Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fresh, Local, NOW! - The changing shape of food availability in Tyler, Tx


  


Written by Carmen Sosa & Jason Reagan - Edited by Michael Hale

  I moved back to Tyler not too long ago and I was dismayed by the lack of access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables. Being a supporter of local farms and artisan food producers I found myself sometimes driving over 100 miles around east Texas to purchase the things I love...fruits, veggies, honey, organic eggs, grass-fed beef, raw milk & cheese, and other farm-fresh goodies. As I built relationships with farmers and shared their information with my friends, I saw the need to compile the information and start getting the community interested in our local food system. So...I created a Facebook group called ‘Fresh.Local.Tasty.’ [exactly as it appears here!]

 My circle of 13 friends started posting information and sharing leads for new farmers and producers and within a month we had over 100 Facebook members. There was a lot of talk about the need of a vibrant, community-supported farmers market in Tyler and we wondered why the existing small markets in town suffered from either a lack of permanent location, sold produce grown all over the county and beyond, or didn't have a large vendor base to attract a steady following. After asking lots of questions we discovered the common thread. In the farmer' words, "It is impossible to do business with Tyler's health department." I posted a roundtable meeting on ‘Fresh.Local.Tasty.’ A group of about 20 of us met for coffee to brainstorm and decided then and there we would work together to bring a new farmers market to Tyler. So...I organized the ‘Farmers Market Think Tank.’

   Although a closed Facebook group, membership in the Think Tank grew to about 40 within a couple of weeks. Once we started making deliberate contact with city leaders, health department staff, farmers, growers, farmers market managers, and members of the community our small group exploded. One of our members best described the community response as "going viral." During the course of my research I discovered Tyler is home to 4 food deserts (per the definition set up by the USDA - a community with little to no access tonutritious fresh foods ). I was appalled. How could Tyler, a natural beauty and home of a Rose Queen that wears a $25K crown, be home to 4 food deserts inside the Loop?!? I spent the weekend with map in hand driving around the food deserts and noticed the abundance of unused, vacant land within these communities. How wonderful it would be to turn these vacant lots into community gardens thriving and growing and feeding its neighbors. So, community gardens were added to our "list of things to do."

   In January I read an article about Mayor Bass' Tree Tyler initiative which sought to have 800 trees be planted throughout Tyler this year on elementary school grounds and in parks. Had they considered planting edible trees such as our native pecan, peaches, or fig trees? Perhaps edible landscaping with rosemary and bay trees. I met with Susan Guthrie and her response? "Great idea!" We added "edible spaces" to our to-do list.

  
While hanging out at restaurants that source local ingredients on their menu (Cafe Tazza, Villa Montez, Cork), chef's and owners consistently told me they wish they had better access to locally grown foods. I started putting our farmers in touch with the chefs and developing a program for tracking what's in season and what chefs want. So, we added ‘Farm to Fork’ to the list.

   ‘Fresh.Local.Tasty.’ grew to over 400 members who are now committee chairs, advisors, and team leaders. We added one more initiative to the to-do list when we saw many of our college student members collaborating on tasks and wanting to roll out ideas at their schools. Food University, or Food U, is our latest baby and we've decided to stop growing...at least for now. We have become a viable not-for-profit business, East Texas Community Food Coalition, and are applying for our 501(c)3 status.

   We have worked diligently with our local health food department and they realize the need to have more food-friendly rules & regulations for farmers markets. The Food Coalition is partnering with our health department to write these new rules.


The common thread among each of our initiatives is to create better access to fresh fruits and vegetables for our communities.

   I launched ‘Fresh.Local.Tasty.’ in September 2012.  On May 4th, the Food Coalition will open a completely renewed farmers and artists market at the East Texas Fairgrounds, The Fair Market. The Farmers Market at the Library will open May 9th on the east terrace of the library in downtown Tyler, and we have partnered with the Jacksonville Farmers Market to help bring a new, vibrant market to town this year, which opens May 7th. Each of our markets will be producers-only, which mean the person behind the table had a hand in growing the food. It is also local-only. All products must have been grown or produced within 75 miles of the market.

   We have helped design two community gardens in Tyler and have our eyes on several abandoned lots and unused space. We envision thriving gardens feeding communities throughout east Texas.



5 comments:

Jennifer said...

So excited!

Gabby Cruz said...

Awesome:) very exciting!

Heather Linger said...

Hello, My name is Heather and I work for Natural Grocers. We would like to invite you to a sneak-peek lunch that we are having at our new Tyler location opening on 3/31/15. Please send me your email address so that I can send over an invitation. My email is hlinger@naturalgrocers.com.

Thanks,
Heather

Heather Linger said...

Hello, My name is Heather and I work for Natural Grocers. We would like to invite you to a sneak-peek lunch that we are having at our new Tyler location opening on 3/31/15. Please send me your email address so that I can send over an invitation. My email is hlinger@naturalgrocers.com.

Thanks,
Heather

beth mitchell said...

I would like to take the opportunity to introduce our farm. We are Cackleberry Farm located 5 miles east of Athens, Tx. Cackleberry Farm is a small family farm that is a producer of pastured raised chicken. Currently we believe were the only locally producer of pasture raised chicken. If you like to write or story about us or list us we would be greatly appreciative. Visit our website http://cackleberryfarm.us or contact us for more information. Thank you so much for your time.

Beth Mitchell
Cackleberry Farm

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