By Kelly Ferry
A food revolution is afoot in the downtowns of Ohio, and if you’re lucky, it’s marching your way. Our own farmers market in Kent, Ohio opened two weeks earlier this year and has doubled in size over the last three years. Some restaurants in town are considering sourcing local foods for menu specials, and new entrepreneurs are filling storefronts with the help, in part, from Kent’s branch of the Main Street Ohio program.
Earlier this month, I attended the Nourishing Downtown event in Southwest Ohio. Hosted by the nonprofit Heritage Ohio and held for the directors and volunteers of its Main Street Ohio initiative, this training session focused on building a local food economy in downtowns across the state. A statewide revitalization organization, Heritage Ohio seeks new strategies to help communities strengthen their economic base through a grassroots community-based approach.
Leslie Schaller, of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), presented an overview the role ACEnet plays in creating and supporting a viable food economy model in Athens, OH. “Commerce is the recipe for a successful food economy, and the ingredients are farmers markets, cafés and restaurants, entertainment districts, pubs, bakeries, ethnic groceries, specialty and natural food stores and more,” said Schaller.
Injecting capital into small businesses and connecting startups with local producers and consumers can help build a thriving local economy and keep money cycling within that community. Restaurants enrich the local scene by purchasing from area farmers and food producers. They deepen the connection by hiring local musicians to perform, and dedicating areas of their establishments to gallery space showcasing local artists. They can also host civic events and local product-themed events, like Athens does with its Ohio Brew Week Festival, which brings visitors from all over to experience Ohio’s fine craft beers and by extension, area foods, and talent.
Central to a thriving downtown food economy is the open-air farmers market. The market can grow stronger by finding ways to work with the other businesses in the downtown district rather than directly competing with them. Schaller mentioned that there's a conundrum in the rising demand for farmers markets: a shortage of farmers. ACEnet helps establish small markets in targeted areas to support one or two farmers. The market supplements consumer demand for fresh produce with community-garden growers and small-market or backyard gardeners.
David Wible, director of the North Market in Columbus, OH, outlined the structure and operation of Columbus's open-air market, a community landmark that’s become a destination experience for residents of Columbus and surrounding areas. This indoor/outdoor market is open four days a week and provides an affordable retail outlet for farmers, artists, artisanal food producers and purveyors, and the growing customer base that supports them. The market “particularly benefits women, minorities and immigrants who are starting small retail operations in the low-rent market, with many self-financed up to 80%,” said Wible. That's a safe way to grow a business with lower overhead and a built-in marketing plan the owner can plug into: the market hosts festivals several times a year to help generate traffic.
“The idea is to grow the business organically a little bit each year,” Wible explained.
Brian Raison of Miami Valley Grown, OSU extension in Montgomery County, OH, prompted some good post-event dialog by requesting that everyone in attendance make a point of talking to two people every day about local foods. He said that the “best ideas come from people coming together to have a conversation, preferably while sharing a meal made with local foods.”
Also presenting were entrepreneurs and farmers showcasing how to run a profitable and sustainable business on a local scale. Mike Kunzer of the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, OH, shared how the popular microbrewery has built a strong brand by focusing on product quality. Great Lakes Brewing sources some recipe ingredients locally, and the company implements many reducing, recycling, and reusing initiatives in their brewery and in the restaurant. Its non-profit Burning River Foundation provides education and resources to support a number of local environmental and sustainability efforts. Great Lakes is choosing not to grow into a national brand, however, because it would have to pasteurize in order to go across state lines, which the brewmasters believe would dilute the flavor and their reputation.
Dan Kremer, owner and farmer of the E.A.T. Food for Life Farm in Yorkshire, OH, talked about his pastured organic meat and dairy operation. He said his driving philosophy is that good food is the best medicine, and his favorite words were "family, farm, faith, facts, food, flavor, favor, fun and fortune." Then he laughed and told us that his son said, “Dad, there you go using all those ‘F’ words again.”
It was all delicious food for thought, and I’m excited to have heard so many great ideas and stories of growth already happening in the downtowns of Ohio. When I asked him what comes next, Jeff Seigler of Heritage Ohio said that participants left with a number of tools to build connections between area farmers and downtown. Readers who want to know more can check out the event slides and presentations available on the Heritage Ohio Blog.
Kelly Ferry is a writing and design consultant in Northeast Ohio where she also writes about food, gardening at Her Able Hands.