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the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Protecting Small-Scale Food Projects from the Ground Up

Bridget Kelly Ries and Margaret Kelly

Earlier this summer, 40 families in North St. Louis began receiving weekly deliveries of fresh produce - direct from Missouri farms. In an area that many grocery stores have left, access to fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables is a godsend. And during the weeks of harvest abundance, locally grown produce has made its way to the neighborhood's farmers' market and food bank.

Residents say the box full of good vegetables, delivered through Gateway Greening's City Seeds project, has carried them through the next week. Farmers selling the produce are gaining valuable experience in serving new markets and are enthusiastically planning next year's production.

In central and northern rural Missouri, residents have been saving money by banding together and ordering food in bulk through the Missouri Rural Crisis Center's food cooperative program. But in the last decade, higher-quality, lower fat pork products produced by members' friends and neighbors have become a staple. Food cooperative members have gotten better food, and Missouri farmers successfully have marketed the "whole" pig, not just the restaurant-desired loin.

Stories such as these have been repeated hundreds of times across the United States. In each case, they have required committed citizens, knowledgeable non-profit organizations and - first and foremost - funding from the USDA's Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Programs.

First authorized by Congress in the 1996 Farm Bill, this program has provided grants to help cities, towns and rural counties to do something simple and uniquely American: develop their own solutions to local food, nutrition and agricultural problems.

But there's a problem: In its rush to pass a new and exceedingly complex farm bill, the House did not provide any funding for the community food projects, which receives a mere $5 million annually. Should the program also be neglected by the Senate, which is working on its version of the farm bill, it would mean the end of a program that is based on an up-by-the-bootstraps approach to community problem-solving.

The House's action is counter-productive and flies in the face of current health data and national trends. A nation that is eating itself to death - more than 60 percent of us are overweight or obese - should not take money away from one of the few federal programs that is promoting healthy eating. Nor does it make any sense for a nation that is re-discovering the wonders and value of eating locally to ignore a program that has found new and exciting ways to connect local farmers with low-income communities for the benefit of both.

Besides the programs in our area, loss of funds for the community food projects would mean the disappearance of the Lower East Side Girls Club of New York, which has taught healthy eating to thousands of lower income city girls. Lack of funding also would kill projects such as the one on the Tohono O'odham Tribe's reservation in Arizona, where local innovation has seeded the revival of traditional Native American crops that are necessary to stemming the diabetes epidemic now running rampant through Native American communities.

In its House version, the new farm bill all but certainly would eliminate funding for the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture programs that encourage urban residents and new immigrants with limited resources to grow and market their own food.

Large-scale, institutional farm bill programs - food stamps, to name a very important one - are essential to keep millions of Americans from going hungry. But in an era of multi-billion-dollar federal programs administered by cumbersome bureaucracies from the top down, it is unusual and heartening to find programs that spend relatively little money and encourage local people to find their own solutions to problems.

These small-scale food projects nurture community-based problem-solving that may one day end hunger. We urge readers to reach out to their U.S. senators and let them know how important these projects are to our region and our country.

Sisters Bridget Kelly Ries and Margaret Kelly produced and starred in the television series "Twice Baked," which featured local and seasonal foods. They also are co-hosts of "Food Talk with the Kelly Twins," KTRS Radio

Copyright © 2007 St. Louis Post-Dispatch L.L.C.

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