Jefferson County Food Council Seeks Vision of Healthy Residents & Vibrant Local Food System
There is a movement across Kansas where like-minded folks are gathering together to influence and change the current food system so that more food is grown locally and access to healthy, fresh food is easier. The Kansas Rural Center’s “Feeding Kansas” report, published over a year and a half ago, called for support of local food and farm councils who would provide guidance in communities and to local governments around the issue of raising more food locally.
One of these groups is the Jefferson County Food Council, comprised of citizens who share a passion for the idea that people should have access to fresh, healthy, local food, and that more support should be available for farmers. Jefferson County clearly has its finger on the pulse of this growing movement.
Jefferson County, located in northeast Kansas, is considered an agricultural county but, like the majority of Kansas, imports most of its food. In fact, over 90% of the fruits and vegetables that Kansans eat come from outside the state. The Jefferson County Food Council is dedicated to changing that. They know demand for local food is there, and that the challenge is to provide support that enables more farmers to grow it and to get a distribution network set up for locally-grown products. The Jefferson County Food Council believes that the health of citizens will improve by increasing the diversity of agricultural products grown in the county, and that this will foster community and environmental resilience.
Important components of the council’s work are environmental justice and access to healthy food. Specific priorities the council is working on include building and strengthening markets for local farmers, such as a food hub and farmers markets, and development of commercial kitchens that allow growers to process their food into marketable items outside the growing season. The council also hopes to become the go-to resource center for landowners who want to use their land in a sustainable way.
The administrative tasks of the Food Council are handled by Brittany Chaplin, Jefferson County Economic Development Coordinator. The seed was planted for the council at a county commissioners meeting in 2014. Steve Moring, local farmer and current council member, gave a presentation on permaculture and what was happening on his farm and in the Lawrence area, and one of the commissioners said, “You need to meet that gal,” pointing to Brittany who had recently been hired to her position. She was exploring options for projects, and being somewhat of a “foodie” and grower herself, she and Moring talked and agreed there were likely enough interested citizens in the county to form an advocacy group for local and sustainable food policy.
An exploratory public meeting was held on December 20, 2014, in Oskaloosa, to discuss what a food council could be and how it could benefit communities in Jefferson County. At that time, there were only five other Food Policy Councils in Kansas – now there are at least Eleven. Chaplin and Moring put out a call through “word of mouth” to find stakeholders, and the food council grew from there.
In May, 2015 Jefferson County Commissioners supported the development of a council by passing a county resolution which established a “Food council for the purpose of promoting local food policy to promote access to and consumption of healthy food options in Jefferson County.” From the beginning, they have found it very easy to proceed as they are “all on the same page” and continue to function very well as a group.
One of the first steps members took included developing a survey, which was sent out in spring of 2016 through newspaper notices, and email and Facebook. It provided a hyper link for growers to fill out the survey about their products. Questions were related to crops grown, size of farm, what is working and not working for them, policy issues needing addressed and what help growers would like to have. They made an effort to reach all size operations, not just small growers. The survey results helped the council prioritize direction of work.
It is critical that farmers be a part of the council, and so far mostly small farmers have become involved. Others that have been involved include economic development representatives, health professionals, bankers, and youth to name a few. Large producers generally have not seen where they fit in, but the council is hoping to change that, as well as the negative connotation that is given to agriculture in recent years as farms have gotten bigger. Jefferson County Conservation District manager, Cheli Lopez, is excited about the Food Council, and senses that farmers are tired of low commodity prices and could benefit from agricultural diversification and awareness about practices they might not know about, such as cover cropping.
Though participants share a common purpose, each brings a unique perspective to the group. A recent meeting at member Susan Jones’ permaculture garden farm introduced some of their goals and intentions. Her small straw bale house was built on land that has been in her family for over 100 years. Jones came back to live on the land 30 years ago, and now shares it as a classroom and as her “nod to permaculture.”
Council member Steve Moring also has an education farm, building on the permaculture consciousness in the Lawrence area. He teaches a Permaculture Design course and has hosted an Apprenticeship Program since 2000. He was influenced early on by the ‘Club of Rome’ report, which discussed the effects of population growth, energy and resource depletion, and the need to build resiliency into food systems. He looks at Cuba as an example and cites the ‘Power of Community’ video as a resource.
The current demand for local foods is driving change, and Moring noted that recently when he visited the Oskaloosa School community garden and met with 2nd graders, he found that three-fourths have gardens at home and like eating the fresh food. The council feels there is hope to change their local food system and use this momentum to aid in their efforts.
Eric Youngquist is a stay-at-home dad, raising a family on his 80 acres. Although the cropland and pasture is rented out, he started researching and studying permaculture applications on his land, with a goal of “building soil.” He sold produce and volunteered at the Perry farmers market, and now manages it. “I’m learning as I go.” The market is in its ninth season, with ten vendors. Rather than competing for food dollars, the local grocery benefits from the increased traffic that the farmers market brings on the days it is open. “One day a week, for a few hours, the community is enlivened when the farmers market is happening and it brings folks to town to shop,” Youngquist said. The grocery store sells handmade soap and some other locally made items.
Council members Jenny and Tim O’Brien are passionate about helping initiate a new conversation about land policy in Jefferson County. They live on eight acres north of Lawrence, purchased in 2006 when they committed to a homestead lifestyle. While they were able to buy their small acreage through an “agricultural split” reserved for family members, current zoning does not allow large tracts of land to be divided into anything smaller than 40 acres. This discourages small homesteaders like themselves, and they see the Food Council as an entity that can bring data and examples to county government to show what has been done in other places and why it is important for the effort to diversify local food systems. They are encouraged by the young people who want to learn about this growing system and lifestyle. “We need more farms growing food for the local market,” O’Brien said, and access to smaller tracts of land for sale would offer opportunities for growers who cannot afford large acreages to raise high value crops such as fruits and vegetables.
“We contribute to the language,” claims Tim O’Brien, to encourage county officials to “think outside the box” when making considerations on spraying ditches, zoning restrictions, and seasonal labor regulations. The Jefferson County Food Council would not only like to act as a Resource Center for landowners but as a clearinghouse as well to funnel ideas like O’Brien’s and provide education and resources on sustainability to citizens and their local government. They will continue to explore the creation of a local Food Hub, and building commercial kitchens in the county.
“The Food Council has been eye opening,” according to Susan Jones. Efforts to create a regional or county Food Hub, pooling product and knowledge will allow everyone to benefit,” she adds.
The idea is that growers can still market individually, but that the Food Hub can provide a place to take their extra product. This is a technical and adaptive challenge. Funds are not available yet, but they plan to apply for an “Implementation” grant to move forward on projects identified from the survey and in step with the goals of the group.
The group will continue their work with a vision that in the next 5-20 years a functional, vibrant local food system will be thriving in their county, with 4-5 farmers markets, local foods in restaurants, and a community garden in every school. They envision healthy citizens who have access to a wide variety of locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats.
The Kansas Rural Center (KRC) works with partners around the state including the Kansas Alliance for Wellness (KAW) who help communities begin conversation around forming food and farm policy councils or task forces. For anyone interested in learning more about how to form a food policy council or task force, contact Missty Lechner with KAW at 785-228-3419.
KRC will continue to advocate for the Feeding Kansas recommendations including support for food policy councils through its newly funded project, “Community Food Solutions: Civic Agriculture for Civic Health” which will focus on cultivating civic agriculture in Kansas and mobilizing grassroots Kansans. Anyone interested in learning more and participating in this Initiative may visit www.kansasruralcenter.org/CFS and sign up for KRC information and emails, or contact Program Manager Natalie Fullerton directly firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-310-0177.
The mission of KRC, founded in 1979, is to promote the long-term health of the land and its people through community-based research, education, and advocacy that advances an economically viable, ecologically sound, and socially just food and farming system in Kansas. For more information, visit kansasruralcenter.org.
Jean Stramel is a freelance writer, retired from the USDA NRCS who lives in Lucas, Ks. She wrote this article as part of KRC’s Community Food Solutions Initiative.