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These days, you are where you eat

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COPAKE–Much Columbia County terrain appears lush and agriculturally productive, yet some places, including Copake, could be considered food deserts.

During a meeting with a couple of food systems scholars last week, the town’s Around the Clock Committee heard about ways to change that.

Food deserts are places where residents have limited access to fresh foods, according to Vanessa Arcara and Eryka Montoya, graduate students at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. On her trip to Copake for the meeting, Ms. Arcara noted the portion of the county she encountered appeared to be “an oasis” and “the most beautiful place on earth.” Yet Ms. Arcara found it “rich in irony” that though the area has a “staggering amount of arable farmland,” local residents have to travel some distance to find farm fresh foods.

When she lived on Union Square in New York City, Ms. Arcara had easy access to fresh Columbia County produce and “ate a lot” of it, she said.

Copake Economic Advisory Board (CEAB) and Around the Clock Committee Chairperson Leslie Wood pointed out there is no store in town that sells fresh local produce or other farm products.

An offshoot of the CEAB, the Around the Clock Committee is searching for ways to improve the hamlet. The group’s focus is not only on paint and repair, but also on bringing business back to vacant storefronts and getting more traffic through the hamlet to patronize businesses there.

The food desert concept was first applied to suburban areas in Europe. In the U.S. the term has been used in connection with low-income urban areas where there are no supermarkets within a mile and the main food sources are convenience stores and fast food joints. Rural areas qualify as food deserts if the supermarket radius is 10 miles. Residents of these food deserts have growing rates of cardiovascular disease and obesity, said Ms. Montoya, who mentioned First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to eradicate food deserts and the new Food Atlas that maps local food environments.

Whether or not Copake fits the technical definition of a food desert is not important, said Ms. Arcara, noting, “If you feel like you are a food desert then you need to concentrate on getting some more food in here.”

In the history of agriculture, Ms. Arcara said, the growth of the supermarket necessitated that a lot of home food sales companies went out of business. She dubbed it “the Home Depot effect.”

Schools were mentioned as places where what kids eat have “problematic” nutrition levels made worse when youngsters ditch school food altogether and eat at convenience stores.

Ms. Wood said a “school-land-store connection should be made. There is a disconnect between food and where it came from.”

Youngsters need nutrition education classes and instruction on how to cook vegetables starting at a young age to combat the situation.

Ms. Arcana suggested the community could start a community garden or a community supported agriculture (CSA) project to improve access to fresh local produce.

Though someone noted that all area CSAs have a list of people waiting to become members, Diana Wilson said that CSAs are expensive making it impossible for people with low or fixed incomes to join.

While a Farmer’s Market is set to open every other weekend beginning June 12 from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. in the municipal parking lot behind the Brad Peck Insurance Agency off Church Street, several committee members focused on the 122-acre property located between the back side of the hamlet and the Town Hall as a more permanent and long term solution to flooding the local food desert.

The property is currently owned by Housing Resources of Columbia County and is now for sale for $1.2 million because the agency is unable to find investors to finance its controversial 138-unit affordable housing project for seniors and working families.

At the committee meeting and the May 13 Town Board meeting, Ms. Wilson, a longtime opponent of the Housing Resources project, suggested the town ”float a bond” to buy the parcel and use the “prime farm land” to grow produce to feed the community. She said Hardwick, Vt., a town that went bust with the demise of the granite industry, is a successful prototype for the idea.

Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia said that sustainable agriculture angle should be explored and Councilman Bob Sacks said that the idea might be possible with grants. Councilman Walt Kiernan was not keen on obtaining the property for farming purposes, noting the town already has working farms and the organic farming trend is already tapering off due to risky bacteria strains that organic farming practices cannot “keep under control.” But Mr. Kiernan did see value in the property because the four drilled wells on it could potentially provide the hamlet with a future safe water supply.

Around the Clock Committee member Harvey Weber agreed to put together a plan for the committee on how buying or leasing the land for a farming project of some type might work.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com.

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