Fresh, nutritious, locally grown food is easier to find in Central Louisiana thanks to a community effort to support and enhance the local foods economy. The Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative gives residents more fresh food options while helping local farmers, restaurant owners and businesspeople who make a living providing food. “When folks are able to grow, consume and sell their own produce, it improves health outcomes and the region’s economy,” said Jim Clinton, president of the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance.
The local food movement began in earnest in 2011 when Keller Enterprises, LLC, provided a gift through the Central Louisiana Community Foundation and Food Bank of Central Louisiana to establish the Good Food Project, a community garden project that provides the community with fresh, sustainably grown produce. A year later, the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative was awarded a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation Challenge Grant with matching funding from The Rapides Foundation. The initiative’s goal is to strengthen Central Louisiana’s local foods economy while increasing access to fresh foods throughout the region.
A 2011 CLEDA study showed that $33 million worth of unprocessed vegetables was consumed in Central Louisiana annually, but only $8 million of that was produced locally. “We found there was a huge gap between what is consumed here and what is produced here,” said Gary Perkins, executive director of Business Acceleration System (BAS), a program for local entrepreneurs funded by The Rapides Foundation and administered by CLEDA.
To help close this gap, BAS works with farmers throughout Central Louisiana, providing coaching services, connecting them with local restaurants, and presenting trainings and workshops on farming as a business. “The local foods initiative has helped us get into restaurants that we were not previously in,” said Jay Pearson, owner of Gray-Walk Farms in Rapides Parish. “The feedback has been very positive. We are seeing more and more individuals interested in farming again, and I think that’s going to continue to grow.” Meanwhile, the Harvest Barn at Inglewood Farm added CSA options to their already substantial offerings.
While the initiative’s work is still in its infancy, a key to its success has been partnerships. Those who share common goals are working together to ensure that residents have access to fresh food, and that farmers and other local producers are able to sell their produce locally. In the process, children and adults have more healthy food options. “I think the strength of the partnerships, including support from the local farmers and the business community, is unique and contributes to our success. That’s one of the main differences when you compare the local foods movement in Central Louisiana with food movements in places such as Iowa and Oregon,” said John Cotton Dean, who joined the CLEDA team as regional food systems planner in early 2013.
Partners are also seeking and providing additional funding sources to continue the momentum. “I think that proves the commitment and support level of all of our partners. They are investing their time and resources to move the initiative forward. That’s what makes it strong,” Dean said. Original project partners include the Cane River Green Market, the Food Bank of Central Louisiana and its Good Food Project, the Louisiana Public Health Institute, MarketUmbrella, the Winnfield Housing Authority and the Winn Farmers Market.
Recently, the initiative, with added partners, was accepted into The Rapides Foundation’s Healthy Places Program, which provides training and expert assistance to community-based groups committed to reducing the major causes of chronic diseases to make communities healthier. New Partners include Central Louisiana Area Health Education Center, the Central Louisiana Healthy Communities Coalition and the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce. The last two partners hosted a strategic luncheon in December showcasing local foods and how employers can use local foods to enhance wellness efforts.
“Everyone, regardless of what their priorities are in the project, whether they are a farmer or working in policy, everyone wants this to be successful,” said Jayne Wright-Velez, executive director of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana, which oversees several initiative components. “These programs are all about breaking the cycle of hunger, and building an awareness of healthy food and nutrition,” Wright-Velez said. “We have seen some amazing things happen.”
The initiative also includes the formation of the Central Louisiana Regional Local Foods Working Group. This group of grassroots leaders from throughout the region meets monthly to identify the challenges and opportunities in the local foods economy. Work began in January on a USDA-funded study to determine what is needed next to help further strengthen and expand the local food economy.
Keller Enterprises recently awarded a three-year, Good Food Initiative philanthropic investment to CLEDA to continue and expand its work in local foods.
Local food movement efforts can be seen all over Central Louisiana:
Good Food Project
The Good Food Project teaches community members and schoolchildren how to grow and sustain gardens. It has helped create 27 gardens. Keller Enterprises Director of The Good Food Project Frances Boudreaux said the list includes community gardens where neighborhood residents plant and consume what they grow, and school gardens maintained by students and teachers. The Good Food Project also provides education opportunities for young people. At the Pineville Youth Center, for example, students are able to work in the facility’s garden under supervision of Good Food Project staff. “We are passing along to a new generation the knowledge to grow sustainable food,” she said.
The Good Food Project programs introduce children and families to healthy foods that can be easily grown and prepared at home. “We have clients come by and get seeds and soil, and when they come back they will say, ‘I took it home and planted it, and it was successful.’ The responses have been very positive,” Boudreaux said. “We teach them how to grow their own food without spending a lot of money. When people realize this, it changes their way of thinking.”
Foodapalooza is an annual event started in March 2013 that celebrates Central Louisiana foods and food producers. The third annual Foodapalooza is scheduled for February 27th in Alexandria. The daylong event includes workshops featuring national speakers, tours of local food related venues, and locally sourced meals. “Our goal is to celebrate local foods, to share resources and to inspire others to make changes in their communities,” Dean said.
Keynote speakers and presenters include experts and practitioners doing similar work in other areas of the nation. It is a networking opportunity for Central Louisiana residents from all parts to share ideas, projects, challenges and successes.
In 2014, CLEDA rolled out the Fresh Central brand, featuring the Fresh Central logo to promote local foods and the FreshCentral.org website. An active, interactive map shows where produce can be found in Central Louisiana. It is the go-to place for information, upcoming meetings, resources and Fresh Central merchandise.
Eat Local Groups
Eat Local Groups are parish-wide groups that start farmers markets and community tables and help build a base for a thriving local foods movement. Eat Local Grant, for example, is the driving force behind the community-initiated Colfax Farmers Market, one of the largest produce-focused markets in Central Louisiana. The Natchitoches Community Table allows local gardeners and small-scale farmers to sell their produce cooperatively through one source at the Cane River Green Market.
This after-school program provides nutritious hot meals, nutrition education, tutoring, activities and help with schoolwork. The Food Bank of Central Louisiana operates Kids Café sites in Natchitoches, Pineville, and Winnfield.
Nutrition on Wheels
The Nutrition on Wheels program was conceived by the Food Bank of Central Louisiana to show residents how to cook nutritious dishes using fresh produce. The Nutrition on Wheels vehicle travels throughout the region, offering cooking demonstrations for Food Bank clients.
The idea came about when a Food Bank client said she wasn’t able to use some of the food that had been given to her. “We never considered the fact that some people didn’t have experience in basic cooking,” said Jayne Wright-Velez, executive director of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana. “The program has worked really well. We have had positive feedback from it.” The program currently serves about 600 families a month. “We want to increase that as we go forward.”
In 2014, staff from The Rapides Foundation and CLEDA began appearing on the monthly Fresh Central cooking segment on Good Day Cenla on KALB-TV to show creative ways to prepare seasonal, local produce.
Local Food in Schools
Exploring Your Small Farm Dream
CLEDA and the LSU AgCenter began offering the six-week training series “Exploring the Small Farm Dream” in October 2014. These sessions were a huge success and led to a January workshop featuring Mark Cain, one of the most renowned organic farmers in the South.
Local Food in the Workplace: Guidelines for Business
The Central Louisiana Regional Local Foods Working Group created guidelines for businesses interested in developing healthy work environments for their employees. These guidelines are a free resource for employers or anyone who wants to increase their access to local, nutritious foods. Some of the suggestions for employers: include local food in your catered events and meetings; include local food as part of your company’s overall health and wellness program; develop a worksite garden; and host a farmers market.
The local food movement relies on community involvement, and there are many ways to become involved. If every household spends just $5.00 a week at a local farm, $91 million would be added annually to the Cenla economy. Other ways to become involved: support local businesses that support local farmers; attend a parish Eat Local meeting; host an Eat Local discussion in your own community; attend Foodapalooza; volunteer at The Good Food Project, follow the initiative’s Facebook page (CenlaLocalFoods); learn more at www.FreshCentral.org; or email Dean at email@example.com.
“The local food movement depends on civic involvement,” Clinton said.