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With a Focus on Food Sovereignty, Rural Appalachian Ohio is Rebounding

Civil Eats

With a Focus on Food Sovereignty, Rural Appalachian Ohio is Rebounding

Communities are creating food access, markets, and opportunity in the southeastern Appalachian foothills.

By Nicole Rasul, Food Access – Rural America     July 30, 2019

On a warm summer morning in Stewart, Ohio, a school bus staffed by a handful of AmeriCorps service members and several people from the local school district descend on the lawn of a community resource center. The yellow bus has been retrofitted with shelves and coolers that house fresh eggs, produce, and pantry staples.

A woman named Tisha, a resident in her early 40’s who says that she lives “on top of the ridge” in nearby Guysville, and her nine-year-old daughter approach in a small red SUV. They get out, greet the staff heartily and embark the bus, selecting eggs, a slew of fresh produce, as well as crackers and a few other shelf-stable foods.

On the Summer Food Bus. (Photo credit: Federal Hocking Local Schools)On the Summer Food Bus. (Photo credit: Federal Hocking Local Schools)

“Vegetables are so expensive, I’d rather get them somewhere like this,” says Tisha, who visits the bus weekly. She asks for two boxes to be made up; one for her own family and another for a family who couldn’t make it over that morning, thanks to a broken-down car.

It is this marker of rural poverty—lack of or limited transportation—that led George Wood, the district’s superintendent, to conceive of the food bus model three years ago. In a massive rural district covering more than 190 square miles, food pantries serve as a lifeline to many of the families living in this part of the Appalachian foothills. But they haven’t always been easy to access. “Many people don’t have working cars and there’s no mass transit here,” says Wood.

Though summer lunch programs are staged at public libraries and town halls throughout the region, Wood knows that some families can’t access them frequently due to transportation struggles.

Stewart is in Athens County, which is statistically the most food insecure county in Ohio, with nearly 1 in 5 residents lacking sufficient access to nutritious and affordable food. For children, the rate is 24 percent, or nearly 1 in 4. (That’s compared to 1 in 8 people nationwide.)

In Athens County, the poverty rate is over 30 percent, the highest in the state. Ten other counties in Appalachian Ohio have poverty rates over 20 percent, making the region the poorest in Ohio.

Seventy-five percent of the nation’s food-insecure counties reside in rural settings. According to Feeding America, 2.4 million U.S. rural households lack sufficient access to nutritious and affordable food. Like Appalachian Ohio, many of these regions are rich in natural assets or farmland that benefit industrial powers elsewhere.

The school system’s Summer Food Bus offers groceries free to any resident in the district with children. On Tuesdays, the bus travels to three stops in the western part of the district and on Fridays, it visits three in the east. The goal is to ease residents’ transportation burdens by getting as close to them as possible. Jake Amlin, assistant superintendent for student services at the district and the on-the-ground leader of the effort, brings food directly to a few families’ homes each week.

The party atmosphere outside the Summer Food Bus. (Photo credit: Federal Hocking Local Schools)The party atmosphere outside the Summer Food Bus. (Photo credit: Federal Hocking Local Schools)

At each distribution site, the team puts up a tent, tables, and chairs and sets up a cornhole game, soccer balls, and hula hoops to help create a party atmosphere. “I want kids to want to come here,” Amlin says in reference to the games, art supplies, books, and staff ready to engage. “I think it will erode some of the stigma of going to get food if you’re coming to a party.” There are no limitations on how much food each family may take.

Appalachia in Need

Appalachian Ohio’s 32 counties—the state’s contribution to the central Appalachian corridor, a political, economic, and cultural hub that also includes parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina—are visually striking. On a warm summer day, deep green, hilly vistas with vast swaths of temperate forest consume the landscape.

A drive through the winding scenery takes one through not only thick forestland but also small market gardens, livestock operations, and rural homesteads. The industries of coal, timber, and more recently hydraulic fracturing, have defined the culture here.

“This part of the state has always been very different from the rest of Ohio,” says Leslie Schaller, director of programs at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), a community-based economic development organization serving Appalachian Ohio. “Part of it is geography; part of it is economic dependence on outside industry that came into the region and was extractive in every sense of the term.”

With the decline of American coal and a hemorrhaging of industrial employment in the region, the 20th century began a period of extensive emigration, with “hillbilly highways” carrying millions of souls in search of opportunity elsewhere. Some families stayed, as did their poverty, making the economic realities of a portion of today’s citizens a complicated force with a firm grip that is much more difficult to escape.

Route 33, a central corridor in the Ohio foothills, is dotted with billboard after billboard advertising drug addiction treatment services, a reminder of the rampant opioid addiction that has swept across America’s rural communities.

In the village of Coolville, Ohio, another stop on the Summer Food Bus route, a Main Street with a handful of relatively forlorn 19th-century structures demonstrates the village’s long-gone heyday as a gristmill town.

Shrivers Pharmacy Country Fresh Stop in Nelsonville, Ohio. (Photo credit: Rural Action)

Shrivers Pharmacy Country Fresh Stop in Nelsonville, Ohio. (Photo credit: Rural Action)

For the nearly 500 current residents, the nearest full-service grocers are roughly 20 miles away in the cities of Athens and Belpre. Though the dollar store and gas station sell some food, fresh produce is in rare supply, making programs like the Summer Food Bus a lifeline for many residents.

At the town’s health clinic, a group of AmeriCorps members man a small produce stand several times a week, part of Rural Action’s Country Fresh Stops program. Rural Action is a membership-based economic development nonprofit working in all of Ohio’s Appalachian counties. Country Fresh Stops provide fresh produce to nearly a dozen stores, convenience shops, gas stations, and roadside stands in towns and villages like Coolville that need it the most.

Signs of food need are prominent at the clinic: Next to the fresh produce pop-up sits a blessing box filled with pantry staples; at the entrance to the parking lot is a sign advertising the summer feeding program for county youth hosted at the Village Hall on Main Street.

According to Lori Boegershausen, one of the AmeriCorps members, nearly 50 percent of visitors rely on produce vouchers issued from the clinic nearby to purchase product. Offered through Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit, the program allows healthcare providers in underserved, low-income communities to prescribe fresh produce as part of a range of treatment plans.

Flora Vieland, a Coolville retiree who works part-time at the Village Hall, has a firsthand view of the dire food need in her community. She helps administer the summer feeding program and she has organized pop-up food pantries in the community.

Vieland is also a frequent visitor to the Country Fresh Stop at the clinic where she uses the vouchers. “I’m pre-diabetic,” she says explaining why a healthy diet is important. “It’s wonderful to see fresh produce available to people here. People here need stuff like that. I raised three kids by myself and I know the struggle.”

Rebuilding Robust Local Food Chains

On an early June day at the Chesterhill Produce Auction, operated by Rural Action on a winding country road in Morgan County, there’s a bustle of activity around rows of produce fresh from the field. Nearby, potted plants wait for their turn under the hum of the auctioneer. Launched in 2005, the auction (pictured at top) convenes several times a week from May to October.

Tom Redfern, Rural Action’s director of sustainable agriculture and forestry and organizer of the endeavor, points to several individuals in the crowd who are buying food for what he calls “demand networks,” or groups of consumers, businesses, and institutions that are at the heart of the farm-to-table movement in the region. It is these networks, he says, that have made the auction a success and which his team works tirelessly to cultivate. One example is Ohio University, whose Culinary Services program began buying produce at the auction for its 20,000 students in June.

Seated on folding chairs around rows of produce are Farm to School AmeriCorps members procuring for nearby K-12 institutions including the Summer Food Bus. Workers raise hands to bid on product for Country Fresh Stops, as do buyers for consumer produce clubs, restaurants, and food businesses in the region.

Unlike much of Ohio’s current farmland, where corn and soybeans consume large, flat parcels of earth, Appalachian Ohio is a rooted in small-scale, diversified agriculture on patches of land interspersed between forest. In Appalachia, the average farm operates on less than 200 acres, while nationally this figure skews toward more than 400.

Public and private organizations working in the region are increasingly eyeing the area’s rich terrain, traditional foodways, and native plant products as an economic development lever for citizens living there, all while taking into consideration the area’s unsavory extractive past to ensure that the power structures controlling and profiting from the land’s bounty are rooted in local ownership and economic networks.

ACEnet client Pork & Pickles working at the Athens Food Ventures Center. (Photo credit: ACEnet)

ACEnet client Pork & Pickles working at the Athens Food Ventures Center. (Photo credit: ACEnet)

At ACEnet’s Athens Business Incubator Campus, the sounds of a crew at work in a commercial kitchen echo in the building’s corridor. The kitchen is part of the organization’s Food Ventures Center, which helps local food entrepreneurs to bring artisan products to market. With a central kitchen, thermal processing room, and storage warehouse, the facility was one of the first of its kind in the U.S. when it launched in 1996.

In nearby Nelsonville, Ohio, ACEnet also runs a 94,000-square-foot Business Center and Food Hub. The local produce, eggs, and meat making its way into kitchens like these is increasingly sourced from the Chesterhill Produce Auction. Many of the products coming out of these spaces then make their way to a robust, nearly 50-year-old farmers’ market held twice a week in downtown Athens. Others can be found on the shelves of grocers and the menus of eateries around the state.

Back at the auction, all goods are logged by a clerk and displayed in aggregate on the space’s main floor. Bidders—consumers, representatives of local institutions, restaurants, and business—surround the bounty. An auctioneer and his team move swiftly through the options—palettes filled with cucumbers, cabbage, beans, and other freshly grown food—offering a sale to the highest bidder who pays at a booth in the back of the building. Almost any quantity is for sale, from a single pound or pint up to an entire day’s supply.

Nationally, produce auctions have grown in recent decades as a mechanism for small and medium-sized growers from rural communities to reach wholesale buyers. There is minimal transportation, packaging, and marketing costs for growers at auction compared to some other retail outlets. However, there are risks too: The auction is absolute—meaning the seller agrees to sell everything regardless of price and some weeks are better than others. Also, by participating, producers agree to pay a small commission for the auction’s operating budget—last year, it was 16 percent.

“Most produce auctions are in the millions [of dollars] because they have big communities they serve,” Redfern says about similar initiatives across Ohio and nearby states, many of which are centered in rural towns that lie between populous urban centers.

Redfern is a respected expert in the region. A graduate of nearby Hocking College and Ohio University, he’s devoted his career to agriculture and plant care, having spent the last 15 years at Rural Action and 20 years prior in the horticulture industry. Early in his career, he was a Peace Corps volunteer, helping to develop an agroforestry curriculum for a government agency in Kenya. On the board of several Ohio entities working to advance sustainable agriculture, Redfern has seen many a scenario for production in his state. However, in conversation, his optimism for the auction model is obvious and palpable.

Figures from Rural Action that plot the Chesterhill Produce Auction’s growth support Redfern’s confidence. In 2010, the auction netted $60,000 in sales; last year, that number rose to $305,000. In 2018, the auction included 190 sellers from Ohio as well as 6 counties in West Virginia. Redfern’s team reports that $1.7 million dollars have passed to the region’s farmers through the auction over the last 10 years.

“We’ve seen investment from some of our educational institutions that really want to make Farm to School work,” Schaller says later about growing institutional demand that is helping to grow the auction model.

Behind the scenes there is a complex, yet coordinated, web of actors devoted to making it “work” for these groups. In prep kitchens at the Southeast Ohio Foodbank & Regional Kitchen and Hocking College, product purchased at the auction is delivered by Rural Action for culinary students, national service members, and volunteers to process. When school is in session, the food makes its way to cafeterias for quick consumption. During the summer, it is frozen at ACEnet’s food center in Nelsonville for use later in the year. Many schools have also welcomed garden and nutrition programming to their curriculum from area nonprofits like Community Food Initiatives and Live Healthy Appalachia.

Community at the Heart of the Narrative

Some of the farmers at the Chesterhill Produce Auction come from nearby Amish communities. One Amish farmer, Ura Heshberger, lives across the road and says that he sells 95 percent of the produce he grows on his property at the auction. Last year, Heshberger notes, he earned $15,000 to $20,000 in sales here, which, along with woodworking and cattle, helped to support his large family. For Hershberger, the auction model is preferable to a farmers market, even though product nets a higher return at the latter. At the auction, Heshberger doesn’t have to account for the cost of marketing, getting to a city market, and managing leftover product. At Chesterhill, he says his only obligations are dropping off produce and collecting the money owed to him from the organizers.

“School Day” at the Chesterhill Produce Auction. (Photo credit: Community Food Initiatives)


“School Day” at the Chesterhill Produce Auction. Photo Credit: Community Food Initiatives.

The Chesterhill site also hosts monthly livestock and woodcraft events. There’s a cooling unit for storing produce and a freezer to hold meat offered in the onsite store. Children roam the market with food and drink in hand. Community potlucks are held several times every season.

Another Amish producer, Warren Fussner, says that before he retired, he consistently brought what he grew to auction. Now, he only occasionally brings extra crops from his home garden about six miles away. Today, he brought eggs and a few butchered broilers but mostly he’s there to socialize. “It’s a great benefit for the community,” he says.

Dave Fisher traveled to the auction on a warm summer afternoon from his commercial raspberry operation outside of Stockport, Ohio. After starting his berry farm 10 years ago, he was put on waiting lists for farmers’ markets in the region. He brought his product to auction in the meantime, and the influx of cash helped grow his fledgling business immensely. Although he mostly sells at farmers’ markets now due to the often-higher retail price, he attends the auction regularly to buy the other ingredients he uses in value-added products like jam.

Lori Gromen stands tall in the crowd, frequently raising her hand to engage with the auctioneer. Redfern points her out, noting she’s there to purchase a whole lot of fresh food for a buyer’s club from the city of Athens’ west side. Gromen has attended the auction on behalf of the club for five years, and today, she is buying food for 30 families affiliated with the group. At the day’s end, she loads a giant red pickup with an impressive bounty.

Another buyer, Becky Clark, is on the lookout for fresh food for her pickling company, as well as the food truck and a restaurant where she’s the executive chef. Clark says the auction allows her to buy local vegetables at near-wholesale prices. “We really want volume but to still be able to work with local farmers as much as possible,” Clark says.

Making a Profit on Traditional Appalachian Foodways

Like many farmers in Appalachia, Rick and Jan Felumlee began growing food in a commitment to self-sufficiency. But unlike most, they’ve been doing so inside their five-acre woods.

“The woods were what we had,” Rick says during a break in early summer harvesting on the property. The Felumlees started the fledgling forest farm in 2017, which is supplemented by Jan’s day job at a large insurance company in central Ohio.

“Once we started learning about the plants [such as ramps and ginseng] and their threatened status in the wild, their history in the region, and how they are harvested and used, we decided that we wanted to make the land that we have productive,” Felumlee says about his wooded property.

Wild Ramps bundled for sale at the farmers' market. (Photo credit: Mayapple Farms)Wild Ramps bundled for sale at the farmers’ market. (Photo credit: Mayapple Farms)

The Felumlee’s efforts are supported by Rural Action’s forestry program, which focuses on cultivating a sustainable approach to timber extraction practices—a longtime Appalachian industry. With partner organizations like United Plant Savers and the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition, Rural Action is increasingly working with landowners to identify and develop alternative income streams for the management of their properties. Forest farming is at the top of their list. The organization has distributed 800 pounds of seeds and bulbs that will allow farmers to grow ginseng and ramps in the region, adding nearly $1 million in potential income to woodland cultivators.

Ginseng, an ancient botanical with great demand in Asian medicine, features valuable roots with the potential to net hundreds of dollars per pound. This has resulted in extensive overharvesting of the wild variety in Appalachia. Like ginseng, ramps have grown wild in the Appalachian landscape for centuries. One of the first plants of spring, ramps are a vitamin-infused allium that are popular with consumers and chefs, and the plant has faced considerable stress in recent decades.

In addition to American ginseng, Felumlee cultivates goldenseal, black cohosh, blue cohosh, bloodroot, red trillium, and false unicorn under his trees’ canopy. He also harvests wild ramps and cultivates several varieties of mushrooms on the property, in addition to sun-loving produce.

According to Felumlee, by purposefully planting native, threatened plant populations, growers like him can ease market demand for the wild versions of these species. He is entranced by the knowledge of Appalachian growers and foragers generations before who understood the power native woodland crops hold in food and medicine, largely forgotten in recent history.

Other growers have taken note of the unusual things at Mayapple Farms’ farmers’ market stand, which Felumlee says he uses as an educational opportunity. “I tell conventional farmers that adopting forest farming on woodlots, which they generally consider unusable land, is a nice way to add a layer of diversity to their operation.”

Back at the Chesterhill Produce Auction, Tom Redfern points to a patch of rolling farmland with green crops sprouting from the soil, the site of a farm incubator for new and beginning farmers. With the buzz of the auction in the background and the freshly tended crops in the distance, it’s clear that this community is committed to rewriting Appalachian Ohio’s narrative with food sovereignty at the center.

“It’s about resiliency and local control,” Redfern says as the sun begins its slow descent on the ancient hills. “Through food we can address health, poverty, and economic empowerment.”

A New Crop of Food Justice Fellowships Seed Future Leaders

Castanea and Seeding Power fellows are addressing racial inequities within the food system.

By Elizabeth Hewitt, Food Justice      July 25, 2019

Since 2013, Mark Winston Griffith has been working to launch a food co-op in central Brooklyn. In a neighborhood where gentrification has squeezed to the margins the community that has been there for generations, Griffith and the Brooklyn Movement Center, where he works, envision a co-op as part of a broader effort for the local Black community to gain control over the neighborhood food system.


Over the course of planning, Griffith has considered local economic impacts, employment, pricing, and more. But after meeting in June with the rest of his cohort in the inaugural year of the food justice-focused Castanea Fellowship (pictured above), Griffith realized he’s been overlooking a key player: farmers.

Now, as he works to revamp the urban neighborhood’s food system, he’s planning to focus his energy on building relationships with food producers in the regions that surround the city. “We really have to have a deeper understanding of how our work is impacting farmers,” he said. “We have to contribute to making sure that they are making a healthy living.” He’s also starting to reconsider how pricing should work at the co-op, looking beyond how costs impact the local Brooklyn neighborhood to how they impact producers.

The two-year Castanea Fellowship, which launched this year with a cohort of 12 fellows, brings together leaders from across the country with a broad range of expertise and experiences, including indigenous agricultural practices, issues impacting farmers of color, inequity in urban food systems, health, and more.

In selecting fellows from a pool of 415 applicants, the program sought out people from diverse racial and geographic backgrounds on the “front lines” of the movement, according to executive director Farzana Serang. “We want folks who are leading the conversation about improving the food systems to be the ones who understand those issues the most,” Serang said.

The program provides each fellow with $40,000 in grant funds to be used toward a charitable purpose, plus transportation. When fully operational with two cohorts, the annual budget will be slightly over $1 million.

Castanea is part of a new crop of fellowships at the regional and national levels aiming not just to train the next generation of food leaders, but to foster connections among advocates working in different aspects of the food system. The idea is to create a more unified movement with a focus on pushing for greater racial equity.

Unifying the New York Food Movement

In New York, the newly launched Seeding Power Fellowship from Community Food Funders is striving to coalesce a unified food movement within the region. With a budget of roughly $230,000, the fellowship brings together food system leaders from Long Island, New York City, and the Hudson River Valley where, despite working in close quarters, advocates are often disconnected from each other even when they have shared goals, according to Adam Liebowitz, director of Community Food Funders.

“It creates a false impression of competition, or being at odds, or at the very least not being allies,” Liebowitz said.

Organizers at Seeding Power set out to unite people from different backgrounds to create a more comprehensive movement pushing for racial equity in New York. In order to leverage the power of the fellowship, the program limited applicants to people who are already established in their careers and in positions of leadership within their organization. The program’s 12 fellows, selected from a pool of 57 applicants, represent farmers, urban farmers’ markets, rural education initiatives, and more. Each fellow receives $5,000 for participation.

The Seeding Power fellowsThe Seeding Power fellows.

Sandra Jean-Louis, a Seeding Power fellow whose work with Public Health Solutions focuses on food security among older public housing residents, said uniting advocates from different corners of the food system creates more efficiency. Right now, organizations working toward the same public health goals can end up inadvertently competing with each other for resources. “We are running after the same dollars,” Jean-Louis said. If organizations could coordinate on grant applications with other like-minded groups, she said, it could amplify their efforts.

The fellows, who have so far gathered for two of the total of five retreats they’ll participate in over the course of the 18-month program, have already started finding new common ground.

Mohamed Attia, a Seeding Power fellow and co-director of The Street Vendor Project, was surprised to learn that access to driver’s licenses for immigrants, a hurdle for city street vendors, is also a major issue for rural farmworkers. New York state just passed a law expanding access to driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants last month.

Workers on farms, in restaurants, and at street vendor carts face similar “injustice and unfairness,” according to Attia, who worked as a food vendor in New York, first selling pretzels and hot dogs in Times Square and later running a halal cart. The program, he said, offers space for people from different backgrounds to connect around common issues.

“I’m sure there are hundreds or maybe thousands of organizations with food workers all across the nation. But imagine if all these people have one voice,” Attia said. “I think that would be super helpful and super powerful.”

A Focus on Racial Equity

Both the Castanea and Seeding Power fellowships identify addressing racial inequities within the food system as a central part of their mission, and both cohorts include a majority of people of color.

Shorlette Ammons, of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) at North Carolina State University and a Castanea fellow, said the diversity of the cohort sets the stage for the conversation to center on communities that have historically been marginalized.

Ammons, who grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina and focuses on the experience of rural Black farming communities, says those perspectives are key for helping to build collective solutions, as are others represented in the group.

“I think we have a lot to learn from indigenous communities, [and] we have a lot to learn from Black country people and rural communities,” she said.

The members of the Castanea cohort are deeply connected to their cultural roots, noted Rowen White, a fellow who works with the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. The diversity within the group encourages participants to draw on their backgrounds, she said, which stands out. “A lot of the times in professional spaces, people are asked to check a lot of things at the door.”

She added, “It just gives insight into where the food systems movement can go when we really allow ourselves to really be present with all of the ancestral wisdom and lineage and knowledge and power that comes with our cultural inheritance.”

A Cohort Approach to Food Justice Work

While fellowships tend to serve only small numbers of people, food policy experts say they can be effective ways to shape conversations over time.

For author and advocate Anna Lappé, her participation in the W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored Food & Society/Food & Community fellowship programs, which operated from 2001 to 2013, helped her make connections and develop skills that are the foundation for her work with the food system. “New organizations have been born, lifelong relationships cultivated, and deep strategic thinking has come out of fellowships,” she explained by email to Civil Eats.

Now a member of Castanea’s steering committee, Lappé sees fellowships as “critical” to tackling the major issues connected to the food system. “I’ve always believed that the transformational work needed to address these food system-driven crises cannot be achieved in isolation,” Lappé said.

Food justice advocates are often focused on one aspect of the system, like improving nutrition or calling for the rights of laborers, according to Nick Freudenberg, professor of public health and director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and a member of Seeding Power’s selection committee. The splintering of efforts within the sector, he said, has “compromised the effectiveness of the food movement and the food justice movement.” But by bringing people together, fellowships can overcome those barriers.

“Having more knowledgeable, skillful, strategic leadership in the food justice movement will increase its impact and move us towards having a healthier food system and reducing food insecurity, diet related diseases, unfairly paid food workers,” Freudenberg said.

Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sees fellowships as valuable training ground for emerging leaders in the food system. Not only are farmers and ranchers aging, food policy experts in the federal government are also retiring, she said.

Programs that provide resources and time to people working in the food system help them prepare to take on bigger roles. Fellowships also provide valuable spaces where people can collaborate, exchange ideas, and find community.

“The work is hard, and sometimes the work can be lonely,” Merrigan said. “It’s really great to have a cohort approach to problem solving and food system work.”

Food Fellowships on the Rise

Fellowships are currently popular within the food sector—both Merrigan and Freudenberg are launching their own. Merrigan is helping establish a program for food policy leaders, and Freudenberg is creating one aimed at young adults.

Neither worry about duplicating efforts too much. Some programs coordinate with each other; for instance, leaders from Seeding Power, Castanea, and a third program, the HEAL Food Alliance, have been in contact about their efforts. However, Merrigan does caution that there could be limited financial resources to support programs.

But, while interest in food is at high right now, Merrigan doesn’t see a unified reform movement. “We have a long ways to go before it’s a sufficiently powerful social movement to transform the system, as many of these fellowship programs suggest is their aim,” she said.

For Griffith, who is working to open the neighborhood food co-op in Brooklyn, the fellowship is a launching pad. He feels the results of the Castanea Fellowship will play out over years and generations, as factors shaping the food system change. Griffith hopes participating in the fellowship will help Brooklyn Movement Center’s hyper-local work connect with efforts across the country to change food structures.

“At the end of the day, you know, your local community cannot be an island,” he said. “You have to fit into broader structures; you have to be able to change policies and the ways of doing business, across the board.”

After 10 Years of Rapid Growth, What Does Organic Mean Today?

Four experts weigh in on how booming interest in organic food has changed the industry, and what it means for farmers, policymakers, and eaters.

By The Civil Eats Editors, 10th Anniversary, Agroecology   July 8, 2019


Organic food means many different things to many people. Some point to organic certification as the gold standard to reducing the environmental impacts of farming while ensuring that farmers make a living wage. Some see it as a healthier way to eat. Still others see it as elite, divisive, or watered-down. But one thing is clear: The organic market hasn’t stopped growing steadily since the USDA passed the Organic Foods Production Act nearly three decades ago, while organic farmland still only makes up less than one percent of total farmland nationwide.

To mark Civil Eats’ 10th anniversary this year, we’ve been conducting a series of roundtable discussions in an effort to take an in-depth look at many of the most important topics we’ve covered since 2009.

In the conversation below, we invited four experts to weigh in on the issues surrounding organic food—from perception to policy. Kathleen Merrigan, professor and executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture (2009 – 2013); Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA); Abby Youngblood, Executive Director at the National Organic Coalition; and Rudy Arredondo, a former farmworker and the founder and president of the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association. (Note: Rudy was unable to join the conference call and weighed in after the fact.)

Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief, Naomi Starkman, and contributing editor Twilight Greenaway facilitated the wide-ranging discussion. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How have you seen the organic industry change over the last decade? What were some of the bigger issues that existed a decade ago and what are they now?

kathleen merrigan organic food and farming expertKathleen Merrigan: I wrote the draft legislation [of The Organic Foods Production Act] in 1989. Organic has always been on the upswing in terms of growth. It’s become mainstream. The Organic Trade Association has a study that shows that 82 percent of Americanspurchase some form of organic products. In my new home state of Arizona, it is up to 90 percent. It’s not a coastal thing. It’s not a liberal thing. It’s really becoming a very big Millennial thing. To me the growth of organic has been pretty remarkable compared to other parts of food and agriculture in this country.

Growth has slowed down a little bit, but what we can see is demand greatly outstripping supply, it’s no longer double-digit growth but single-digit growth. Some of that may be may be partially explained by the lack of supply.  It could also be just around accessibility to organic.

Abby Youngblood: It has been exciting to see the growth in the marketplace. There has been growth in the number of operations and organic acres. But it hasn’t kept pace with the growth in demand and that has meant more imported products. That’s a challenge and we’re all working on figuring out ways that the development of organic standards and the enforcement of those standards can keep pace with growth in the marketplace and how we can maintain integrity as we now have some really complicated global supply chains.

Another trend I’ve seen is the same consolidation in the organic sector just as there has been in the conventional food system. Over the past decade, the organic food chain—from purchasing to processing to distribution and retail—has become increasingly dominated by a smaller number of large companies. And so, while organic farming has been very positive overall in terms of farmer viability, consolidation is something that we want to keep tabs on because of the impact that can have on farmer profitability.

laura batcha organic food expertLaura Batcha: The statistics Kathleen cited are from home scans about the number of households that are participating in some way by purchasing organic products. And we saw those numbers explode right along the same timeline when distribution for organic products became mainstream and widespread.

The entrance of the national retailers has brought products to people anywhere in the country. And also product availability—75 percent of categories in the grocery store now have an organic choice in most grocery stores in America. That has given consumers an opportunity to participate. At the same time, local and regional food systems have continued to grow, and farmers’ markets have continued to grow. A decade ago, there were some fears that this could be an either-or-opportunity in terms of growing the marketplace. And I think it has been shown that all those things can succeed and thrive with the consumer who’s looking to know more about where their food comes from and make really good choices for their family.

We’re starting now, at the end of this 10-year horizon, to see price competition come into play with organic and I think it’s starting to create discussions and challenges around maintaining premiums for farmers—because it’s more expensive, at least that’s what the ag census data shows, to produce organic [food]. It’s harder by all accounts; labor costs are high for example.

And part of the dynamic that brings farmers into organic and keeps them in organic is the profitability, particularly for the medium-sized farms. So how do you balance the price competition that creates access to organic food with the dynamics on the farm? And I think in addition to this strong interest in organic from Millennials, we’re also seeing data that really shows that the people who are getting products and prioritize those choices are increasingly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity as well. And so I think that’s positive.

In terms of the difference in [domestic] supply and demand, I think it’s important to really break out which part of the marketplace you’re talking about and the biggest pinch that really emerged over the last decade was in grains—livestock feed and small grains as well. [On the other hand], there has been a big increase in acres and productive capability in fresh fruits and vegetables and I think the same is true with dairy as we now have excess fluid milk in the dairy markets.

But I definitely agree that a trend in the last decade has been the development of the global market. U.S. organic farmers export a lot of product. The market north-south for counter-cyclical produce and produce you can’t grow here, like mangos and bananas, has created a real development opportunity for farmers in Latin America, South America, and Africa, and those marketplaces have developed over time with people creating real partnerships and investing and helping communities take advantage of everything that organic can offer to them. So, from my perspective, global development has many prongs to it.

abby youngblood organic food and farming expertYoungblood: This is a fascinating conversation about balancing increasing access and the mainstreaming of organic, which is a great thing with protected farm viability. I think that we have an opportunity looking forward as an organic movement to look for those places where we can really protect the viability of family farms through innovative programs like the Double Ups programs at farmers’ market—programs that both increase access and are really critical to small family farms and to organic farmers. When I was in New York City, I worked for a food justice organization that operated a farm-to-food-pantry program with funding from the State Department of Health. So it was a win-win all around to bring local organic food into the city and also a really vital part of the farmers’ operations and their viability. I think we have to look for those opportunities as we also celebrate the mainstreaming and increase in the supply of organic food.

I think we also have a real opportunity to find ways to really increase access for all people but also to really look at access to organic certification for farmers of color and to strengthen some of the partnerships that we have to do that work, recognizing that we have systematic racism in place that has kept the organic movement from reaching its full potential.

rudy arredondo organic food and farming expertRudy Arredondo: I’ve seen change, not just over the last 10 years, but over my lifetime as the awareness of organic products that we raise [has gone up]. And we owe it in large part to mothers, who have wanted better fresh and healthy products for their family.

In our farmers’ market here in Washington, D.C., one of the first things customers ask us is: Is this organic? So the awareness is there and I think it’s not likely though to diminish. [Latino farmworkers] are the ones who are most affected by the use of herbicides and pesticides, so this is something that is very much on my mind when I talk to our farmers. And there a lot of farmworkers working to transition into farm ownership, so they are very well aware of the impact. Organic is the mantra that we’re using in order to be able to achieve a healthy and safe food. It is gives us an edge in terms of being able to increase the value of our products.

There have been reports about fraudulent organic imports, and some consumers are confused about the value or the meaning of organic. There’s also a suggestion that the organic label has been diluted or co-opted. How should the integrity of the organic label be protected?

Merrigan: We protect the integrity of the organic label by working together to confront policymakers and prevent misjudgments by government bureaucrats who are in office buildings not on farms and ranches, but doing the best they can with the information they have.

I think that one thing that has been truly consistent over the last 30 years in the organics industry is it’s very divisive. Is it a “community”? A “movement”? I’m not so sure. When people have a dispute they bring it to the front page of The New York Times, which leaves consumers concerned, and they think: “Maybe I should be getting something other than organic?”

I think that [divisiveness] comes from a historic feeling of dis-empowerment—people who were farming organically back in the day were decried by neighbors, made fun of, not treated kindly at all by government. So there is this historic feeling of dis-empowerment or minority gotta-fight. And it’s something that I don’t see in other agriculture domains where industry seems to work out differences with their stakeholders in better processes that don’t lead to a public blood bath. Take the recent controversy over the use of glyphosate in hydroponic systems. Well, USDA, in a matter of months, realized the error of their ways and they’re changing [the rule]. But it got blasted all over the place. And consumers don’t get to get the same blast of information when the situation is fixed, or on the way to being fixed.

Youngblood: I would just say that from our perspective at the National Organic Coalition we do have some challenges in terms of protecting organic integrity. And we need to be honest about where those challenges lie. I agree with Kathleen that the way we protect organic integrity is by working together.

There are some amazing examples of the work that has been done to kind of wrap our [brains] around these complex supply chains and to achieve some real bipartisan victories through the 2018 Farm Bill to address organic import fraud. So we’ve made some really great strides by working together.

We need more funding for the National Organic Program to oversee the industry given the tremendous growth and we’ve achieved a lot of success there. But we need clear, consistent standards for different types of production systems. The controversy around hydroponics and container production [began] in part because we don’t have those clear standards in place. And those production systems weren’t envisioned in the same way when the regulations were written.

It’s really critical that we have processes in place to update those regulations and keep pace with the innovation that’s happening and all be on the same page and then we can communicate clearly. I think there is consumer confusion over the organic label, and there is certainly a need to educate consumers about how and why organic is the strongest label in the marketplace in terms of protecting the environment and human health.

Batcha: I’ve seen, over the last 10 years, the strength we’ve gained and I think a lot of that is evident in Congress with much stronger bipartisan support. And we’ve [achieved] that by being professional but also by expecting to be responded to with our policy asks and our arguments and having a healthy entitlement to the seat at the table.

The example you gave about the glyphosate clarification—we were working with USDA to try to really encourage that clarification. As Kathleen pointed out, [we are working with] career level folks and many of them haven’t been there that long and need education about how to think about the entire Organic Foods Production Act in its context to drive good decision making. The key is not giving up even when we’re frustrated by this administration. OTA is in an active lawsuit with the administration over the withdrawal of the animal welfare rule but we’re still going back in there and making a case and expecting our government partners to do the right thing.

Arredondo: I look toward organic advocates to give us the information necessary because [fraud] is going to happen as a result of the organic label becoming the high bar for healthy food for ourselves and our families. We need to be very vigilant in terms of how that label is being utilized and protected. There’s an opportunistic element in our society—especially Big Agriculture—and they know organic has added value, so they make every attempt to appropriate and obfuscate and make it so that they seem as if they’re really concerned about the way we grew our food.

One of the things that concerned me is that most of our producers are small in acreage and the transition to organic [which means not using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers on the land for three years], is costly. Especially if they leave some of that acreage fallow to cure the soil. The producers I work with often rely on off-farm jobs to be able to sustain their livelihood. But they’re farmers and irrespective of whether or not they make a profit, they want to farm.

Let’s talk little bit more about the National Organic Standards Board—the advisory board that makes recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture on organics—and its makeup and how it work translates or perhaps doesn’t to what’s happening on the ground. What’s the relationship between your work and the NOSB? What do you think is the public’s perception of the NOSB?

Batcha: What we’ve seen in the research is that the public likes that all stakeholders are at the table together and that there’s a dialogue about what organic should mean and work to create a shared commitment. I think once you get into more specifics, I’m just not sure the details break through with the public as a whole. I think the balance of stakeholders—[four organic farmers; two organic handlers; one organic retailer; three environmental experts; three who represent consumer-interest groups; one scientist with expertise in toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry; and one certifying agent] was one of the primary pieces of brilliance in the Organic Foods Production Act and we’re fully committed to that.

OTA has done a lot of work in the last number of years to defend the NOSB and defend its process—when we like the decisions and when we don’t. The board should be diverse in terms of stakeholders, and in terms of the type of operations that are there. That means yes to small farmers and yes to large farmers. And I think the biggest piece about a good board are that the individuals who serve on the board are committed to organic and they understand a good healthy amount about not only the letter of the standards but [actual] production systems.

Every NOSB meeting has a kind of a lifecycle; at the public forum, there’s always an aspect of theater, it gets a little bit wild. And if you stick it out and stay for the whole week the deliberation is usually pretty darn good. And the questions asked are good. And most of the time the board reaches consensus. But lot of [the decisions] don’t make it all the way through the government pipeline after that. I think there’s a lot of work that could be done there.

Youngblood: I think the NOSB process is actually an example of something that’s working in the organic program. [In terms of the glyphosate-in-container-farming controversy], I think the clarification from the USDA is due in part to the public scrutiny and conversation that took place at the NOSB meeting in April in Seattle. And I agree that the NOSB is doing really incredible work. These are citizen volunteers who do amazing work on behalf of the organic community and really protect the partnership. I think we have some problems with then seeing those recommendations that come out of the NOSB not actually moving forward especially when they require a regulatory change and that’s hard under any administration but especially in the current anti-regulatory environment.

Merrigan: [When we passed the original organic law], we knew that there were a lot of things that were going to be discussed in future years as more science became available, as more bandwidth was developed, etc.

I am an NOSB survivor. I did nearly a five-year term on the NOSB. And as a political creature, I spent a lot of time thinking about the structure of voting, in terms of the composition of the board. I really wanted to make sure that environmental and consumer group representatives, if they came together, would have the ability to block industry. It was a check in the system. I played around a lot with the vote, assuming that the farmers, the processors, and the retailers might all vote together, and asked: What kind of votes did you need on the other side? So that industry always had to be considering the environmental and the consumer aspects of the decisions they made vis-a-vis the national lens.

I just reflect on that because I was involved in the construction of the full-page ad that went in to some national newspapers when this current administration made a very bad decision and reversed course on animal welfare rule-making [after] we had all invested a ton of energy and that [change] had been broadly applauded and anticipating by the organic world. When I went to work on that—it was a volunteer job, I was working with friends in industry—I helped draft the letters and helped recruit companies and different organizations to sign on to the ad calling upon Secretary Perdue to reverse course. What I was really concerned about is that the environmental and consumer groups were not as actively engaged in organic as they had at the time that we passed the [original] legislation [in 1999].

We would not have the Organic Food Production Act if it weren’t for groups like the Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and Center for Science in the Public Interest. At the time, we had people from the environment and consumer groups at the table and that required compromise. And I feel like it’s time for the organic industry to really do greater outreach to environmental and consumer groups and say, “Hey, you’re our partners here. We want to make sure you’re at the table.”

Batcha: I completely agree with that, Kathleen. I think it’s really important to bring that out. And I think we may be at a place in time where there’s an opportunity for those coalitions and relationships to sort of re-strengthen with the interest in climate change and some other issues that are bringing the [enviro and consumer] groups closer to agriculture as a whole.

The term “regenerative” has grown very popular for people interested in soil health and carbon sequestration. There is a new Regenerative Organic label as well as regenerative labels in the works that don’t involve organic. What role does organic play in that discussion—known and unknown—and what increased role could it play?

Youngblood: That’s something we’ve been talking to members of Congress about a lot recently and there have been hearings and other discussion within Congress to start looking more closely at the connection between agriculture and climate change. I think this is where we can bring some of the environmental groups back into the conversation because organic holds tremendous potential to address climate change.

There are practices that are mandated in the organic regulations like improving and maintaining soil organic matter, cover cropping, crop rotation; these are the things that also take carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. There’s tremendous potential with expanding organic agriculture as a way to reduce [nitrous oxide] emissions—a very potent greenhouse gas—and mitigating climate change by putting carbon back in the soil.

And research has shown that if you were to expand the practices that are part of the USDA organic certification program globally you would [offset] 12 percent of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions. There’s also a very close connection between what farmers are doing in organic and the concept of regenerative. As we’re working with the regenerative organic certification, we’re really excited that organic is forming the base and we’re encouraging the groups that are pushing regenerative to continue to look to organic as a base to expand on.

Merrigan: I always try to put myself in farmers’ shoes, and I feel a bit badly for them because they’re in a world of multiple certifications, which adds both a record-keeping burden and literal costs to their operation. In the case of the Non-GMO project, I tried to get the [USDA’s] Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to agree to make the point that organic is non-GMO and let them put that on meat and poultry labeling. But while we were not moving forward on that, the Non-GMO Verified label got approved for meat and poultry. So now if I’m an organic meat producer, I also have to pay for a second certification to show that I don’t [feed the animals GMO grains]. And I’m worried that with what’s going on with regenerative, too.

Organic does encompass soil. I do think that there is a lot more we could build out in the organic plan to achieve continuous improvement [to the farming practices]. It would require certifiers to agree to implement the current standards in a certain way, but they could be augmented through rulemaking. I think that there’s not necessarily a need for fracturing in the marketplace right now and we should keep our eye on the prize.

Batcha: It’s great that there’s this emphasis on soil and soil health across the board in all of agriculture and cover cropping and organic should take stock and be proud of having been there longer, and at the tip of the spear, in terms of those practices. I totally agree with Kathleen about the opportunity to do more and find those ways to lean on the certification system to push the regulations to focus more on [climate mitigating] outcomes.

Based on our recent consumer research, the public at large doesn’t quite yet understand regenerative, but the public is really interested in soil health and conservation of water and soil in the ag landscape. With younger consumers of organic, and Millennials and in particular, we’re seeing a surge in the interest in the environmental agroecological benefits of organic in a way that we haven’t seen it in in older generations. (That was more about what’s in it for individual consumers). We have a big opportunity to push forward on that. But a fear I have is when the [regenerative] label appears on products that are organic and the same term appears on products that are not organic, the non-organic product will get the halo effect.

It’s important to remember that organic is already delivering benefit [to the soil]. The Organic Center, our non-profit, engaged in a three-year study with Northeastern University and we had organic farmers from all over the country collect hundreds of soil samples on their farms over multiple seasons and mailed them in to the national soil lab and they were analyzed and compared to their database of soils on all farms across the country. And in all regions the soils on the organic farms had 26 percent higher levels of stored carbon in the soils across the board.

Arredondo: As land-based people, we make every attempt to try to keep our soil healthy when we grow food. Some of our producers acquired some bad habits by using some chemicals and oftentimes they were really not well-informed in terms of the impacts on the environment, on themselves, or on the food they produce. So, part of our role as an organization is to inform those folks, starting with best practices. One of the reasons we got into industrial hemp so heavily for small producers was to use that plant to heal the toxins in the soil. But regenerative is not necessarily a term that is utilized in in our circles—it’s a little too academic.

Where do you think organic will be 10 years from now? And what is giving you hope for the future?

Merrigan: I’m really excited about an international conversation I’ve been involved in the last three years led by the United Nations Environment Programme and partially supported by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and it’s doing true cost accounting [i.e., calculating the hidden costs associated with conventional agriculture]. I think if we have that kind of conversation going at the same time that we are strengthening and supporting the organic label, this sector is poised to just grow and grow.

Thirty years ago, the last thing I would advise anyone to do was to make any kind of health claims about organic food. Instinctively a lot of people thought it probably was healthier, but we didn’t have the data. So we really made sure to call it a marketing play because that was safe ground that was politically acceptable.

Today, what’s really different is there are numerous studies out there that are making the scientific case for health value of organic consumption. So when we start looking at true cost accounting, and the cost of health care, and looking at food as medicine and you converge that with a growing demand for organic, and the opportunity for young farmers to do high-value product on smaller acreage (because a lot of our new farmers are not coming from traditional farms with all the equipment and the land; they’re starting out with a lot of ambition and optimism)—I see all of those things potentially converging and having a truly positive impact on society.

Batcha: Like Kathleen, I’m really interested in the development of the body of knowledge around health and organic foods and the impact of how food is produced. You see a lot of “conventional wisdom” from conventional agriculture that says while the production practices may be different the finished product itself is not. And I think we all know intuitively that can’t be true. But the research is really starting to mount. And so I’m excited about what that means for individuals’ health and community health.

Over the next decade I also hope there will be a renaissance in technical assistance for organic farmers, so they can really figure out how to [farm] in ways that are adaptable to regions and crop types and really provide sophisticated sharing of knowledge in the farming community so that more farmers who come into organic effectively, quickly.

We talked early on about that dynamic about access to organic foods and maintaining farmer profitability. But in an environment of price competition, one of the best things farmers can do to compete is have really good organic systems functioning so that their yields will be competitive and, in some cases, outperform [conventional farm]. I’m really looking forward to how that pipeline of services can bolster the viability of the farms that get into organic and keep them viable as the marketplace dynamics shift a bit in terms of price competition.

Youngblood: There are couple things that make me feel really hopeful. I am excited about the potential of organic to address climate change and as the mother of young children that’s something I think about a lot. We already have this huge solution in our hands. It doesn’t require new technology. I’m thrilled to think that we have that for the future of our kids. And what is good for soil and climate change is also good for farm productivity; taking care of your soil means higher yields. It’s also good for what water quality and farm workers. It’s good for reducing pesticide exposure.

The second thing that makes me hopeful and excited is the boost in funding we saw for organic research that came out of the 2018 Farm Bill. That is something we can celebrate because we know that farmers are eager to see more. There’s been such a dearth of research into organic production methods to address diseases, pests, all kinds of challenges that farmers face. The organic community worked together to get that boost in funding across the finish line. We also know that farmers need public plant breeding programs and they need seeds and animal breeds that are going to help them be productive.

Arredondo: The fact that the general public can have confidence in what we produce gives me hope. I’ve tried to bring [the United Farm Workers] in to [these discussion] because they have recent experience in terms of the impact of not being organic and we want to make sure that farm-workers as well as the general public feel good about what we produce.

Indigenous Food Security is Dependent on Food Sovereignty

New research shows that hunting, fishing, and foraging for traditional Native foods help nourish tribal members—but first they need access to their ancestral lands.

By Andi Murphy, Food Access, Indigenous Foodways 


Several times a year, the locals at Orleans, California see a surge of sport fishermen and trophy hunters come through town, driving big trucks decked out in camouflage and sporting polarized fishing sunglasses.

The locals, including some of the Native people from tribes in the Klamath Basin, have to enter the same lottery and buy the same hunting permits as the outsiders who may or may not see the cultural and nutritional value of the animals they are harvesting. For some Native people, including Lisa Hillman, seeing their food treated in this way was an unpleasant shock.

“It makes me want to turn away,” Hillman said. “Otherwise I might say something I shouldn’t, as a mother and as a leader in the community.”

Study after study has shown that access to healthy food is critically low in Native communities across the U.S. In Orleans, a small, unincorporated town with limited resources, Native people have a hard time accessing food, let alone traditional, indigenous food.

A new study from Hillman, a member of the Karuk tribe and the manager of its Píkyav Field Institute, and colleagues from U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, explores the profound lack of food access among tribal members in the northwestern corner of California.

Over the course the last five years, the researchers received more than 711 survey responses, conducted 115 follow-up interviews, and worked with 20 focus groups to determine the food access challenges that members of the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa, and Klamath tribes face. The study found that 92 percent face at least some level of food insecurity—compared with 11.8 percent of all U.S. households.

“We only have one highway,” Hillman said about Orleans, a hub for the Karuk tribe with a population of 600. “Getting food here is really difficult,” she said, and the nearest grocery store is a two-hour drive away.

The study also showed that essentially everyone who participated wants more access to indigenous foods, but they first have to overcome limited access, regulations, and a legacy of colonialism to eat the food that has been part of their tribal identity and culture since before colonization.

“It was just astounding how widespread these feelings of loss, need, want, and frustration were in our area and across the tribes,” said Hillman.

Sixty-four percent of Native households in the area rely on food assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, sometimes called commodities or “commods.” And 21 percent of those households reported using these food assistance programs because Native foods weren’t available. About 40 percent of participants said they rely on Native foods for food security.

A Lack of Access to Native Foods

It wasn’t always like this; 84 percent of people didn’t used to run out of food or worry about running out of food in the past. Traditionally, indigenous people in the Klamath Basin lived off of an abundance of wild game and fish, nuts, berries, and herbs. They also had unlimited access and the practical and cultural knowledge to gather, cook, and preserve these foods.

A sturgeon caught by Yurok fishermen on the Klamath River. (Photo CC-licensed by DocentJoyce on Flickr)A sturgeon caught by Yurok fishermen on the Klamath River. (Photo CC-licensed by DocentJoyce on Flickr)

Tribal members face a number of barriers that have cropped up over the last 170 years as a result of the California Gold Rush, forced assimilation, broken treaties, and changing land jurisdictions. Their traditional territory is massive compared to the tiny pieces of land now known as reservations.

The Karuk don’t technically have a reservation. They have multiple, small sections of land held in trust by the government. The Hoopa Valley Tribe has a small reservation, which includes a section of the Trinity River. The Yurok reservation stretches 44 miles along the Klamath River from the Pacific Ocean to the town of Weitchpec and meets the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. Similar to the Karuk tribe, the Klamath Tribes (Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin) have land held in trust by the government that is spread across Klamath County.

Each tribe has limited rights to hunting and fishing on their own traditional territories (not on reservation land), but off-reservation hunting and fishing are subject to state and federal fish and game laws, yet another obstacle to accessing their traditional foods.

“We aren’t ‘allowed’ in the eyes of the federal government to do these things,” Hillman said. “We have to apply for a permit to hunt our own Native species that we’ve hunted for a long time and managed for a long time before somebody decided this was their land.”

Salmon is always a hot-button issue in the Klamath Basin. Salmon populations are most affected by dams and the Hoopa Valley Tribe has been in a decades-long legal battle with California and Oregon to get four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River removed.

“We haven’t had access to the fish that we’ve had access to for decades,” Hillman said. This year, the Karuk Tribe put tighter restrictions on salmon fishing and the tribe is petitioning the California Fish and Game Commission to list Spring Chinook as a protected species.

Focus groups conducted as part of the five-year study also listed misguided resource management policies, logging, and criminalization of hunting, fishing, and gathering practices as contributing to food insecurity.

“We have to go off of the reservation, so basically, they call us outlaws, poachers, whatever. We’re not poachers or outlaws. We are providers. Native man is a provider,” according to one confidential interview highlighted in the study. “He goes out and he gets food for his family. He ain’t out there looking for trophies. He’s looking for meat to feed his family … The Creator give us these animals so we can live. Now you got to go buy a ticket, a tag, a license to go out and be who you are.”

Food Security Through Food Sovereignty

According to the study, 7 percent of Native households said they are Native food secure, meaning they have access to indigenous foods like pine nuts, acorns, chestnuts, huckleberries, elderberries, wild potatoes, wild mushrooms, eels, salmon, sturgeon, and deer, to name just a few. The study also finds nearly 83 percent of households consumed Native foods at least once in the past year and that there is a strong desire—according to 99.56 percent of survey respondents—to have more access to these foods.

Glenn Moore, Hoopa/Yurok Cultural Practitioner arranges salmon on skewers during a traditional baking demonstration. (Photo CC-licensed by the U.S. Forest Service)Glenn Moore, Hoopa/Yurok Cultural Practitioner arranges salmon on skewers during a traditional baking demonstration. (Photo CC-licensed by the U.S. Forest Service)

These findings led the report authors to make a number of recommendations to better reflect Native food needs in future food insecurity studies. In addition to recommending the USDA factor in Native foods and travel to far-distant stores to use SNAP or WIC in future studies, researchers would like state and federal agencies to strengthen hunting and fishing rights, promote tribal stewardship to the land and natural resources, and increase funds for tribal education, research, and extension programs.

In a nutshell: Native people want food sovereignty.

“Really, food is at the core of everything we do, who we are. It’s our identity,” Hillman said. “We’re really trying to get it [Native food education] back into the schools, because that’s where we can sort of bridge that knowledge gap.”

The Píkyav Field Institute has developed a K-12 curriculum that includes Native food in every lesson. The children take field trips to collect acorns and learn food origin stories.

Over at the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Meagen Baldy, district coordinator for the Klamath Trinity Resource Conservation District, also helps connect tribal members to traditional foods through cooking demonstrations, food workshops, recipe writing, a community garden, and connecting food to the Hupa language.

“My main model is using accessible food, whether it’s traditional, commodities, fished, or hunted foods,” Baldy said.

In food workshops, for example, Baldy will combine fresh canned salmon using local fish with kale and leeks from the garden. Or she’ll make traditional huckleberry jams and jellies and dumplings with Food Distribution Program ingredients.

“I always tell the kids that ‘Now you’re connected to that jar of jam. When you open it, you’ll be connected back to all of us,’” she said.

Establishing that deeper connection with food, its stories and culture is what Baldy’s work is all about. She’s also working to get restrictive food policies changed.

“To us, traditional gathering is ‘agriculture,’” Baldy said. “It’s getting that [through] to the USDA.”

She sees some light at the end of the tunnel. With 60 provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill concerning tribes, such as more support for locally grown and produced foods and more tribal management of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, tribes have fodder to continue writing the beginning chapters of their tribal food sovereignty stories.

“We want to have economic development in our communities and sustainable agriculture, but we need to get rid of barriers,” Baldy said.

The US has a history of testing biological weapons on the public


How Quickly Can an Attached Tick Make You Sick?

Oceans be dammed! To spite Dems, team Trump rakes in $200,000 in one weekend selling plastic straws


Team Trump rakes in $200,000 in one weekend through the sale of plastic straws — buy a pack to ‘own the libs’

By Shawn Langlois, Social Media Editor              July 22, 2019

Getty Images

Politics aside, paper straws are lame.

The movement to ban the plastic version many of us have used our entire lives, while surely well-intentioned, took aim at a problem without offering a proper solution. Anybody who’s tried to suck a milk shake through one of those disintegrating wood-pulp-based tubes knows this all too well.

So Team Trump sensed an opportunity to “own the libs” and announced last week the sale of “Trump Straws,” an alternative to those “liberal paper straws.”

These straws have been a hit so far, according to Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who celebrated the marketing coup with this tweet:


Interestingly, the Trump straws are promoted as BPA-free and recyclable:

The Dutch are building floating dairy farms


The Dutch are subverting nature again—with floating dairy farms

By Chase Purdy       July 22, 2019



Marooned, that’s what they are. All 32 of them. Single file they lined up one day and marched onto a floating platform. This is now where they live.

And it’s a sight to behold. A small herd of well-fed dairy cows standing—probably bored—on a $2.9 million waterborne contraption in Rotterdam, Holland, just off the banks of the Nieuwe Maas, which branches off the Rhine River.

But are they happy? Minke van Wingerden seems to think so. She’s the co-founder of The Floating Farm, a project she started in an effort to promote urban farming.

“One week ago we were ready to let them graze outside,” van Wingerden says. A ramp was erected, connecting the platform to a field, and workers opened up the cows’ fence. “We had in mind that they would go out immediately, but they waited to see what was going on,” she says. “I think they are very happy.”

These cows are part of a Dutch experiment to rethink how cities are supplied with dairy products while promoting a sustainable food cycle. The cows are fed with grass from local soccer fields, potato peels discarded by the french fry industry, and leftover bran from area windmills. Those resources are picked up and delivered to The Floating Farm with electric cars.

The cows—a native Dutch breed called Meuse Rhine Issel—are milked by robots, each heifer producing up to 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of milk per day. There are other robots on the island, too, but they’re tasked with the less desirable job of cleaning up manure, which is then recycled back into the neighborhood as fertilizer. Currently, about 23 retail outlets in Rotterdam carry milk from The Floating Farm.

Leave it to the Dutch to once again subvert the natural order of things. They were ingenious enough several hundred years ago to erect a system of dikes and canals so they might exist in a land that would otherwise be swallowed up by flood waters. The idea of sustainable cell-cultured meat is also a Dutch one, with leading start-up Mosa Meat headquartered in Maastricht, a 2.5 hour train ride southeast of Rotterdam.

“We are eager to shape things by our own hands and make things happen,” van Wingerden says.

The idea to build the farm came about after she and fellow founder, Peter van Wingerden, watched Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012. In the wake of the storm, it was initially tough to get fresh food into the city. So the pair started brainstorming ways to cut down on the time and energy it takes to deliver agricultural goods to urban areas. Their floating platforms can operate in cities that abut oceans, ports, rivers, and lakes. They can also be easily moved to new locations in the event of big storms.

The global population is growing, says Minke van Wingerden, but the amount of available agricultural land will stay the same. As sea levels rise, hurricanes barrel up coastlines more frequently, and droughts in agricultural zones become more punishing, food will still need to be produced to match the global demand. For those reasons, the floating farm model may prove useful.

To be sure, The Floating Farm model isn’t a complete answer for the changes inflicted by the global climate crisis. Future operations are being designed to house 110 cows. That may help supply some urban neighborhoods with milk, but the vast majority will still be produced by land-based farming operations. In the US, for instance, California is the nation’s largest dairy-producing state. There, farms with at least 500 cows still account for 88% (pdf) of the state’s milk each year. That makes The Floating Farm more a stop-gap measure, or thought experiment, than a disruptive invention.

Still, the current dairy cow island is a small-scale laboratory for what they hope to build. Already a handful of cities in Asia have expressed interest in using the floating farm model. And while van Wingerden is mostly tight-lipped about which cities her company is speaking with, Hakai Magazine reports that Singapore and Chinese cities Nanjing and Shanghai are exploring the idea. Both the city-state and the Chinese government have in recent years been looking for ways to be more sustainable

Minke van Wingerden says she is already working to create floating farms for chickens and small-scale vertical farms for food plants. Whether farm animals are ready to embrace a Water World future is uncertain, but if the Dutch have anything to do with it, the poultry may not have a choice in the matter.

The Environmental Protection Agency skirted some of its usual procedures and ethics rules when it overhauled key agency advisory boards.

Associated Press

GAO: EPA skirted procedures in overhaul of science boards

Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press       July 15, 2019