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Bridging the food gap with education

My daughter has been trying, with marginal success, to get her old parents to consume more organic food products.

Organic to me means higher-priced, and I like to buy what's on sale.

She hasn't given up on us, but she knows we won't be converted quickly.

But that's OK.

There will be people at this week's Closing the Food Gap regional conference who have been working for decades to get frugal people like us as well as the underprivileged more connected to organic and locally grown foods.

Such foods are not only better for us health-wise, said Anthony Flaccavento, but they are good for the slowed economy we are experiencing.

Organic farming can restore the health of the soil, which will then increase the nutrients of produce, meats and eggs, he said.

"And that also means that farmers will be less dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers," Flaccavento said.

Food in general is shipped an average of 1,700 miles, he said, which adds to our oil dependency. Then there are the cooling, packaging and retailing costs which diminish the farmers' take to about 19 cents on the dollar.

"When we buy directly, the farmers get 50 to 100 percent of that dollar," said Flaccavento, who is a graduate of the University of Kentucky, founder and director of Appalachian Sustainable Development and a part-time commercial organic farmer.

ASD is a non-profit agency that has used entrepreneurship to take food from the fields to the table ecologically. It has been successful in transforming tobacco farmers into organic farmers, growing products that are sold to more than 400 supermarkets in the Appalachian region of both Virginia and Tennessee.

To make the nutritious food more affordable while giving farmers their due, Flaccavento has worked to get churches to donate to a fund which allows ASD to buy products that are not cosmetically acceptable to consumers but good nonetheless, and donate them to food banks. The food banks then make them available to underprivileged families.

That program, as well as federal food subsidies, are good for making sure "everybody in any given community is able to eat the best food that is available," said Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. But that treats only the symptoms.

He said 28 million people are enrolled in the food stamp program, a record number. The poor and near-poor in America, he said, amount to about 100 million people.

"That means they are shopping at the lower end of the food chain," Winne said. "With food prices going up, the healthier foods go up even more, 10 to 20 percent over the last year. That puts (healthy foods) even further out of reach."

We need to expand farmers markets and the amount of food grown locally and organically, he said, and we need to educate people about nutritional foods.

Every school student should know "how to buy a healthy meal, how to prepare a healthy meal, and have a little gardening skills," Winne said. "If we don't make that kind of investment now, we will pay a higher cost down the road" in chronic health problems.

Too often, he said, during the upcoming season of giving, we will make a donation to a food bank, thinking that will solve the problem.

"Not addressing the root cause," Winne said. "That is poverty. We as a nation have backed away from the problem of poverty."

If we are going to make that contribution again this season, ask whether that is enough to ultimately solve the problem, he said.

The regional conference will be held in Lexington at the UK Cooperative Extension Service, 1140 Red Mile Road, on Thursday and Friday, and at the Community Action Center, 1169 Winburn Drive, on Saturday.

Registration for the full conference is $70, or $25 for Thursday dinner at which Winne will speak; $45 for Friday and $10 on Saturday. Flaccavento will speak at 9:15 a.m. Friday.

No one will be turned away for lack of funds, however. Call (859)312-7024 for more information.

With so many people interested in my health, I might pay closer attention to my daughter.