Joel Pett

Fresh local food will make us healthier and happier

Using muscle power to make smoothies at Whitesburg Letcher County Farmers Market.
Using muscle power to make smoothies at Whitesburg Letcher County Farmers Market.

I’ve been teaching at Hazard Community and Technical College for almost 24 years, and have witnessed a shift in the way our students think about food. When I started, I’d ask if students had access to home-grown food, and almost everybody would raise their hands. But as grandparents aged and life got busier, the raised hands began to dwindle. Students would say, “Well, my papaw used to keep a huge garden. But he passed away…”

In the last few years, however, I’ve seen a shift back. Students are starting their own small gardens, both to lower food costs, and because they see cultural and social value in growing their own food.

We need food, shelter and possibly love to survive. The history of the human race is the story of negotiating to meet those needs. The most compelling parts are about food — getting, preparing and sharing it.

The story of food in Eastern Kentucky is far more interesting than the tired, sepia-toned yarns that writers have been flinging out since the War on Poverty. It’s a story of determination and hope, and we need to pay attention.

The unhealthiest counties in the country are clustered in Eastern Kentucky. We have a cultural climate where many people are both obese and malnourished. But all over Central Appalachia people like my students are working to create communities with opportunities for better health, a better and more sustainable economy, and at the risk of sounding naïve, greater happiness.

At the center of that new narrative is food. Pathfinders of Perry County, which I chair, is a citizen group that promotes community well-being, engagement, outdoor recreation and education. We’ve found that working together to solve food issues can be incredibly healing and unifying in a region that has seen a lot of division.

Farmers markets are growing, providing income for farmers and affordable, fresh, local food for consumers. Whitesburg Letcher County’s Farmers Market, in partnership with health-care providers, offers the exciting Farmacy program. Patients receive prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables to redeem at the market.

This benefits everybody. Farmers make more money, consumers get quality products, insurers and health-care providers see measurable health outcomes, like lower body mass indexes and blood pressures.

Through Perry County’s award-winning Farm to School program about 4,200 kids see local foods in snacks or meals every school day, and they are learning the importance of agriculture to our economy and of good food to their health.

Pikeville Elementary students tend winter vegetables under low tunnels, learning by tasting why carrots and beets are sweeter in cold weather. Using food to teach concepts across the curriculum is applied science at its best, and applied art, too, as the beautiful beds of rainbow-bright kale attest.

Right now, we don’t have enough growers or the infrastructure to meet the demands of our school systems, restaurants and hospitals for local food, but, thanks to several groups working together, soon two new agriculture certificate programs at Hazard Community and Technical College will be available to train new farmers in Eastern Kentucky.

It’s a big job, and it won’t happen overnight. But this work is happening, and it fills me with hope for our region.

We all have to eat, so we might as well eat good food that makes our bodies, our families, our communities and our economy stronger and healthier. Agriculture may not be the only answer to all our problems, but it is an important piece of the “silver buckshot” we’re unleashing on our region to lift ourselves out of poverty.

Jenny Williams, who teaches English at Hazard Community and Technical College, is one of Southern Living’s Southerners of the Year:“50 people moving the South forward with groundbreaking nonprofits, impactful projects, and innovative ideas.”