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Food accessibility took center stage during the first of three webinars for the Western Maryland Food Council’s virtual conference.

The video session was joined by about 75 participants to listen to the keynote address from Mark Winne, author and senior adviser to the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Winne discussed his book, “Food Town, USA: Seven Unlikely Cities That Are Changing the Way We Eat.

Session attendees, along with Winne, said Alleghany, Garrett and Washington counties are doing well to implement Winne’s “local food movement.”

Strong, reliable local food sources contribute to four foundations of healthy communities, Winne said. These foundations are food security, social justice, health and a sustainable economy.

Winne discussed successes in rebuilding a healthy food system in Hartford, Connecticut, a town in collapse in part due to its agriculture-based economy no longer relying on seasonal workers as well as the expanding of suburbia with the concurrent loss of tax base. Food co-ops have become a staple of Hartford’s successful reinvention. And the tri-counties of western Maryland are successfully supporting food co-ops, too.

Building Co-Ops and Communities

Experience, imagination and relationships are the three ingredients that build strong food cooperatives, Winne said. Applying that experience requires careful and consistent data collection and analysis.

Co-ops must review and analyze their data on what works and what doesn’t. From that information, successful plans can be devised and put to use to strengthen and expand the co-ops’ customer base and sales.

Winne said that cooperatives work best when they are founded on respect for the providers as well as the customers. Additionally, the co-ops need to use imagination to discover the next best thing that will encourage more customers to make bigger purchases.

“See the process as a system,” Winne said, adding that you need to consider the whole as well as the individual producer and members.

Look at the process from different perspectives and listen to what growers and customers are telling you, Winne said. Be prepared to change the system to improve accessibility and make it more equitable.

Cooperatives produce stronger communities and farm businesses, Winne said. Cooperatives can also develop a shared vision for a community, establish common goals, clarify the roles of individual participants in the achievement of set goals, strengthen communication between cooperative members, identify common methods of evaluation and measurement, and build a coordinating entity to guide the co-op and interact with the community’s leadership.

Winne cautioned his listeners against “mobbing the issues.”

Avoid everyone jumping on a single solution to a problem, he said. Instead, try to identify a variety of possible solutions or interventions for the problem; attack the problem from all directions.

In a Johns Hopkins’ study of two Baltimore cooperatives with similar characteristics and problems, the co-op that applied lots of interventions improved by over 28%, while the co-op that focused its attention on one solution increased its profitability by only 6%.

Food policy councils are organizations that facilitate planning of viable food systems on regional and local levels. There are now over 280 of these councils in the U.S. — the Western Maryland Food Council is one of those. These councils bring together influencers from government, academia, agriculture, food banks, restaurants, retailing and the faith community to assess food access and plan ways to strengthen food security.

These organizations work to figure out how to make good food available to everyone by fostering entrepreneurial projects, providing seed grants, forums and lectures, encouraging the engagement of millennials, and making food availability a priority.

The Push for Buying Local

Three western Marylanders engaged in food-related businesses participated in a follow-up session to discuss their roles in regional food accessibility.

Charles DeBerry, president of Garrett Growers Cooperative, spoke about the co-op’s 11 member organization, established in 2010.

“We try to make buying local food as easy as possible,” DeBerry said.

The Garrett Growers Cooperative has hired a communicator who contacts customers and farmers, establishing relationships for the co-op and acquiring contracts and more producers to fill those contracts.

“Our goal is to get money for the farmers,” DeBerry said.

The co-op delivers to buyers, works to expand production and determines new market demands.

In 2020, the co-op had its best year for sales, but that doesn’t mean the co-op is without its problems.

Better communication among co-op members to and finding more local producers to meet the growing demand for locally grown produce are the two main problems the co-op is facing.

“We’d like the local and state governments to make it easier for cooperatives to function, eliminating some of the red-tape, and maybe providing additional initiatives to support the cooperatives,” DeBerry said. “The government purchasing process needs to be friendlier, easier for small growers in bidding. It’s too cumbersome for small growers to bid.”

Joe Acord, president of the board of directors for Wholesome Harvest Co-op, spoke about the growing enterprise.

Wholesome Harvest, in Frostburg, Maryland, has 218 member/owners and is growing.

Some of its achievements include: the expansion of marketing opportunities for members; improved accessibility to affordable, locally grown food; improved SNAP beneficiaries’ access to healthy produce; and continuing to educate the community on issues of food, health and wellness.

The co-op is working to establish its own brand, support a community garden, and reduce the use of plastics.

The last panelist was Brenda McDonnell, owner of four Garrett County restaurants including Brenda’s Pizzeria, Trader’s Coffee Shop, Ace’s Run Restaurant, and Firewater Kitchen and Bar.

McDonnell prefers to buy local produce and ingredients for her restaurants. Garrett Growers Cooperative is one of her sources.

A challenge to buying local is the higher cost for produce, she said. But that is offset by her customers’ enthusiasm for eating locally grown produce.

“Customers will pay more if they know we’re serving local produce,” McDonnell said. “We need to advertise that more, do more marketing.”

She said that the produce looks good and tastes better when it’s from local growers. She meets biannually with buyers and producers to exchange thoughts on problems, solutions and innovative plans.

She wants to try to plan farm visits, after the pandemic, for her staff and other interested parties so they can see where the food comes from and understand why it’s important to support the local food industry.

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