An Ohio Thanksgiving: Food Needs as Opportunities

Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert are 2009 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows working on the Energize Clinton County project. You can watch their PopTech presentation video here; donate to the Grow Food, Grow Hope project detailed below and follow their work on Twitter @growfoodandhope.

Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert
Authors of this post, Fellows Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert, speaking at PopTech 2009.

As we celebrated our first Thanksgiving in Clinton County since the departure of DHL, the community was brought together around a deep sense of gratitude for each other and this place we call home. Thanksgiving also brought with it a reminder of the fragility of our community and economy. With the unemployment rate in Clinton County reaching 15% this month, and with winter approaching, the community’s focus has been fixed on confronting the unfamiliar challenges of serving victims of a severe economic downturn.

There is little doubt that these difficulties will persist locally, and across the country, as the economic downturn worsens in communities of all shapes and sizes. Aside from the obvious economic redevelopment challenges, the deepness of this recession has brought forth deep questions about our pre-conceived notions of us as people, families, and a community.

The most challenging of these questions—which we now confront regularly—are those related to our ability to meet basic needs. For most, providing food for one’s family has always been a given, but as the face of economic distress dramatically shifts, we increasingly encounter individuals and families who must weigh difficult decisions between keeping up with rent or mortgage payments, paying bills, and eating.

This weekend, the New York Times published an extensive article on the rising rate of food stamp use across the country, told from Martinsville, Ohio—a small village, just minutes down the road from Wilmington in Clinton County. The story, written by Jason DeParle with photographs by Robert Gebeloff, features our stark reality: nearly one in eight Americans and one in four children— 36 million Americans, in total— rely on the federal benefits to put food on their table, and that number continues to balloon. An unprecedented number of Americans— about 20,000 — become eligible every day for the benefits.

What the story did not tell is that the challenge of increasing access to food to those under economic distress in Clinton County has been embraced as an opportunity. As Michael Pollan so powerfully shared last month at PopTech in Camden, we are in desperate need of rethinking our relationship to food. In Clinton County, we have heeded this call by making the most of our rich agricultural heritage to reshape the way we think about food while meeting local needs.

Earlier this year, Wilmington College—a Quaker, liberal arts college in Wilmington—launched a program with AmeriCorps VISTA to increase access to fresh, local food for low-income families and individuals. The program—Grow Food, Grow Hope—has, in its very short history, asserted itself as a shining model for meeting food needs while building capacity for local food development.

Grow Food, Grow Hope

Last summer, the initiative hosted 20 small-plot gardens for economically distressed families, and provided mentoring and education on growing and cooking fresh produce. The college also grew more than 10,000 lbs of produce on its college farm which was delivered to local food pantries.

Grow Food, Grow Hope

In the coming year, our friends at Grow Food, Grow Hope will continue working to bring Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT) to the Clinton County Farmers’ Market, increase the scale of its community garden project, and develop home gardens through a backyard gardening program.

Grow Food, Grow Hope

There is little doubt that the statistics that draw the outline of poverty in our community will continue to worsen. Yet, as we have already experienced in Clinton County, these challenges provide us with new opportunities to think about innovative solutions that meet our most basic human needs and lay a foundation for a new economic future.

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