Almost all of the food consumed in Eastern Kentucky is grown hundreds of miles away, which offers a staggering opportunity.
The largest obstacle to beginning farmers is access to land. Yet Eastern Kentucky has thousands of small plots of one-half to several acres that cumulatively could produce enormous amounts of fresh nutritious food.
Much of that land has families living on it who want to stay in Appalachia, to have decent jobs to improve their lives and communities.
No, this would not be an expansion of conventional commodity agriculture but a true grass-roots approach to feeding our families. Nutrition-based wellness at its most primal. Household-level economic development.
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Will a transition of this nature be simple, easy, quick? No. Is it possible, viable, exciting? Absolutely.
Consider: Five years ago, Wayne Riley, director of the Laurel County African American Heritage Center in London, had no idea that today he would be running a wildly successful community gardening project with dozens of participants from across the social spectrum growing tons of organic produce. Not to mention developing a cutting-edge horticultural demonstration farm within shouting distance of the courthouse, complete with high tunnels and a solar-powered irrigation system.
Riley is part of the Grow Appalachia family, the country's largest privately funded rural community gardening and food security program.
We are working in 40 counties in four states, helping over 1,140 families learn how to grow their own food, prepare it in heart-healthy ways and preserve it so that they can literally eat from their gardens 12 months a year. Participants must do the hard work themselves and give either time or some of their harvest back to their communities. Grow Appalachia is a hand up, not another reviled handout.
Seventeen distressed counties in Eastern Kentucky form the heart of Grow Appalachia's efforts to rebuild the intellectual and logistical infrastructure necessary to effective food production at the household level.
Since 2010, Grow Appalachia has gone from 100 families at four partners sites growing 120,000 pounds of fresh organic fruits and vegetables to over 1,140 families growing, sharing and selling more than 500,000 pounds of produce this year.
Grow Appalachia is funded by billionaire philanthropist John Paul DeJoria. The lion's share of the resources go directly to residents of rural counties. Grow Appalachia created more than 70 full- and part-time jobs this year, all but three of them hired in their home counties. The contributions of space and in-kind support by Berea College, where the program is housed, have been instrumental.
No organization has been working in the hills longer than Berea College. Thus, those of us in Grow Appalachia are deeply gratified and encouraged by the upcoming SOAR conference as a solid first step in the rejuvenation of Eastern Kentucky.
After all, everyone eats.