Monday, October 1, 2012

(Local) Food for Thought: A Value Chain in Action

By Natalie Woodroofe, 30 Mile Meal Project
For the last two years I’ve been collaborating with non-profits and entrepreneurs in Appalachian Ohio to expand our local foods economy. My work centers on developing a regional brand that promotes local food producers and related businesses and increases consumer awareness and support for these enterprises.
The 30 Mile Meal Project—the most local of locavore initiatives in the U.S.—currently partners with 135 farmers, processors, specialty food producers, farmers and retail markets, food events, and eateries within a thirty mile radius of Athens, Ohio. Underwritten by the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and with significant program support from ACEnet, the Project provides marketing tools (logos, taglines, etc.) and a web-based searchable map that assists locals and visitors in locating these partners.

Our blog provides an up close look at the people, farms, and businesses we work with. We host a calendar of events and a Facebook page, keeping folks up to date on what’s happening and organize showcase events, including 30 Mile Meal Month (July) and Restaurant Week. The Project owes much of its success to the hundreds of people who have been widening and deepening our food system over the last 25 years.

So What Does a Local Foods Economy Look Like?

A robust local foods economy provides consumers with less traveled food, greater traceability, increased food security, and the pleasure of supporting our friends and neighbors. It also increases the food dollar share that goes directly to the farmer or producer, keeping more of the food dollars spent circulating within a region. Here in Southeast Ohio, enterprises within our food value chain generated nearly $40 million in revenue for farmers, processors, restaurants and retailers in 2011.
Sustainable food systems seed the usual supply chain with financial, social and environmental values as the chain travels from production to waste and back again. The chart below illustrates the evolving model in our region.
Change agents

The arrows indicate the connections and flow back and forth between the components of the value chain. At the center are those that work individually and collaboratively to support the system. Our Change Agents are predominately nonprofits with missions centered on some aspect of local food economies, access and justice. Key players include:
  • Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) which operates a kitchen incubator and provides a range of entrepreneurial and market access supports;
  • Rural Action’s sustainable agriculture and zero waste programs;
  • Community Food Initiatives’ (CFI) Donation Station program which provides people with limited resources access to fresh local foods, while supporting local farmers;
  • Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative that is scaling up localized production of bean, grain, oil seed and perennial nut staple foods; and
  • Athens Food Policy Council, comprised of movers and shakers across the value chain.

Producers & technical assistance, training and education 

Our food production comes from 1500+ farms as well as community, institutional, school and home gardens. Support for farmers on Good Agricultural Practices, season extension, high tunnel growing, and organic practices is provided through Rural Action, County Extension Offices, and Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association. 

ACEnet focuses on value-added product assistance (see the Food Venture Center below). Consumer education in foodways, including canning and other methods of food preservation, is provided by CFI and the Athens County Extension Office.


Processing requires significant investments in infrastructure, and we are fortunate to have ACEnet’s Food Venture Center. The Food Venture Center, a kitchen incubator, currently has 197 value added producer tenants who generated $28 million in annual sales during 2011 and created 137 full-time/self-employment jobs, and 991 part-time jobs.
ACEnet's Food Venture Center
Shagbark Seed & Mill Company contracts with regional farmers to grow beans and grains, mills the grains, and utilizes local entrepreneurs to produce pastas, breads, chips and crackers from these crops. Plans are underway to process oils from locally grown seeds. Shagbark is also assisting The Wingnuttery, a start-up nut processing operation.

Snowville Creamery processes milk from grass fed cows, and pays its farmers a premium above government mandated market prices, and its workers, a living wage. The region also includes several on farm cheese-making operations, as well as breweries and winemaking operations.

The region’s local food enterprises are promoted through two brands:
  • 30 Mile Meal serves as an umbrella brand for the food producing, selling and serving community and
  • Food We Love brand, launched in 2000 by ACEnet, for specialty foods and farm products.
The brands leverage economic impacts and motivate behavior changes towards local purchasing by producers, retailers and customers.


Getting food to markets can be daunting for small producers. Snowville Creamery distributes dairy products across Ohio and as far east as Washington, D.C. Its trucks frequently carry other producers’ foods to Columbus and other larger markets, utilizing ACEnet’s Food Ventures Center to cross-dock products. Rural Action recently acquired a refrigerator truck that aggregates producer lots and delivers them to restaurants, colleges, and hospitals in Ohio and West Virginia.


Consumers and restaurants have many ways to source their food. For those in need, CFI’s Donation Station provides fresh local foods for pick up twice a week by 35 social service agencies and community-based nonprofits. In 2011, over 60,000 pounds of food was distributed via the Donation Station. CFI, through its Edible Athens initiative, has also identified fruit and nut trees in the city of Athens that can be gleaned by the public.

The Athens Farmers Market is one of the nation’s best, operates year-round and has the highest use of EBT benefits in the state. Nine other seasonal farmers markets are spread across the region.
Wares at the Athen's Farmers Market
We have three CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) that serve the local population and the Columbus area. The Athens Hill CSA partners with other local producers to provide baked goods, cheeses, milk and other foods not grown by the CSA operator.

The Chesterhill Produce Auction, supplied by Amish and other local farmers, is a welcomed option for those seeking larger amounts of produce for preserving or institutional use. Rural Action also operates Country Fresh Stops, a program that brings fresh produce to convenience stores in underserved areas designated as food deserts by USDA. ACEnet has forged relationships with major grocery operations and many of our regional producers wholesale their products to Kroger and Whole Food stores throughout the Midwest. Several locally owned food markets also carry local products.

The Consumption component includes the various consumers of local foods - individuals, restaurants, schools, medical and correctional institutions, businesses, and feeding programs.

Waste and nutrient management refers to the traditional and innovative ways in which farm and food waste is managed and often recycled through on-farm management, solid waste districts, and restaurant and institutional composting. Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery not only grows many of the vegetables and herbs used in its menu, it also uses spent grain from its brewery operation for their pizza crusts and gives the rest to a local farmer to augment his cows’ feed. The Brewery then purchases the farmer’s meat for its kitchen.

Now in the early stages of development, The Compost Exchange is a privately owned Class II compost facility that collects coffee grinds from local eateries, leaves from the city of Athens, and other agricultural waste with the aim of producing specialty soil amendments that will nourish the next cycle of crops.

Next Steps: Helping Other Regions Build Local Food Economies

The impact and the collaborative nature of our value chain draws interest from others that are building regional food systems. We provide technical assistance to other regions wanting to launch their own 30 Mile Meal and are currently working with folks in Youngstown and Licking County, Ohio and Huntington, West Virginia.

In July, we hosted our first Real Food • Real Local • Real Good Institute, three days of workshops, panel discussions, networking and off-site tours. Seventy eight people from 7 states participated. Many of our 30 Mile Meal partners shared their expertise as farmers, restaurateurs, processors, value added producers and nonprofit leaders.
The Institute affirmed our sense that we have another "home grown" product we can offer: our collective wisdom in how to build and nurture a local food system. We can share the challenges, possibilities and lessons learned, as well as on-site opportunities to "see it for yourself". If you are interested in technical assistance to build or strengthen your food system, contact me (

Reclaiming our food systems not only connects growers, businesses, and consumers, it builds community resilience, job opportunities, and expands farmland preservation, food safety and environmental accountability. Eating primarily within our own food systems, we nourish ourselves and a more sustainable future.

  • Do you have the capacity to map your food system?
  • What are the ‘low hanging fruits’ that could be harvested to energize your region in strengthening your local foods value chain?

Natalie Woodroofe is a consultant currently managing the 30 Mile Meal Project. She previously served as the founding director of the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network and as the Association for Enterprise Opportunity’s Rural Initiatives Director, overseeing two national Rural Learning Clusters funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Images provided by the author.

Learn more about the Rural Futures Lab at our website, or like us on Facebook!

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