In a super-sized society where eating competitions are broadcast on a major sports network, it’s understandable why our food often leads us to count calories rather than blessings.
But for anyone who has ever tended a garden or heard a farmer give thanks before a meal, there are reminders that food does not always come easily.
To Ohioans like Monica Decker, that’s a call to action.
Decker, a veterinarian, was a bit baffled when she couldn’t track down any of the farmers in her former Pennsylvania community.
“It wasn’t really like those hardworking Mennonite farmers to take a vacation,” thought Decker, who now lives in Ohio’s Marion County.
After asking around, she discovered they had gone overseas to donate heifers (young female cattle) to other farmers in need.
The notion of donating livestock, rather than money or other one-time resources, made sense to Decker.
“It is not simply a handout to someone. You are giving someone the materials and education that is necessary for them to be self-sustaining,” she said. “There are people out there that really do want to help themselves. They just simply can’t. They don’t have the money or the materials or the know-how.”
Decker liked the idea so much that she organized The Heifer Festival, which takes place in Richwood each fall. The festival itself is free, but proceeds from silent auctions, food and other activities raise money for Heifer International, the Arkansas-based organization that provides animals and training to impoverished farmers around the world.
In its first five years, the event raised almost $30,000.
An important requirement for those who receive an animal is to give one of its offspring to a neighbor in need. Decker said it was a “goose bump moment” to realize that many have never experienced what it’s like to give something to someone else.
“There are people out there that don’t have anything extra and don’t have anything to give,” she said.
Her efforts have resonated with farmers in her community.
“The farmers tend to be a very generous sort anyway, so in that sense it has made things easier,” Decker said. “If we were in downtown Columbus, we probably wouldn’t have any farmers in our church that I could literally turn behind me in my pew and say `Hey, can you donate a hog for the Heifer Festival.'”
Farm Bureau member Vonnie Wasserbeck not only donates a hog for sandwiches but also provides piglets for the live animal display and volunteers during the event.
“The Heifer International concept is so simple and helps so many families help themselves. They are taught how to raise the livestock and then can pass on the offspring to yet another family. It is an endless project,” Wasserbeck said. “The whole world could take a page from this act of kindness and apply it to everyday life.”
A Food Desert
In the same spirit, other Ohioans are considering local food needs and how the state’s agricultural abundance can help revitalize their communities.
A promising example has been launched in the historic Wright-Dunbar neighborhood in Dayton, which has recently received a fresh look.
“After the riots in the ’60s a lot of the businesses went away so the neighborhood suffered a significant period of decline and disinvestment,” said John Cummiskey, director of real estate and property management with Wright-Dunbar, Inc., a nonprofit group that is working to revive the community.
Among the neighborhood’s losses was the popular West Dayton farmers market. Cummiskey said the area has since become a “typical urban food desert.”
Like in many inner city neighborhoods, there are simply no grocery stores where residents can purchase wholesome foods. Instead there are only corner carry-outs known more for alcohol, tobacco and snack foods.
As part of its community building efforts, Wright-Dunbar, Inc. sought to bring back a piece of history by reconnecting local residents with farmers and fresh food. It started by placing an ad for local farmers on Craigslist.org.
Farm Bureau member Kathy Stubbs, who operates Stubbs Family Farm in Germantown, responded, and a partnership was formed. On Saturdays throughout the growing season, Stubbs started bringing in fresh produce and meat for neighborhood residents to purchase.
“It’s been really gratifying for us,” she said. “Many people have never seen fresh; they’re only used to canned.”
She also noted that some customers have been grateful that they are able to use their food assistance cards at the market to purchase local foods.
“I think it was great foresight from the people at Wright-Dunbar to bring this to people in their community,” she said.
A number of other efforts show Ohio’s knack for finding innovative ways to get good food to those who need it.
Gardeners and farmers in Stark County worked with the local jail to provide opportunities for inmates to grow fresh food for Meals on Wheels. Ohio chapters of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry have helped balance deer populations by hunting and processing the venison for food banks.
Mahoning County Farm Bureau teamed up with the Jr. Fair Livestock Committee and the Senior Fair Board of the Canfield Fair to donate meat to Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley. Farm Bureau promoted the program to several buyers at the fair’s livestock auction, who purchased animals and paid for the processing. In the end, approximately 750 pounds of meat were donated.
“This is a win-win program for all,” said Pearl Burlingame, organization director for Mahoning County Farm Bureau. “The buyers are supporting the kids and the youth programs, plus they are providing a great source of food to those who are in need.”
Becky Miller of Second Harvest Food Bank welcomed the effort. “Meat is one of the most important products we can distribute and one of the most difficult to get,” she said.
Even an effort that dates back to the Old Testament has been given a modern twist by Ohio farmers.
For the past two years, hundreds of county Farm Bureau volunteers have taken on gleaning projects that resulted in the donation of 250,000 pounds of carrots and 150,000 pounds of cabbage to food banks across Ohio.
Traditionally, gleaning is the act of gathering surplus crops that are left in the field after harvest.
Roy Norman, Ohio Farm Bureau organization director for Defiance, Fulton, Henry and Williams counties, said last year’s gleaning of a 10-acre carrot field came at a time when a lot of Ohioans were being hit by the economic downturn.
“It says farmers are willing to step up and do what they can to make sure there’s food available throughout Ohio for the needy,” he said.
Randy Stuckey of Archbold was one of the volunteers helping to bag carrots and became involved in a similar program this year. Stuckey heard of a farmer with a large number of watermelons remaining in his fields after his contract with a purchaser had been fulfilled. He contacted Norman, and they worked together again to find volunteers to harvest the fields so the watermelons could be donated.
“No one is trying to put a feather in one’s hat,” Stuckey said. “We do this because it is the right thing to do.”
For Decker, the impact of these efforts goes beyond simply ensuring others are not going to bed hungry. She said once people have a stable food source, they can begin to improve other aspects of their life – such as housing or education.
“If you don’t have enough to eat, your entire day is consumed with just finding food,” she said.
Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.