Food systems are complex and are composed of considerations in health, nutrition, food insecurity, production, distribution, and economic opportunities. In Wallowa County, a community of less than 8,000 people, members of the Wallowa County Food System Council have been looking into how these factors interact in their region and have been working since 2011 to create an equitable, local food system that promotes economic development, community development, and sustainable agriculture.
Noticing there were gaps in the system and wanting to bring the community together to address these gaps, the Wallowa County Food System Council applied to participate in FEAST (Food, Education, Agriculture, Solutions, Together), a program of Oregon Food Bank that helps communities mobilize around improving their local food systems. This spring, Tracy Gagnon, a Community Food Systems Developer with the Oregon Food Bank will be conducting twelve FEAST events in eight other communities around the state. This model has been used for eight years in nearly 100 communities across Oregon.
On Saturday, March 4th, forty-five people from around Wallowa County devoted their Saturday to discussing ways to improve the food system of the county. In attendance were local producers, ranchers, government officials, small business owners, nonprofit staff, community volunteers, and interested citizens. Through a series of facilitated conversations, they visualized their ideal community food system and brainstormed strategies and projects to achieve this vision.
In the afternoon, participants sorted themselves into five working groups to have deeper conversations -about some of their proposed strategies. These topic groups included education, youth, Farmer’s Market growth, resource sharing, and economic development projects.
The scale of the strategies proposed by these groups varied widely. The economic development group’s discussion developing a regional brand for marketing and supporting value-added products by building a regional food hub. Meanwhile the Farmer’s Market group proposed establishing a collaborative booth, allowing individuals to sell small amounts of their produce with the hope that they will eventually be able to grow into a booth of their own.
This year, for the first time, communities that participate in FEAST will also be awarded $4,000 to help kick start their ideas and bring them into fruition. In Wallowa County, the first $1,000 of this grant was awarded to the Enterprise Head Start Garden Expansion and to the Magic Garden Day Camp at a follow up event on March 8th.
According to Tracy Gagnon, the hope is that the conversations started at these events turn into continued work. In fact, the Wallowa County Food System Council grew out of the region’s first FEAST event, held back in 2011.
The Oregon Food Bank is a backbone support organization of OCFSN. OCFSN members, Ann Bloom of Oregon State Extension of Wallowa County and Sara Miller of Northeast Oregon Economic Development District helped organize the FEAST along with other local partners. Miller is currently serving as chair of OCFSN’s Leadership Team. OCFSN’s Member Services Coordinator, Anya Moucha, was also in attendance at the FEAST.
“It was a wonderful event to witness,” said Moucha, “Not only were there a number of OCFSN member organizations in the room, but the community raised a few key issues that we’ve been trying to tackle as a network, including wholesale market development.”
The event was sponsored by Oregon State University Extension, the Magic Garden Project, Wallowa County Food System Council, and the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District (NEOEDD).