Monday, April 28, 2014

How Healthy Is Norristown's Food System?

If you've been reading my Diary long enough, you've probably caught on to the fact that food is a favorite topic of mine. I love eating at our restaurants and I love growing my own food. Since the First Lady began challenging America to eat healthier 6 years ago, many Norristonians have started taking a look at our local food supply.

First, our food history: Until the invention of the refrigerated railroad car in 1875, Norristown got ALL its food locally. Even a hundred years later, in the 1970s, we had an abundance of local farms nearby. You could drive to a farm within 5 miles to get corn and other veggies picked that morning. You could pick your own fruit at many places. From N-town's early days to the mid-20th century, farmers brought their goods into town on market days. There was a Farmers and Fish Market on the first floor of the old City Hall at Airy and Dekalb.

There are still a few pick-your-own places in Montgomery County, though they've gotten hard to find. We ARE fortunate to be located right smack between the Garden State of New Jersey, and the fertile farmland of Lancaster County, but lately, you don't see many Jersey tomatoes or ears of Lancaster corn in season unless you drive closer to those places. Giant supermarkets claim they sell "local produce" in the summer. They used to, but last year, I looked up the farms they listed. The closest one was in Chambersburg, the next was in upstate New York. That's NOT local to Norristown.

A few weeks ago, we had a sustainable food workshop in Norristown. I was sick that week, but I asked one of the coordinators, David Swedkowski, to sit down with me and talk about it. (If you've gone anywhere in Norristown in the last few months, chances are you've seen David. He's a community organizer, is on the Arts Council, works with Feed the Burbs, and just landed an internship with the planning department. In short, he's everywhere.)
Anyway, the gist of the workshop was that students from Temple University came to Norristown to do an assessment of our sustainable food system. They looked at our community gardens, the availability of emergency food (at our food banks), school lunches, and other school gardening projects. They studied where most of our food comes from, how it gets here, and who has access to it.

My first question to David was, "Define what you mean by 'sustainable food?'" He showed me a photo of a poster from the workshop (above). In a sustainable food system, the food is healthy, assessible to everyone in the community, and produced and disposed of in such a way that it doesn't hurt the environment. The food is produced locally, because the farther you transport food, the more nutrition is loses, but local production is also better for the local economy.

N-town Farmers Market
Yet, if a lot of local farms have disappeared in favor of development, how are we supposed to get our food locally? We do have a "farmers market" between Swede and Dekalb in the summer. It's only one vendor from New Jersey. One person I know who went there said it was very expensive and the produce was only okay. High prices can be expected where you have no competition. One vendor doesn't make a "market." Plus it's only open when most residents are at work, and parking is always a problem downtown during the day. So I think Norristown needs to rethink its farmers market. Follow the sustainable food definition and make it more local and more accessible. Have it on Saturday mornings, and invite more farms, especially those closer to town.

We do have a VERY local food coop called Edible Forrest Urban Farm at 417 N. Forrest Avenue. It's run by the 2 brothers in the photo. They sell shares if you want weekly seasonable veggies as soon as they're available (they might be sold out of 2014 shares by now), but I've also seen them sell extra vegetables in front of their house.

Another solution is, of course, to grow the food ourselves, in our own backyards and community garden plots. That's going to take another whole Diary entry to discuss.

In the meantime, David has promised to let me know Temple U's conclusions about our town food supply as soon as he hears. I'll pass it on.

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