Audio: Local Group Brings Fresh Food to Underserved Communities

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  1. Chesterhill Produce Auction April Laissle 4:47

In the middle of sprawling field in Morgan County, an auctioneer presides over a bustling marketplace. Up for sale in a small cement pavilion is fresh produce, and lots of it.

That’s the scene every Monday and Thursday in the village of Chesterhill, population 300. Dozens flock to this field each week to stock up on fresh food at the Chesterhill Produce Auction, operated by non-profit Rural Action.

It all started with what sounds like a simple idea: bring food that needs selling to people who want to buy it. But according to Tom Redfern, Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator, it’s gotten a bit more complicated.

“This is a food hub,” said Redfern.  “The food here is a hub of a wheel and all the other things are the spokes.”

When Redfern began working at Rural Action in 2004, he says the auction was just an idea. At the time, there were five produce auctions in Ohio. He say they modeled their plan for Chesterhill after those auctions, and set out to get the community involved.

“We kept saying Chesterhill Produce Auction, Chesterhill Produce Auction, and we made it a thing,” said Redfern.

When it opened in 2005 with the help of Americorp Vista volunteers and grant funding, it took off. Redfern says buyers liked the cost and quality of the produce, and sellers participated because it took a weight off their shoulders.

“One thing we’ve been able to do is share the risk of being a farmer as a community,” said Redfern.

Rural action takes 15% of the profits farmers earn when they sell their crops at the auction. With that money, they advertise, maintain the building, and cover bounced checks.

That’s often attractive to smaller farmers who have been subject to high fees and long waits for selling space at farmer’s markets.

“So they bring it here because they’re able to start their business, start growing and get into it,” said Americorp Vista volunteer Megan Conkle. “They don’t have to wait on a waiting list somewhere.”

The auction’s success is also good news for the city of Chesterhill. Last year, it brought in nearly $20,000 worth of tax money. Rural Action partially attributes this to the diversity of buyers attracted to the auction.

“We have individual buyers who are buying for their families, we have people who are buying large quantities to can, we have chefs for restaurants, we have people buying for donation stations, and buying clubs and things like that.”

It’s a long list. Conkle says their buyers are constantly inventing new ways to take advantage of the auction.

“A lot of the things that we came up with aren’t necessarily things that we visualized,” said Conkle. “Maybe community members came up with them or somebody came to us with this idea but then we just have the manpower through Vista to actually put them into action.”

One of those ideas was Country Fresh: a program that brings fresh produce from the auction into food deserts, or places where quality fresh food isn’t available.

Places like McArthur, a town of less 2,000 people, where the nearest grocery store is half an hour away. That’s where Rural Action just opened it’s latest Country Fresh stop, off a busy highway at a convenience store called L & S drive-though, owned by Linda and Patrick Murphy.

The Murphys’ reached out to Rural Action because they were looking for away to stand out among convenience stores in McArthur, many of which sell gasoline. They were also interested in addressing the concerns of their neighbors.

“All of people in the community say well I was making something, but then I ran out of this…,” said Linda Murphy. “I have to drive to go get an onion or a tomato or something like this, and we thought well we’ll give it a try and see how it would work.”

Redfern says they see the program as a way to confront those concerns and larger issues in the region.

“We know there is a problem,” said Redfern. “We’re sitting in Southeast Ohio and in Appalachia and basically we have the highest poverty rates in the state, the highest hunger rates in the state, diabetes epidemic, childhood obesity epidemics, all these are related to the lack of fresh food.”