WHEN kale and thistle grace the party centerpieces, change must be afoot in Savannah.
Those garden-grown table settings served as both décor and harbinger at Healthy Savannah’s first annual meeting on March 13, signifying a shift in the local effort to make local, fresh food available to everyone.
“Getting the food to the people” is part of the mission for most of the organizations under the Healthy Savannah umbrella, which includes non-profits, businesses and individuals. The Forsyth Farmers Market was recognized at the meeting with the Health Innovation Award for its successful programming, and discussions on hospital food and school lunch reform abounded at the Charles H. Morris Center.
While great strides have been made in the last several years to increase the availability and affordability of healthy food, leaders acknowledge there’s work still to be done.
Lack of wholesale distribution, packaging and processing of food grown on nearby organic farms are factors that still limit a sustainable food system for Savannah, according to a preliminary assessment conducted for the Savannah Chatham Food Policy Council (SCFPC), an integral part of the Healthy Savannah coalition.
To help overcome the obstacles, the coalition hosted two of the country’s most respected authorities on the subject at the meeting: Common Market co-founder Haile Johnston and community food expert Mark Winne spoke to the politicians, farmers, nurses, teachers and foodies gathered over the locally-sourced breakfast sponsored by the Grey and Quirk Healthcare.
Based in Philadelphia, Common Market has established the wholesale infrastructure that enables 75 farmers and producers from around the region to distribute not only to markets and grocery stores, but also deliver to schools, hospitals and churches.
“We connect people who need food the most to the highest quality food you can imagine,” said Johnston of the six-year old program that moved $3 million worth of produce, meats and more in 2014.
“Our aim is to democratize good, sustainably-grown, local food.”
Common Market’s center of operations—also known as a “food hub”—allows for increased access to consumers as well as profitability for farmers, who often must spend a chunk of their market earnings on gas. It also helps small producers compete with big corporations, who supply most grocery chains.
It’s a system that could translate to other cities, and Johnston shared that all of Common Market’s materials, including its business model and forms, are available online so that other communities don’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”
Still, creating a food hub in Savannah would take a substantial amount of work, though the idea has already taken root.
“If we can get people plus politicians plus the private sector on board, this kind of project is very feasible,” mused Cynthia Hayes, executive director of the Southeastern African American Organic Farmers Network (SAAFON).
Representing over 130 farmers in eight states, SAAFON advocates sustainable farming as the most viable way for African American farmers to retain their land-based businesses.
“The key is to bring in the people who have the information and the skills to help us,” said Hayes. “I see Savannah as a potential model for the entire coast.”
Whitney Shephard Yates of Transport Studio is conducting SCFPC’s Food Needs Assessment study and agrees that a farmers’ food hub might be a future possibility for Savannah.
“There’s a stable market here and a lot of enthusiasm, so it may be something to work toward,” said Yates, who has surveyed a number of farmers, food producers, restaurants, institutions and community members.
“Right now we’re focusing on institutions like schools and hospitals.”
That’s good news for Rhonda Barlow, the Nutrition Director for the Savannah Chatham County Public School System. Since 2010, Barlow has overseen the incorporation of more whole grains and fresh produce into school cafeterias as well as the success of several school gardening programs.
“When they grow it, they eat it,” laughed Barlow.
Barlow would like to source more school lunches from local farmers, but again, lack of distribution and delivery expenses have impeded past efforts.
“We have a tight bottom line,” she said. “A hub would help everyone’s price point.”
Before Savannah can have a food hub, however, it’s got to have a food plan.
That was the counsel of Mark Winne, known as the “father of food policy work” and the author of of Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture.
For 40 years, Winne has helped underserved communities fight for their right to good food in his native Connecticut and now assists cities around the world level the field. He validated the role of food policy councils in making changes to communities, and encouraged the SCFPC to come up with a community food plan to help organize and strategize its already established mission, which includes promoting “policies that impact equitable access” to healthy, sustainable food.
Winne also acknowledges that SAAFON’s Hayes and other African-American food system leaders are important in the equalization of food access.
“If ‘food justice for all’ will no longer be ‘a dream deferred,’ then the leadership of the food movement must do more to show its colors,” he wrote on his blog recently.
Savannah appears to be ahead on that front, and the city’s diversity was well-represented at Healthy Savannah’s first official meeting. Mayor Edna Jackson stood up to thank co-founder Paula Kreissler for encouraging her to improve her diet and exercise habits. Also present was Former mayor Otis Johson, who launched the Healthy Savannah initiative in 2007 while in office.
“It’s a great feeling to see these efforts come to reality,” said Johnson after breakfast.
“We have so many debilitating conditions that can be avoided and controlled by changing our lifestyles.”
Those lifestyle changes are not technical, fancy or even expensive—they’re the way humans have thrived for thousands of years, reminded Haile Johnston in his address of Savannah’s food justice community.
“This isn’t about innovation. We’re just going back to the way things used to be: Connecting communities through food.”