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Hope for the Harvest: County food director discusses labor of love

The small group of tables outside the Summit Lake Recreation Center bears fresh food, educational handouts and bite-sized healthy food samples, like Ms. Julie’s kale chips. A sign on one grower’s table reads, “SNAP cards accepted here.”

It signifies progress for many residents of this South Akron neighborhood: They can now use their state food assistance credit to purchase fresh, locally sourced produce literally in their backyard.

For more than a decade, getting healthy food to “food deserts” like Summit Lake has been a labor of love for Beth Knorr, a member of the Summit Food Coalition since its 2009 inception. In May 2016, Knorr became Summit County’s first food director with initial funding from Akron Community Foundation.

Homegrown talent

“My husband and I managed one of the very first CSAs (community supported agriculture) in Northeast Ohio,” Knorr said.

Her family grew more than 200 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables, so she understands the nuances and challenges of the local food economy. “Based on that experience, knowing what it’s like to struggle as a small-scale farmer, and to sell at farmers markets, it has really driven me to advocate for farmers and growers,” she said.

Knorr’s position is multifaceted, and its goals represent the key findings of a food assessment commissioned by Akron Community Foundation, which was published by Round River Consulting in 2014. The study named access to healthy food and nutritional education among its top priorities.

“(It) really helped us to see what’s needed in the community … what is actually happening, who’s involved and what are the missing pieces,” Knorr said. “There’s a lot of wonderful work happening already with regards to local food. We need to focus on how we get all of these organizations communicating with one another, how we get people collaborating where it makes sense, and how we educate the public that isn’t involved with this industry with what is happening in their backyard.”

Julie Costell, an urban farmer and owner of Ms. Julie’s Kitchen in South Akron, is one of those backyard farmers. She is also a member of the Summit Food Coalition. Like Knorr, she fully embraced the life of a grower, but only after a heart attack at the young age of 35 forced her to examine – and change – her eating habits.

Now, her passion is making healthy food accessible in urban areas so people like her can lead longer, healthier lives.

Planting the seed

Costell also believes in combining access with education – and starting young.

“One of the best events we did was the salsa contest at a local elementary school,” Costell said. “I think it is helpful, especially when the parents come and try things. One of my Summer Youth kids got his aunt (who has diabetes) to start making black bean burgers.”

Karen Edwards of Akron agrees. Her program, City Sprouts, teaches inner-city children ages 7 to 12 organic farming and sustainable land practices. They learn everything from farming, eating and exercise to recycling and conserving water – “things I teach my own children,” Edwards said.

“Organic food is very difficult to come by for many families. I teach them how to do it so they can either have what’s here or they can help their parents at home, and when they’re adults they’ll know how to do this,” she explained.

Growing senior population

Knorr says food access is especially crucial for vulnerable populations like children and older adults. According to Feeding America, there are more than 87,000 food insecure people in Summit County, a 16.2 percent food insecurity rate.

From 2001 to 2014, the number of Summit County seniors experiencing food insecurity increased 47 percent. At the same time, the number of seniors in Summit County increased 119 percent, making them a growing population, one that is “just one bad thing away from being financially crippled,” said Karen Hrdlicka, president and CEO of Mature Services.

“Seniors face unique obstacles to traditional solutions to food insecurity,” Hrdlicka explained. “Many forms of senior transportation will limit the amount of food that can be transported as part of their service, which means the senior needs to make more frequent, smaller trips, which can be cost prohibitive. Mobility is another issue, especially in the winter months, because as we age our balance and mobility naturally diminish. Then, you add to that the time in the elements and lugging groceries, and the senior may just choose to go without rather than risking their health to venture out for food.”

Dawn Moeglin, the organization’s director of community engagement, points out that in addition to being less expensive than fresh local produce, premade, preservative-laden meals often cook more quickly and can be stored for longer periods of time – all considerations for an aging generation that is also caring for their children’s children. “For seniors caring for grandchildren, preparation of food can be too time and labor intensive when juggling the challenges of running a multigenerational household,” she said.

A common misconception is that all food insecure people receive public assistance, but as Hrdlicka points out, many seniors fall into a “gap population” that can’t afford healthy food but don’t meet poverty guidelines because they own their home or receive retirement income. To keep seniors from falling through the cracks, Mature Services offers farmers market vouchers, which seniors can use to buy fresh produce. “Their popularity demonstrates how in demand fresh produce is in the senior community,” she said.

Knorr is encouraged by these developments but agrees more must be done.

“There are farmers markets and farm stands in the community that accept Senior Farmers Market Nutrition coupons, which is such a great program since we know seniors are such a vulnerable population,” said Knorr. “Additionally, the WIC program in Summit County piloted their farmers market nutrition program this summer, which serves expecting mothers as well as young children by helping them purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers. These programs really get to the heart of the issues the coalition addresses by enabling programs to be a win-win for both the customers as well as the farmers.”

Food, social issues intertwined

Akron Community Foundation’s recent community report, “Creating Measurable Community Impact,” identifies food insecurity as a critical social indicator that impacts other social issues like employment, income and physical health. And the data indicates the need for action: The number of Summit County residents receiving state food assistance, or SNAP benefits, increased 95 percent to 86,578 in 2013. That figure does not include food insecure residents in the assistance gap.

While the average SNAP benefit increased by $56 per month between 2003 and 2011 to $146 per month, it has since declined to $135 per month during the last two years. That decline has caused food pantry use to increase 75 percent in Summit County since 2006. While vital, pantry resources can be limited.

Knorr suggests local food production is a possible solution – one that would also create economic opportunities for food growers, producers and processors.

The recently opened Hattie’s Food Hub in Akron offers jobs to local residents along with a place for startup food businesses to produce and process their food. Located in an identified food desert near the Akron Zoo, the hub features a corner market that sells freshly grown local produce; an industrial produce washer that washes up to 700 pounds of greens per hour; thermal processing of acidic food like pasta sauce, jams, jellies and baked goods; and a two-stage blast chiller, which will allow the center to freeze items quickly while retaining the food’s nutritional value and flavor.

“The fact that they have a storefront there is incredibly important (in a food desert),” Knorr said. “They’re helping small-scale businesses be able to tackle some of the processing, whether it’s a farmer or local food business. They’re able to provide that service to local businesses and train their clients. When these businesses do grow and establish their own kitchens or storefronts, they have a trained workforce that they can then hire.”

Cultivating change

The Summit Food Coalition is not the only food-based initiative funded by Akron Community Foundation. Along with capacity-building grants to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, a number of food-based projects have received funding through the Neighborhood Partnership Program, an initiative supported by the community foundation and the City of Akron.

 Funded projects include a new community orchard, where residents will be able to pick their own fresh fruit and nuts; an edible walk-through in conjunction with Ms. Julie’s Kitchen; Let’s Grow Akron, which has been providing healthy food access to residents through community gardens for nearly three decades; and the aforementioned City Sprouts youth gardening and healthy living programs.

With collaboration among growers, funders and nonprofits in the community, Knorr is optimistic about the current landscape, especially with the increased understanding of local food production.

“I remember when I first started farming and said that I was doing a CSA program, nobody knew what that was,” she said. “Just the understanding of food and where it comes from has increased a lot over the last 20 years, (along with) the understanding of the challenges and how increasing access to food can improve the quality of life for so many in our community. It’s not just a few kinds of fringe organizations that are talking about it anymore. It’s a lot of organizations having serious conversations about how to support these businesses because they know it’s going to have a dramatic effect on improving the quality of life for the citizens and the individuals in our communities.”