More than paper: food action plans inspire change

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front of keller market house
Keller Market House is a year-round market, in downtown Lancaster, Ohio, that sells local and Ohio-made food and goods. The market was the result of Fairfield County’s Agricultural Economic Development Plan. (Submitted photo)

Fairfield County, Ohio, had a problem. It had plenty of farmers raising, growing and producing food and other goods. It also had plenty of people wanting to buy local goods. But there wasn’t a good way to connect the two year-round.

That’s how Keller Market House came to be, in downtown Lancaster, the county seat of Fairfield County.

Before it existed, if you wanted to get locally raised meat or produce, you’d have to wait for the weekly farmers market — if it was the right season — or seek out each farm business separately. The products were there, but it wasn’t as easy as making one stop at a store in the center of town.

Lack of convenience is one of the things that prevents people from buying local, but Keller Market House put that convenience back into the shopping experience.

“We’re kind of the only game in town for pasture-raised meat, organic veggies, sourdough bread,” said Erin Harvey, manager of the market. “Unless you’re going to really put effort into it and go find all these farms, we put it all under one roof.”

Keller Market House is a success story of a food action plan created by and for Fairfield County.

Similar plans have been created and enacted throughout the country to tackle issues relating to food and farming. One of those plans is unfolding in Pittsburgh right now.

Though the plans are just paper — or, realistically, electronically generated pdfs — the effect they have on communities, people and farmers can have a tangible impact.

Central Ohio

One of the first regional plans in the country happened in central Ohio: the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s Central Ohio Local Food Assessment and Plan.

Others plans have been created in cities including Seattle, Buffalo, Phoenix, Columbus, Niagara Falls and counties in various states countrywide. A statewide plan is in its infancy in North Carolina.

Each plan represents the city or region in which it’s made. For example, organizers in Seattle may not be as worried about preserving prime farmland as those in central Ohio.

But most plans have a few common threads, like trying to find ways to get healthy, affordable food to more people and creating a strong local food economy.

The Fairfield County plan and others in Ohio can be traced back to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s plan that was released in April 2010.

No one had ever put together a large-scale plan that looked at an entire region before, said Brian Williams, senior planner with the regional planning commission. The Central Ohio Local Food Assessment and Plan looked at the 12 county area surrounding Columbus.

The goal was to look at the state of the food system and make recommendations on how it could be made better.

“One thing we tried to make part of the plan is the idea of local food as economic development,” Williams said.

Some of the plan’s recommendations included creating agricultural cooperatives for local food, adopting practices to extend growing seasons, training the next generation of food farmers, food production and processing workers, promoting large-scale institutional purchases of local food and improving the aggregation and distribution of local food.

The Central Ohio plan didn’t spawn much change on the ground, but it did inspire counties to make their own plans that better reflected the needs of that area. It was more of a big picture thing.

“It works best if each county does things at the local level,” Williams said. “They know better than we do what they need.”

Fairfield County

The first of these was the Fairfield County plan. “Fairfield Growing: An Agricultural Economic Development Plan” was released in 2011.

It called for a number of things to happen, but a priority was to create a year round retail market for local producers that would be located within a central business district, like downtown Lancaster. The city of Lancaster is home to more than 40,000 people.

The plan led to the establishment of the Fairfield County Local Food Council, which pursued a way to improve the availability of local foods in the county. The building at the corner of South Columbus and West Chestnut streets was purchased from the Fairfield County Land Bank in July 2015, for $1.

The building was in rough shape, but it had good bones and a lot of history. From 1867 to 1914, it housed the Keller Grocery Store. When the food hub was ready to open, they took the name Keller Market House in honor of the building’s roots.

“We’ve been able to breathe new life into our block and this corner,” Harvey said.

The market carries more than 75 products from Ohio farms and farm businesses, much of it on a consignment basis. There’s your typical fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats, but also things like chocolate, baked goods, spaghetti sauce, coffee, tea, spices, hot sauce and flour.

On top of being a one-stop shop for local goods and revitalizing a downtown block, Keller Market House is a gathering place. The building has a community room to host meetings and events. But the market feels welcoming to people, too.

“It’s a public community space,” Harvey said. “There’s a sense of connection. People like the sense of authenticity that it provides. There just aren’t that many public community spaces anymore. People just like being here.”

Columbus

Another was the City of Columbus-Franklin County plan, released in November 2016. It focused on “creating a fair and sustainable food system” that benefited the economy, environment and people of the area. More than 1,000 people participated in the process to put the plan together.

The Columbus plan spurred a lot of action in the county. Thousands of dollars in grants were handed out to urban farms and community gardens. An apple processing line was installed in the Columbus City Schools District to allow elementary schools to serve Ohio-grown sliced apples in schools.

In 2019, Franklin County created a $200,000 tax increment financing deal for a local grocery store to cover unexpected costs that came up during an expansion, according to the Local Food Action Plan Annual Report.

La Plaza Tapatia, a minority-owned grocery store, bought land and planned to build a new store that would serve a community that had been rapidly losing grocery stores. But after construction began, expensive issues were discovered with stormwater infrastructure.

Franklin County put together the tax increment financing deal to keep the project going. The deal sets aside a small amount of future property tax revenues of a new development to pay for present costs of any necessary site improvements. Tax increment financing is usually done by municipalities in Ohio, commonly for major industrial or mixed-used redevelopment projects.

This was the first time one had been put together by the county to carry out a local food plan initiative.

Pittsburgh

The latest food action plan is happening in Pittsburgh right now. A draft was released in July, with the full version slated to come out some time this fall.

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council had been doing work in different areas — urban agriculture, food equity and the regional food economy — but there was no broad vision, said Sam Applefield, project coordinator for the Pittsburgh plan. They needed a plan.

They completed a food policy audit, to see what was already in place in Allegheny County municipalities. Next, they had several layers of meetings with people in the community, with farmers, grocery store operators, food processors, distributors and other stakeholders.

The draft of the Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan is 116 pages long. That’s hefty compared to other food action plans.

“It needs to be that big,” Applefield said.

The plan needs to look at the usual things like community gardens, food pantries, farmers markets, but also land access, minimum wage, zoning and transportation issues. You can’t make lasting changes without looking at the whole picture.

The plan consists of five main goals broken into more than 130 action items. Some are big picture, like research ways to illustrate in monetary terms the value of community gardens or advocate for increased state investment in public transportation.

Others are highly specific, like translating food resources into languages for immigrant and refugee populations and promoting a 30-minute minimum lunch period in schools. The final version will narrow things down a bit, highlighting the top strategies. Land access, institutional procurement and SNAP stand out already as things to focus on first, Applefield said.

“We’re looking at things like what kind of impact will this one have, how urgent is it given how the world has changed, since we wrote the plan, and how does it align with our values of justice, equity and sustainability,” Applefield said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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