Workshop looks at making healthier community

By Angie Barmer

A two-day Community Livability workshop was held this week that opened many doors of discussion from local people and out of town people about all of the best ways to improve New Albany and make the city a healthy community for all.

This workshop was held because of a $20,000 grant that the city received from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In May, the city was awarded the Livable Communities grant, with the goal of further developing the farmers market by providing technical assistance to determine the best needs to improve the event.

New Albany was one of nine winners from among over 60 applicants. The nearest winner was Aberdeen.

The goal of the two-day workshop was to get ideas from a variety of people and discuss how New Albany can be improved in all areas.

The workshop had a synergistic approach in which healthy living, eating healthy, educating children on eating healthy, being aware of where food comes from, bring farmers more to the forefront in the community, and allowing the community to come together as a whole with the purpose of having a healthy community all around.

The workshop welcomed a culmination of representatives from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the United Stated Department of Agriculture, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, Renaissance Planning Group, USDA Agricultural Marketing Services, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Three Rivers Planning and Development District, Mississippi Arts Commission, Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker’s office, and plenty of local support from the elected officials, local business owners, and many more.

Throughout the workshop, discussions were had about supporting local farmers, bringing local, healthy food into the local schools, the idea of the consumer visiting farmers’ markets, talking to farmers, and getting to know where their food comes from, and all community members working together as a whole to help the entire city thrive.

The origin of the farmers market was discussed as well.

In 2012, Mary Jennifer Russell partnered with the Union County Master Gardeners and the Union County Extension Office to start the Biscuit and Jam Farmers’ Market. In 2013, the Sparkplugs grant for $3,000 was received from the ARC. In 2014 there was a state grant of $5,000 and $5,000 in local sponsorships.

Mary Jennifer Russell, a member on the workshop committee, said, “If we can all work together as a community, I think everything will work better. There has been a 25 percent increase in sales at the downtown businesses on the Second Saturdays Folk Art at the River, which is the second Saturday of the month at the farmers’ market, at a recent farmers’ market, and recently there were over 100 out of county car tags and over 12 out of state car tags. We have seen an increase in visitors from last year to this year.”

Within the last 10 years, there has been an 84 percent increase in farmers markets and community-supported agriculture.

An announcement came Tuesday night that Russell, along with Will Ford, donated a piece of property near the current location of the Biscuit and Jam Farmers’ Market to the city of New Albany. This will allow the city to be able to use the funds from ARC for future projects.

New Albany Director of Tourism Sean Johnson said, “When I first came here to work, I quickly realized that New Albany is an easy product to sell. New Albany is close to Memphis, we have the Tanglefoot Trail, and we have so many great places for people to go; we need to use our assets in New Albany and maximize our utilities. I think if we can all pull together with the theme of being authentic and wholesome, we can all work well together. I am thankful to be a part of a city that is proactive and I am glad to be a part of the team.”

Daniel Doyle with the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network pointed out that agriculture has changed throughout the years.

He said, “It’s going to take many different types of agriculture to feed the world and feed ourselves. Farmers markets are taking off in Mississippi and are doing really well, but 90 percent of the food in Mississippi is imported. Your farmers market is in a great location and it’s great that you have the support from the city for the market.”

He suggested three ways in getting farmers more involved in Mississippi food production – rent open public land to young farmers, lower the cost of buying farmland, and encourage the rebirth of apprenticeship.

Good Food for Oxford Schools Program Director Sunny Young talked about the importance of teaching children to eat healthy, bringing food education into the schools, implementing salad bars at the schools, starting community gardens at the schools, and more.

She said, “Connecting students with food is going to be the best way to change our food system and will help support our local farmers and local economy. When I have made these changes at schools, I have seen an increase in food consumption and participation.”

At the Oxford School District, she got chicken nuggets taken off the school menu, implemented salad bars, and now 75 percent of the meals cooked at the schools are cooked from scratch instead of 30 percent in the past.

Young also suggested implementing school gardens, school cooking clubs, food education, visiting local farms teaching the students where their food comes from, and giving children the opportunity to create recipes that can be added to the school menu.

Jason Espie AICP project manager with Renaissance Planning Group, showed a slideshow that had reasons why New Albany is a great place to live, including: lots of opportunity, low cost of living, attractive small town, strong highway access, branding the city as a weekend destination, and the promoting of the uniqueness and quaintness of the city.

He also discussed what it means for a city to have “livability” – provide more transportation choices, promote equitable and affordable housing, enhance economic competitiveness, support existing communities, coordinate and leverage federal policies and investments, and value communities and neighborhoods.

He added, “When you build housing downtown, you put feet on the streets. Communities your size are doing a lot to improve the quality of life and bring people to town.”

He also talked about the importance of local food systems.

Local food systems are everything that is involved in taking food from the grower to the consumer. Local food systems allow for local growers and customers to interact.

Local foods are food produced, processed, and distributed within a particular geographic boundary that consumes associates with their own community.

In Union County in 2007, there were 751 total farms, 135, 101 total farm acres, $13.5 million in total agriculture sales, and $13,000 in agriculture sales direct to consumers. In Union County in 2012, there were 688 total farms, 121, 050 total farm acres, $17 million in total agriculture sales, and $27,000 in agriculture sales direct to consumers.

There were action plan goals that were discussed at the end of the two-day workshop. One set of goals involved growing and enhancing the farmers market. Steps to reach these goals include organization and communication, outreach, marketing, site and physical planning and design, social programming and activities, and the “farm to table” initiative. The other set of goals involved downtown vitality and connections. Plans discussed with the downtown area included linkages to various areas and the assets in those areas, bicycle and pedestrian improvements in the downtown area, and how to grow and enhance existing assets in the downtown area.

It is not yet determined how exactly the $20,000 will be spent yet, but some of the money was spent to host the two-day conference, some of it will be spent to meet some of the action goals presented and some of the money may be spent to be able to match federal funds to fund projects.