Athens Ohio’s Amazing Bounty of Local Foods

It really is amazing to me how many locally grown and produced foods there are available in a town the size of Athens. The resident population is around 21,000 with the Ohio University population, most of them students who only live in the town for roughly nine months of the year, roughly doubling the population when the university is in session.

Even though the town is small, with a household median income of roughly $17,000 with a median family income of $53,000, (contrast this with the US household median income of $26, 000 and the US median family income of $55,000 or $63,000 for married couple families) there is a very large, very vibrant community-supported local food network of farmers, restaurants, small food processors and small food-oriented businesses extent in and around Athens. Organic, locally-grown foods are a priority in this small town, and it just takes one visit to the local farmer’s market to learn just how strong this movement is here.

The illustration above shows a breakfast made almost entirely from local produce. The strawberries were grown here, the maple syrup was made here from sap tapped in Athens county, the bacon comes King Family Farm in Albany, Ohio, the bread was baked by Crumb’s Bakery, here in Athens, (though the wheat, alas, was probably still grown in Nebraska), the milk is from pasture fed Ohio cows and the eggs are from pasture-raised hens down the road in Guysville.

It isn’t hard, or that expensive to eat food this fresh and delicious in Athens–it is readily available and more and more consumers are choosing to go with Ohio food products rather than the typical coorporate foods available at Wal-Mart.

One of the most frequently-made comments against locally produced or organic foods is their higher cost to the consumer makes them prohibitively expensive for the lower-income consumer, leading to charges of elitism among those who support organic or local foods. (For my response to the Julie Powell OpEd piece making these charges, go here.) Yet. somehow, in this most impoverished county in Ohio, which is situated smack-dab in the middle of Applachia in which many residents suffer under-employment or unemployment, there has been a concerted effort to support the availability of good, wholesome, locally produced food.

How has this happened?

Through the concerted efforts of a great many individuals and groups working together toward common goals of financial support for local food growers, financial growth in an impoverished small-town and rural area, and social justice and food security for all residents.

One such committed group is ACEnet: The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks. The mission statement of ACEnet gives a taste of what the long-lived non-profit organization is all about: “he Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) is a community economic development organization located in rural southeastern Ohio. The mission of ACEnet is to build the capacity of local communities to network, innovate, and work together to create a strong, sustainable regional economy that has opportunities for all. ACEnet uses a sectoral strategy, currently focusing on the food and technology sectors of the economy.

In each sector, ACEnet staff provides basic service that businesses need to start, expand, and create quality jobs. At the the same time, staff members encourage entrepreneurs to network with each other, sharing information and generating joint ventures that enable them to enjoy economies of scale typical of much larger businesses.”

ACEnet has among its resources what it calls the “Community Kitchen Incubator,” one of a very few health-inspected food facilities in the country that can be rented by qualified individuals (ACEnet requires users to take classes in safety, health issues and operation of the specialized equipment in the kitchen) and small businesses in order to do commercial cooking, baking, thermal processing and frozen food processing. Included in the facility are shipping and recieving docks, warehouse areas, office space and conference rooms. These facilities have enabled unemployed or underemployed entrepeneurs to start successful small food businesses with distribution throughout the local area, as well as nationwide. In addition to facilities and education, ACEnet provides support for local food businesses in the form of further education and material assistance when needed.

Another organization that has done much to build the fantastic local food movement in Athens is Rural Action, another grassroots organization that is dedicated to promoting economic, social, and environmental justice in Appalachian Ohio. One of the specific projects of Rural Action is the support and growth of area farmers by bringing them together with both individual consumers of farm products and institutions such as Ohio University, thus providing needed economic support for local farmers. Indeed, the Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture program aims to educate farmers in adding value to their products, business skills and agricultural production techniques, while also identifying potential markets and increasing sales in these markets through consumer education.

Local restaurants have also made a difference.

Casa Nueva, the local worker-owned cooperative restaurant which has been in continuous operation for more than twenty years, has made a strong commitment for over a decade in sourcing food locally from farmers and producers as close to Athens as possible. They proudly also serve Free Trade coffees and teas, and really opened Athens residents and OU students to the ideals of eating locally long before anyone had heard the word, “locavore.”

The photograph above shows the range of locally grown and produced foodstuffs that are available through outlets such as the Farmer’s Market, The Village Bakery, and even the local Kroger’s Supermarket. Here in Athens county, we have an individual tapping maple trees and making syrup, several beekeepers, farmers raising sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, cattle, trout, catfish and even shrimp, several bakers, all with different specialities including European style hearth breads, farmers growing the standard crops one would expect along with Asian vegetables such as fenugreek greens, bitter melon and snake gourd, gifted confectioners and makers of raw-food treats and almond milk. We also have access to dairy products produced in Ohio including raw milk cheeses, fluid milk, cottage cheese, butter and cream. There are even those who make pawpaw butter and “popsicles” from our native tropical fruit and ramp pesto from our native wild onion. Goatherders make glorious goatmilk soap, scented with herbs, which is available from different outlets including the farmer’s market.

We even have a grower of some of the finest mushrooms you could hope to find anywhere. Up in the photograph above, you can see some gorgeous fresh shiitake, fat and full of flavor. I want to get some in the summer when the air is drier and try to make my own Chinese black mushrooms. That would be very, very cool.

The local Krogers stocks locally produced pastas, pasta sauces, salsas, tofu, barbeque sauces, jams and jellies.

And everywhere I look, it seems that there is someone else starting up a local food business, or growing some new food or bringing a new food product to market.

It is simple to eat locally here in Athens, and I am proud to say that our family does pretty well all year around, eating most of our food from local sources. It feels good to support our local foodshed, and I am pleased to feed us all with such nutritious, delicious and not that dearly expensive food (remember the low median incomes I cited above).

But, more importantly, I am proud to be able to serve such delicious food, raised and produced with great care and love.

Athens is a great place to live if you like good food that is produced locally and sustainably.


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  1. That’s really great, Barbara!
    Israel is also a great place for eating locally. Almost all our fruit and vegetables are grown in this country, which is about the size of New Jersey; and there are new organic farms which grow your food within a hour’s driving distance. It’s fabulous when our needs can be met right where we live; anything we can do to diminish our ecological footprint.

    Comment by Hadar — May 25, 2006 #

  2. Okay, you’ve convinced me – I’m adding Athens to the list of Places I Wouldn’t Mind Living In. (It’s a continually updated list as my dear spouse and I have been confidently predicting we’ll leave Paris “in a year or two” for nearly ten years now…!)

    Plus, for us, the advantage of moving to a place with a low median income is that the lump sum of money you bring with you is worth a lot more in the housing market!

    Comment by Meg — May 26, 2006 #

  3. I’ve written to you before about the enourmous difference between now and the time I spent at OU in the Fifties. It is heartening to read this post! I want to commend all the folks who are doing grassroots level work with the population there, encouraging this movement toward organic, sustainable farming.

    This is a far cry from the diner/supermarket/bar foods I cooked in off-campus housing as a student.

    Thanks for the post.

    Comment by kudzu — May 26, 2006 #

  4. I am glad to hear that Israel is so self-sufficient in food, Hadar–that is great! I might have to visit it someday, of nothing else, to see what the food is like!

    Meg–you would not mind living here, perhaps, but after Paris, the restaurants here would be such a comedown.

    We have great raw materials here–and believe me–I have been cooking some of the best food of my life since moving here. But, going out to eat is sometimes quite limiting.

    There is good food in the restaurants here, but not always great food. And not much ethnic food.

    But, that said, you are right–the money brought to a place like Athens, when it comes to housing, goes a very long way.

    Kudzu–the place has changed since when we first came here to live over a decade ago, and when we came back last year. Things are snowballing, and more and more people are joining in the work to help make Athens’ local foodshed as varied and sustainable as possible.

    I only touched on the surface of the story, really. There is more–much more.

    Enough, probably for a book.

    Comment by Barbara — May 26, 2006 #

  5. Thanks Barbara for the wonderful description of our little corner of local food paradise! As one of the founders of both Casa Nueva and ACEnet’s Food Ventures project, I can attest to the snowball effect. Although it may seem unreal, I get to hang out and often advise over 200 local food entrepreneurs, farmers, market gardeners and restaurantuers in the multi county area surrounding the city of Athens. Many thanks also for the wonderful recent Time Magazine article article!

    Comment by Leslie Schaller — June 9, 2006 #

  6. Hey, Leslie–well met!

    The local food culture here in Athens is something that has not sprung up overnight, but is the result of a lot of hard work from a lot of people–and it is great to see how it has grown.

    And yes–it is definately a snowball effect!

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Comment by Barbara — June 9, 2006 #

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