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YNDC Gets Federal Grant to Grow Local Food Network - Business Journal

A successful partnership between urban and rural growers, processors and distributors helped convince federal authorities that the Mahoning Valley is headed in the right direction in regards to revitalizing its economy through local food initiatives.

"It's people who are willing to step forward, to take risks, to collaborate, to give others credit and then share the same vision for a better future for their community," observed Doug O'Brien, deputy undersecretary for rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I can see that that's happening here in Youngstown."

O'Brien and other officials visited the Common Wealth Inc. kitchen incubator at 907 Elm St. Wednesday to formally announce a $20,000 grant to the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. that would be used for developing a local and regional plan to improve access and production of locally grown foods.

YNDC is one of just 26 winners of the federal government's Local Foods, Local Places grant program. In addition to funding, the program provides critical counsel and support for building a regional food production and distribution system geared to improving the local economy, O'Brien said.

"Some of the things that can be learned from across the country are the different kinds of marketing and technology," O'Brien said. "Another thing we're seeing is institutional buying – a lot of times that's colleges and universities that will lead the way."

The program is funded through a consortium of federal agencies that includes the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Delta Regional Authority.

YNDC was the lead applicant for the award, but the program would benefit all of the local food organizations that have initiatives under way, said Liberty Merrill, land reuse director at YNDC.

"The real need of the grant is the planning process, and they're going to be helping us with that," Merrill said. "The ultimate objective is creating jobs through the local food system -- the more we can push that, the more we can make this not only a community driver, but an economic driver."

Creating a local food system that networks urban communities with the rural areas is important for the region's economic potential and the revitalization of its neighborhoods, said Ed Fendley, Local Foods, Local Places program manager at the EPA.

"You are headed in that direction," he said. "We're excited."

Developing a local food network also means that residents know where their food is being processed, raised or grown, an element that has been lost over the years since Big Ag has dominated the farm movement, said Jim Converse, executive director for Common Wealth Inc.

"We need to take control of that and hold onto that," he said of the local food movement, emphasizing the need for more entrepreneurial efforts among local growers. "Recreating a local food system that's vibrant, that's healthy and ties people together is a big piece of that."

Earl Gohl, co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, noted that Youngstown's plan has created a model that holds great potential in developing a successful local food ecosystem. "There's a lot of energy, a lot of commitment toward developing local food systems throughout the region," he said. "This is an attempt to work with local communities in what their dreams are and what their goals are."

The first part of the program is to gather all the stakeholders together -- such as YNDC, local growers, urban farmers, Common Wealth, Grow Youngstown and the Trumbull Neighborhood Development Partnership -- to develop a cohesive network plan. "The second part is to implement the plan. It's not going to pay for that program, it's intended to get it started so they can secure other public and private resources to move forward and complete their vision,” Gohl said.

Youngstown has developed a model that fits with the local food movement gaining momentum across the country, the USDA’s O'Brien said.

"It's about the fastest-growing part of the food infrastructure," he noted. "Small cities that don't have local food systems have a hard time attracting the young professionals back to town. It's what people expect now, it's part of the culture of the community."

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