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May 12, 2012

Locavore expo puts spotlight on area’s local farmers and food innovators

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Charlottesville City Market was bigger than ever Saturday morning — literally. As part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival, the market area was expanded for a Locavore Expo to celebrate and educate the community about local food.

Expo organizer Natasha Sienitsky, a member of the Charlottesville Planning Commission, said local food complimented the festival’s innovation program.

“I think it’s a natural fit for the innovation series because it’s an area that our community has been particularly innovative in,” said Sienitsky. “It’s something there is clearly passion for in the community.”

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Locavore Expo organizer Natasha Sienitsky


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While parents made their market purchases, Sienitsky made sure the more youthful locavores had learning opportunities too.

“We had seed ball making for kids, and we did veggie prints with them,” Sienitsky said. “The whole idea is that by getting kids excited and engaged about food, and seeds and planting and harvesting, that will create the next generation of consumers who feel passionately about local food.”

Sienitsky and her husband Oliver Platts-Mills, who co-founded the Tom Tom festival with Paul Beyer, hosted a panel discussion on local foods inside the South Street Brewery.

Representatives from Albemarle County, the Local Food Hub, the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, and the Piedmont Environmental Council talked about their work. They described a wide variety and scale of local food initiatives in the community.

Albemarle County’s economic development facilitator, Susan Stimart, said events like the expo directly help the local farming community and encourage people to “get out there and meet their food.”

“It helps give farmers some exposure and it helps promote some of our existing programs, like the Buy Fresh Local Guide, as well as the Monticello Artisan Trail Map,” Stimart said.

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Exhibitors at the Locavore Expo. (Above) Linda Newman, Mixing It Up Gluten Free Baking

Alan Moore is director of distribution for the Local Food Hub, which launched in 2009.

“We work as a wholesale distributor for local produce,” Moore said. “We work with about 75-80 growers within 100 miles of Charlottesville, but most are within 15-20 miles of Charlottesville.”

“We function as an aggregator of that product and move much of it into distribution streams that a lot of local growers don’t have access to,” Moore said. “It’s public schools, institutional buyers, restaurants, caterers and other retailers.”

One of the food hub’s major institutional buyers is the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.

“We feed a lot of seniors,” said Judy Berger, nutrition manager for JABA. “We probably distribute over 250,000 meals a year, and we see nutrition as a big component of what we do because we feel that healthy eating leads to healthy aging.”

The panelists said there was need for better food processing support and infrastructure, obstacles that limit the use of local food year-round.

“A big project that we are working on is a flash-freezing processing center that would serve the whole state of Virginia,” Berger said.

“The idea is to work with aggregators like the Food Hub, who already have relationships directly with farmers,” Berger said. “We purchase from them wholesale…freeze [the food], then we are able to sell to schools, universities, nursing homes, and hospitals all over the state, all year round.”

Berger also said JABA had not determined where the facility would be in the state, but said they were not currently looking at sites in Albemarle County.

“It needs to be where there’s an affordable facility that already exists, or it needs to be in an area where a county or city will assist us in building it,” Berger said.

Albemarle’s Stimart responded with a quick note of encouragement.

“There are opportunities [in Albemarle],” Stimart said. “We’ll talk.”

Sue Ellen Johnson, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s director of agriculture and rural economy, emphasized that moderate organic growth of the movement is fine for everyone from farm to table.

“Rationale, reasonable growth, rather than trying to suddenly make quantum leaps is the right approach,” Johnson said. “For farmers to stay in business, or for smaller business processors using local food, you have to have profitability.”

Berger also encouraged the community to not panic because every low-income consumer didn’t have easy access to local food yet.

“Every little step you take in the right direction, the little baby steps, really add up to big strides,” Berger said. “If it’s growing by 5 percent, that’s growth, that’s good, and that’s sustainable growth.”

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