There’s no denying farmers’ markets, and other local food initiatives such as community gardens, are more popular than ever. However, these kinds of efforts are increasingly serving a sometimes overlooked yet crucial purpose in Oklahoma and across the country.
Beyond acting as legitimate sources of locally-sourced, fresh, healthy produce, local food outlets are helping to fill an important void in areas of the state where food insecurity is a concern and access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited.
On a daily basis, more than 656,000 Oklahomans – that’s enough people to fill a 60,000-seat football stadium 11 times – are food insecure, or according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lack regular access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.
Meanwhile, food deserts, or places where fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t available, in large part because there’s no access to nearby grocery stores, are scattered across both rural and urban areas of Oklahoma.
It’s clear the need is real, but so are efforts to respond.
One example is the Choctaw Farmers’ Market Initiative. Falling under the umbrella of the Choctaw Nation’s Agriculture Outreach program, the farmers’ market initiative is using a USDA grant to promote the improvement, development and expansion of any local food outlets such as roadside stands, Community Supported Agriculture and traditional farmers’ markets operating within the Nation’s 10 ½-county spread.
When the grant went into effect in October 2016, there were about 17 markets up and running within Choctaw Nation lands.
“We will work with any public market. “For example, I have worked to help promote Atoka Community Market as well as Durant Main Street Market,” said Macy Vansickle, tribal Extension agent with the Agriculture Outreach program who oversees the farmers’ market initiative. “We also have expanded Choctaw markets that set up at our Choctaw Nation health facilities in Poteau, McAlester and Durant. Farmers will go set up in the parking lot for patients, employees and others.”
The initiative has notched some measurable successes already. The public farmers’ market in Atoka is newly established with roughly 10 vendors, the Durant market expanded by seven vendors for a total of 28 and in Hugo, the market added four additional vendors.
“I can see a lot of change in things,” Vansickle said. “We want to increase not only the number of markets, but also any direct-to-consumer local food outlets, for fresh fruits and vegetables in our tribal boundaries.”
Lisa Bryant, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension business development coordinator and associate business development specialist with the Oklahoma Small Business Development Center, provides assistance to small businesses with an emphasis on vendors in the local foods arena.
“Through our program, we’re helping to encourage new and existing farmers, especially small farmers, to grow fresh produce to sell in their local communities to increase access to healthy foods,” she said. “We’re trying to build awareness and marketing channels for those growers. We’re also trying to help farmers markets through educational programs to help them with the management of the market, whether it’s marketing or other topics we feel are important for market managers.”
Bryant has worked closely with the Choctaw Nation providing some of that training, including a session before the growing season that covered best practices for safety and handling as well as resources within the community.
In addition to Extension, representatives from Farm Service Agency, USDA Rural Development and the Choctaw Nation were on hand to share how they could help growers bring their product to market.
After the growing season, the groups hope to offer another training workshop.
While no one-size-fits-all measure exists to meet the needs of all food insecure Oklahomans or those who reside in food deserts, Bryant believes it’s possible to build a sustainable model using local food systems and the search for workable models is ongoing.
One of the challenges, though, is the high level of input cost for a lot of local growers.
“It’s not that we don’t have the consumers to buy the food. It’s a matter of getting that network together of who is growing what and where,” she said. “The constant challenge in farming is that not every crop makes it every year. You’ve got to have diversity so you don’t, as they say, have all your eggs in one basket.”
Kenda Woodburn, horticulture/4-H Youth Development educator for Tulsa County Extension, believes the interest is increasing around using local food systems as vehicles to tackle issues around food insecurity and food deserts.
“Even people in more affluent areas are worried about food security,” she said. “When you have different natural disasters coming, the more local food you can have the better. Especially with hoop houses, we have the opportunity to grow more things year-round than ever before. It helps people feel better to know they have food growing.”
For years, Woodburn has been involved in the local foods movement, including, among other things, being instrumental in helping to establish community gardens in and around Tulsa.
Currently she’s aware of at least 20.
From her interactions with people who benefit from the gardens’ bounty, Woodburn knows they appreciate having access to fresh produce.
“What I’ve been told is a lot of people have said they never had food that tasted so good. It’s fresh and, in some cases, people have taken the food and didn’t know how to prepare it, so we found out we need to teach some food preparation,” she said. “I’m sure it’s improved some people’s health because they’ve been able to have fresh produce.”
Interestingly, getting a community garden started isn’t the tough part, according to Woodburn. It’s keeping them going.
“That’s the biggest challenge, keeping a decent pool of the community involved so it’s not all on one person’s shoulders and finding different ways to do that,” she said, noting that a couple keys to a successful community garden are making it fun and sharing produce with volunteers.
“We found out if people get some of the produce, they start freezing, canning and sharing it,” she said. “Then you need to make sure a good amount goes to different charities.”
Looking ahead, with the help of an 18-month USDA Local Food Promotion grant, the Choctaw Nation is conducting a feasibility study to determine the potential of establishing a food hub within tribal boundaries.
“We’ll see next steps after determining what comes back from that study and ways to improve the local foods system,” Vansickle said.
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