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The food council and people who addressed it hope to draw more consumers to places like the pavilion at the Watertown farmers market. Photo: Joanna Richards
The food council and people who addressed it hope to draw more consumers to places like the pavilion at the Watertown farmers market. Photo: Joanna Richards

In the quest for local food, plenty of roadblocks

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A state panel that reports to Governor Cuomo on the obstacles to getting healthy food on people's plates met in Potsdam Wednesday. The New York State Council on Food Policy held one of four listening sessions it's organizing around the state this year.

Farm and food leaders told the council tough obstacles are slowing down the farm-to-table movement in the rural North Country.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

If you go to New York City, or even to Syracuse or Rochester or Buffalo, you’ll see some amazing things about food. The local food economies are booming. Markets are packed with vendors and food trucks and lots of excited consumers. Community gardens are popping up everywhere.

There’s excitement in the North Country, too. But in the wide open spaces of the region, good “local food” projects are growing much more slowly.

"Food and farming issues have a really different face in these remote, rural areas of the state than they do in urban centers," says Aviva Gold, who directs the local food not-for-profit Gardenshare in Canton.

At SUNY Potsdam Wednesday, she told the state Council on Food Policy to take the program that allows food stamp recipients to cash in their benefits at farmers markets. It was a hit in the cities immediately, but it’s taken years to grow in the North Country.

Aviva Gold, director of Gardenshare, addresses the NYS Council on Food Policy. Photo: David Sommerstein.<br />
Aviva Gold, director of Gardenshare, addresses the NYS Council on Food Policy. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Gold says that’s in part because of the distance between low income people and those markets, "Because they’re not on somebody’s way to work. People still have to make the effort to get to a farmers market. They need to have transportation. They need to be aware of when they are. It’s not that people just stumble upon the farmers market from point A to point B because the spaces are so far apart."

A dozen people testified to what North Country groups are already doing to bring healthy food and local produce to markets, to school cafeterias, and to the tables of low income families. And they asked for state help to overcome obstacles and cut through red tape.

Peter Ward is co-owner of the Adirondack Meat Company, a brand new slaughterhouse in Ticonderoga. He said he can’t find enough local ranchers, so he can sell more New York-raised beef.

"What I don’t want to do is go to Vermont and buy beef cattle in Vermont or New Hampshire. I don’t want to be like the other processing facilities where they go down to Pennsylvania, down to Cargill," Ward says. "If we can do a good job in our region providing local beef, pork, and lamb, that’s the way we need to go."

Sue Rau directs the North Country Grown Cooperative, which pools small farmers’ produce to sell to larger customers like groceries and universities. She says because of the North Country’s dairy history, the area lacks basic infrastructure for fruit and vegetable distribution, "No idle storage facilities, warehouse space, no languishing certified commercial kitchens to refurbish and to put into service. Everything we have basically has to come from scratch."

A recent effort to build a food hub and commercial kitchen and processing center in Canton is on hold due to lack of funding.

Linda La Violette is the director of farmers markets at Empire State Development and serves on the council. She says these are many of the same concerns she’s been hearing in other rural parts of New York: "...that we need more farmers markets, more direct marketing opportunities for farmers, better access to nutritious food in communities. And some of the real challenges are transportation and distribution. We need to do more work in capacity-building."

There weren’t any easy answers at this hearing. La Violette says the council will bring the concerns to the Governor’s office.

What was clear is that the North Country’s farm-to-table movement is alive and creative, but real obstacles remain to matching its growth with the public’s interest and excitement in local food.

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