Rural food systems struggle to provide
Groups work to create solutions to food distribution problems
In the tiny town of Dayville (pop. 138), the general store does a lot more than sell groceries. It’s a feed store, a liquor store, a variety store and—like many rural mercantiles—it also does duty as the community center. Mugs with their owners’ names scrawled on them hang on the wall, waiting for local residents to head to the back room for a little coffee and company.
It’s a reminder of how important food is to rural Oregon—not just the consuming of it, but its availability and distribution. At the same time, it serves as a reminder of how these food systems are at risk.
“That store has been for sale for as many years as I’ve been driving by it,” says Sharon Thornberry of the Oregon Food Bank. Thornberry travels to rural areas throughout Oregon for her job as community food programs advocate. “The owner drives to Bend to put produce in her store, and she has to go to Portland to stock her shelves.”
Community gardens are a huge success
One of the big problems for rural communities is that the country is built around a food system designed to serve large populations. Food distributors must ship in bulk to make it worthwhile, unlike liquor, with its large profit margin, or cigarettes, which are cheap to ship. “When you can’t buy in large volume, the food stops coming to you—you have to go to it,” Thornberry says. That’s a problem, especially when high gas prices and low incomes are factored in.
Another issue is the inability of local producers to sell in their own communities. Ranchers raise beef, for example, but can’t sell it locally because the number of USDA processors has steadily declined, and most of the USDA facilities are west of the Cascades.
Food-system issues permeate all parts of the economy. Take low-income food assistance programs such as WIC and food stamps, which are designed to feed people while injecting cash into local economies—$9 for every $5 in benefits. The economic impact is blunted when recipients have to travel great distances to buy the food, assuming they can afford the gas to get there.
‘It’s about the conversation’
Food-related issues like these are not new, but the hard work of local and regional food coalitions and statewide groups such as the Oregon Food Bank is bringing them to the forefront. The first step toward creating solutions is to build awareness of food issues through community meetings, food inventories and networking.
“Community food assessments can really be anything,” says Katie Weaver, an AmeriCorps RARE (Resource Assistance for Rural Environments) volunteer in her second year of conducting community food systems research. She is one of five RARE volunteers doing similar work in Oregon. “It’s just a broad-based approach to asking a lot of different questions about the food systems.”
Weaver, who works in Malheur and Harney counties, uses a workshop model, where community members come together for a day. The information gathered from these meetings is used to create a report with specific steps to increase food security at local and regional levels. And, often, it’s used to educate residents about their own resources. At a Wheeler County meeting recently, “there were people sitting at that table who didn’t know there was a food pantry in Fossil, or a community garden at the school,” Weaver says.
“It’s about having the conversation,” Thornberry says. “Not just having it and whining, but having the conversation and saying, ‘Okay, what are we doing about this.’”
Mobile farmers market
The conversation often identifies opportunities. The mobile farmers market in Hood River, for example, was launched after a community foods assessment. The market buys produce from farmers all over the Columbia Gorge area, and trucks it to other communities. “There were 40-some people lined up in Dufur during one visit last summer,” says Thornberry, who watched a local Dufur woman set up her own booth next to the truck. “That is simple economic development, but it makes a difference,” she says.
In Tillamook County, the Food Roots organization manages a variety of programs with the goal of a healthy food system. The group’s activities include a long menu of community development and public outreach programs, support for 12 community and school gardens throughout the county, and a vigorous youth education program.
Program Manager Shelly Bowe is betting that the youth element will pay dividends in the future, as students become familiar with the economic potential that food-related endeavors hold. Today, kids run the cash register at Food Roots’ table at the farmers market; in future years, they may be managing the market itself.
Despite the gravity of food systems issues, Thornberry is encouraged by what’s happening around the state. “Community gardens are a huge success, as are school gardens and the farm-to-school program,” she says. “The other bright spot in all of this is all of the food system coalitions that are working in rural areas.”