For OSU anthropologists Nancy Rosenberger, left, and Joan Gross, food production ties local agriculture to nutrition, community traditions and economics.
In the storied Willamette Valley — drenched with rain, laced with rivers, blessed with rich, black earth — people go hungry.
That irony has inspired OSU researchers and outreach experts to join a broad–based push to make locally grown foods available and affordable to everyone in the community.
"It is vital that we in Benton County encourage the trend toward locally produced, processed and consumed food," concludes From Our Own Soil, a 2006 report by the Oregon Ecumenical Ministries in cooperation with OSU. "This trend is essential to rebuilding local food economies, assuring reliable food access, guarding against a potential peak–oil crisis and preparing for unstable geopolitical and climatic conditions." The report was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the OSU Rural Studies Initiative and interfaith groups.
Two of the authors, OSU cultural anthropologists Nancy Rosenberger and Joan Gross, are studying the strengths, deficits and challenges of local food systems and exploring ideas for innovation and improvement. Along with OSU’s Rural Studies Initiative and Small Farms Extension, they are leading participants in a partnership of local farmers, faith congregations, food banks, food co–ops and other food–security alliances such as Ten Rivers Food Web.
Their aim is sustainability, from seed to stomach.
Rosenberger has studied food culture and gender in Asia, and Gross has examined counter–cultural foodways and the globalization of food in Latin America. For them, local sustainable food systems depend on independent family farms. Today, only about 2 percent of the food grown in the tri–county "foodshed" (Benton, Linn and Lincoln) is eaten there. Shoppers typically buy produce in supermarkets — fruits and vegetables grown on corporate farms and then transported 1,500 to 2,200 miles. The anthropologists’ vision is that consumers in the Willamette Valley would choose strawberries from Harrisburg over those shipped from California or Mexico. And pears from Hood River instead of fruit from Argentina. Organic eggs from Alsea. Dairy products from Lincoln County. Green beans, sweet corn and broiler chickens from Scio.
Linking farmers to consumers is key, and one critical consumer group is the rural poor. When low–income families parcel out their monthly expenses, food often gets pushed to the bottom of the list, Rosenberger and Gross learned in their recent study of needy families in rural Benton County. Juggling rent, utilities, child care and transportation forces many Adair Village and Alsea residents to "skimp" on meals. Fieldwork by students enrolled in a Rural Studies–funded course, The Culture of Food, Poverty and Hunger, showed that cheaper meals, high in carbohydrates and fats, were on many families’ menus. Poor nutrition leads to ill health — a big reason poor families become mired in money problems — delivering a double whammy for workers who lack health insurance and sick leave.
Innovations such as a farm–faith "covenant" called That’s My Farmer are the kinds of "win–win–win" strategies that Rosenberger is calling for. In 2005, eight Benton County congregations began selling coupons for fresh produce from eight area farms. Ten percent of the proceeds fund giveaway coupons for low–income people to spend at farmers’ markets. The program not only helps hungry families, it boosts sales for local farms and is a vehicle for compassion among parishioners.
"Food," Rosenberger notes, "is a justice issue for many people of faith."