As people continue to look for ways to take care of the environment and their bodies, the practice of purchasing and consuming local, organic food is increasingly common.
The Summit Food Coalition estimates that only about 1 percent of Akronites visit local farmers’ markets. But Akron is teeming with other opportunities to purchase fresh Ohio foods directly from farmers —some of whom live right here in the city.
Jeni Buckingham, an urban farmer and founder of Akron Square Roots, uses organic methods to grow and nurture salad greens and microgreens in Highland Square. She is one of dozens of Akronites who have started growing food and selling it to her neighbors.
Jeni has held a deep love of nature since childhood. “My next door neighbor was a master gardener,” she says, “and I spent long summers alongside him learning things I still apply today, like the importance of composting and using organic methods.”
She earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture from The Ohio State University, and after taking time to raise a family, Jeni spent two years working as a director and educator at The Ohio State University Extension in Summit County.
Jeni’s lifelong experience in agriculture gave her a solid foundation for studying urban farming and implementing organic practices with Akron Square Roots, which she started about three years ago.
What does it mean for something to be organic? “If you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 different answers,” Jeni says. Generally, crops are considered organic when no herbicides or pesticides are used in their production. (This is not to be confused with non-GMO crops, which refers to whether the genes of a plant have been modified by humans.)
Crops can be farmed using organic practices without necessarily being “certified organic,” which is why it’s important to talk to the farmers growing our produce.
“Organic food is peace of mind,” Jeni says. She explains that when we consume organic foods, we don’t have to worry about residual chemicals from pesticides and herbicides infiltrating our bodies, potentially resulting in health issues or the buildup of toxic chemicals. “Food should just be food,” she says, and emphasizes that when crops are grown using organic practices, that’s just what they are.
Plus, when crops are grown organically, harmful chemicals—which can take up to 30 years to dissipate—don’t build up in the soil.
The benefits of organic food are even greater when it’s purchased locally, and different organizations in Akron have long been around to help guide our efforts. According to Beth Knorr, director of the Summit Food Coalition, this began with Crown Point Ecology Center’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
In a CSA, members get weekly or biweekly deliveries of locally grown food. “That first year, there were 20 families that participated,” Beth says.
Then, “Countryside launched a farmers’ market in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2004, and the number of markets has steadily increased since then.” Today, there are 16 farmers’ markets in Summit County.
The shelf life of local food tends to be longer than food packaged for large grocery stores, since it doesn’t have to travel as far from its source to be sold. Jeni’s greens at Akron Square Roots can stay fresh for up to two weeks.
Shorter travel distances also mean that fewer emissions are involved in bringing crops from food to table.
This falls on top of the community growth that can occur when money is poured back into local farms. Purchasing local food fosters human connection, Jeni says. Conversations between farmers and consumers can hold farmers accountable, generate a sense of belonging and give neighbors the opportunity to relate to one another.
Jeni loves this sense of connection and the exchange of ideas that occurs when people visit her booth at the North Akron Market. “Life feels more alive when I can connect to people locally,” she says.
So where are the best places to purchase local, organic foods? Jeni stresses the importance of going straight to the farmer. There are numerous opportunities to get involved with CSA programs or visit farmers’ markets. Some farms, like Jeni’s, even have door-side delivery services year-round.
The Summit Food Coalition recently released a Local Food Guide, which provides information about the county’s farmers’ markets, farm markets (shops located directly on farm property), CSA programs and opportunities to pick your own produce.
As a piece of last-minute advice, Jeni says, “If you’re not a farmer but love taking care of the environment, support a farmer who does. We need to think about the environment before it’s too late.”
More information about Jeni and Akron Square Roots can be found at akronsquareroots.com. The Summit Food Coalition’s Local Food Guide can be found at www.summitfoodcoalition.org/farmers-markets/.
Sonia Potter is a student at the University of Akron and is extremely excited to have the opportunity to intern at The Devil Strip this summer and fall.