’s never a good thing when trying to coax folks into schlepping to an office for a meeting. Those who were there, I should note, were obviously committed. Like Frances Boudreaux, on a mission to call every grocery store in Central Louisiana to push them into buying more local produce.

“I had one grocer tell me that he didn’t want to sound like a hippie or anything, but if we helped him find meat without any additives, he’d sell it,” Boudreaux proudly reported.

Eat Local Rapides April 2013 (9)
Eat Local Rapides meeting

And Lee Weeks, business manager for Inglewood Farms, working on a program that would waive taxes for local farmers who bring their produce to area grocery stores.

These are the people Dean likes to call “local champions.” His belief is, once you find the local champions to take over a project, they simply will. By sheer force of will, they will influence the rest of the community — eventually.

“Every community has those local champions,” Dean said. “It’s just a matter of finding them and giving them the tools they need to flourish.”

He found another such champion in Catahoula Parish — a woman who so passionately believed in the Eat Local movement that she worked tirelessly to promote her community’s first meeting. She put up posters, handed out flyers, put an ad in the paper, told as many people as she could.

“She did everything right,” Dean said. “Everything you’d expect her to do. And then we get there, to the meeting, it’s just me and her. No one else showed up.”

And while that may sound like a discouraging story, it isn’t. It’s what happens in the beginning. Until people “get it,” these are the hits and misses to expect, Dean said.

“In fact, she didn’t give up,” said Dean, reporting that she eventually “found the right resources” in her community, teaming up with the Healthy Initiative Coalition, already active in the community. They, too, had few members showing up to their meetings. But when the two forces joined together, “Over 15 people attended their last 2 meetings,” Dean said. “So, you see? It just takes patience.”

Because for most folks, it takes time to understand that everyday citizens can band together for change — that they have power.

“People in places like rural America are used to the government or people with money telling them what to do,” Dean said. “This is a new concept, that the individual members of the community have to do it themselves. If you want a famers market in Colfax, Louisiana, you can’t just rely on others to make it happen. You, the community, have to make it happen. It’s about creating a sense of empowerment.”

His tactic? Focus on the successes and watch it snowball into other places.

Natchitoches Community Table
Natchitoches Community Table

Eat Local Grant and Eat Local Natchitoches are now flourishing, for example.

“They’ve became models of success,” Dean said. “When we initially went to parishes like LaSalle and Catahoola, we didn’t have those examples. But after awhile, they heard about those successes,  and then they start to think, ‘We can do that, too.’ “

In fact, there are now five strong Eat Local groups in Central Louisiana — and two more are in the works. Some groups are now managing local farmers markets. Some have created community produce tables and have begun pushing local stores to carry more food from area farmers.  Still others are working with farmers to find even more opportunities to sell to their neighbors. There’s even a plan for an Eat Local distribution center in Alexandria.

“It’s about the long term vision,” Dean said. “The ball has just started rolling and it’s going to be hard to stop. It’s not just the hip thing to do at the moment. This is becoming a movement. Just this week alone, I got a call about the Alexandria River Fest. They’re interested in having Local Foods included as part of their festivities, to showcase what we’re doing. So yeah, things are happening. Just watch — we’re gonna become the center the Louisiana food culture.”