$2 Million Food System Aims To Make Produce Accessible

  • 5/10/2019 3:48:09 PM
  • Jenna Ramolt
  • Local News

MANSFIELD, OH - Thanks to a professor at Ohio State University at Mansfield, a $2 million dollar food system project will soon be implemented in the City of Mansfield, fighting back against food insecurity and promoting local business in the Mansfield community.

A surprising number of areas in rural Ohio are classified as 'food deserts' by the United States Department of Agriculture, including parts of Mansfield. These areas are classified as having little to no access to healthy, affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. In communities like this, a lack of healthy options can lead to a variety of health issues such as diabetes and childhood obesity.

That's why Dr. Kip Curtis, Associate Professor of Environmental History at Ohio State University at Mansfield, began developing a plan to fight food insecurity over eight years ago.

According to Curtis, the City of Mansfield has four census districts that classify as food deserts. "It's shocking how many food deserts there are even in rural Ohio," he said. Low income areas and distance from supermarkets frequently go hand in hand, purely because for many companies there is no financial motivation to place supermarkets in an area with little economic activity. Curtis says that, while unintentional, this can be very costly socially. "When there isn't access to fresh food, you see an increase in diet-related health issues like diabetes, like childhood obesity, and then those end up costing us down the road in health costs. So it's worth it to think about ways to re-design the food system so that it doesn't just naturally withdraw food from places where it's needed."

His solution was simple: Put urban producers together into a collaborative network and provide both training and resources, both keeping local dollars circulating here with local growers and promoting healthier lifestyles with increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

An example of an urban microfarm can be seen on Ohio State University at Mansfield's campus. Two tall tunnels housing raised plant beds stand on the property. Dr. Curtis and six Ohio State Mansfield students began that project in 2016 and finished it in fall of 2017, and the results can already be seen sprouting through the dirt.

It was around that time that Dr. Curtis began working with organizations like the North End Community Improvement Collaborative, Mind and Body Align and Braintree Business Solutions. With their partnership, Dr. Curtis managed to get a proposal out to the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). FFAR agreed to provide a one-to-one matching grant in order to fund this $2 million project- and so far they have gotten close.

"The real challenge to this grant was it's a one-to-one match... I had to find a million dollars both internally and locally, and the community of Mansfield came forward with half a million in both cash and in kind, so this is a genuine community and a genuine partnership effort," said Dr. Curtis.

This food system project will give right back to the community in two big ways: Through health benefits, and through the economy.

"To date the urban food movement has promised solving the food desert problem- that is, the fresh food access problem in urban centers and low income neighborhoods- and delivering some income through the sale of food," Dr. Curtis explained. "This system was designed specifically to address both of those. To say let's put fresh food in the middle of these neighborhoods, but let's put it there both as food that will be consumed and food that will be sold on the market so that those neighbors can capture some of that food economy and put it back in their pockets."

So far, ten producers have signed on to grow and sell their own produce using the microfarm food system. Some of them are single adults looking to get into farming, others are using microfarming as a way to get back up on their feet. One of the growers is a family looking for some supplemental income- all come from different backgrounds, but thanks to community and grant funding, they will be provided with the training and resources they need to make this project work.

The next step in this plan is implementation. Several new microfarms will be cropping up in the next few months, and they aim to be producing independently by 2020. If successful, this network of microfarms will help stamp out food insecurity in Mansfield while promoting a healthy lifestyle and bolstering a healthy economy. It could even become a model for urban growers in other food deserts in Ohio and beyond.

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