Early Years of the Little Rock Food Movement: A Discussion with Nao Ueda and Katy Elliot

earlyFoodClub

Nao Ueda and Kate Matthews during the early days of the Food Club. Image from Katy Elliot.

The Central Arkansas food movement is growing rapidly. The recent Fresh Guide published by the Arkansas Local Food Network lists over sixty school and community gardens  and urban farms operating in the area and an increasing number of cafes and restaurants serving local food .(To read our piece on the guide click here). What’s especially inspiring is the growing movement toward making local food accessible to everyone, regardless of income. The Fresh Guide provides a complete list of food banks that accept local produce and the beginnings of a small-growers’s gleaning network is underway.

As movements grow and expand, taking on new roles and moving in new directions, it can be immensely energizing and grounding to take a look at the early inspiration behind the movement and hear the stories of those who helped get things rolling.

Whenever people discuss the early days of the central Arkansas local food movement they’re sure to mention  Nao Ueda and Katy Elliot, two of the founders of Arkansas Sustainability Network. Both are still involved in local growing, but their roles have changed somewhat. Katy now lives in Louisville, Kentucky and Nao is in law school and still writes at GreenAR By the Day. They kindly agreed to answer a few questions about what drew them to the food movement and how they’ve seen it grow over the years. They touch on the inspiration behind their own involvement and what they learned along the way.  Given the distance, we did the interview over email, and  rather than meditate their comments, it seems fitting to provide the email conversation as is.

We intend this to be the first in a series of posts about the early years of many an Arkansas movement, food related and otherwise. If you have ideas for this series, please let us know! We’d love to hear from you!

1.    What was the impetus that got you started in building a stronger local food system?

Nao Ueda: I was born and raised in Japan where people take food very seriously. There are 47 prefectures, or states, in Japan out of which 38 have their own chicken breed. Because Japan has a smaller land mass than California, most of our farmers cultivate a small plot in diverse ways. Organic produce was the norm by the 1990s. After my family moved to this country, we encountered difficulty locating fresh food. Produce at grocery stores came coated with wax. When we inquired about the origin of meats (geographic location and animal’s breed), butchers looked at us funny.  My family did the best it could to cope with the situation. We grew our own vegetables and cooked at home. We smuggled seeds back from Japan.

My interest in building a stronger local food system grew from self-interest – interest in eating good food. After I became involved with the efforts, I learned about environmental and economic benefits of such a system. I strongly believe in them, too. I do, however, suspect that fresh, mouth-watering taste of a locally-grown tomato can win over more people than any environmental or economic argument for a stronger local food system.

Katy Elliot:  A trip to Chicago – We went to see Stereolab but happened to run into an incredible local food symposium and though we would put together something like that for AR, but more than food – all things “green.” At that time there wasn’t much emphasis on how green AR was or could be so we wanted people to see all of the assets we had on hand as a community.  Wait a minute – That was the impetus for starting the Natural State Expo and ASN – The food club was started when Sue and Rusty Nuffer decided to stop selling at the Rivermarket in 2007 – We really wanted to maintain access to their food. We knew they were going to be delivering to LR restaurants so we started an email-based CSA with them. They sent us a list of what they had available, we sent it out over email, and folks emailed us back with their food order, then picked it up.

2.   When you first got involved in organizing local food what was the Little Rock local food system like? Or was there one at all?

NU: Little Rock Farmers Market has been around since the 1970s. Unfortunately, many of the vendors sold produce out of a box, i.e., they bought produce from wholesalers and resold them at the market. There were a handful of vendors who farmed and sold what they grew – Jody Hardin, Sue and Rusty Nuffer, Christian Shuffield, Ragan Satterfield, and all the Hmong farmers. Jody started a stand inside the River Market pavilion called the River Market Mercantile. There he sold local produce six days a week.

Frustrated that the Little Rock Farmers Market comprised mostly of resellers, Jody, Christian, and Ragan lobbied the River Market management to exclude non-farmers from the market. Non-farmers revolted, and the feud ended up on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In the end, Jody, Christian, and Ragan did not succeed in excluding non-farmers from the farmers market, but they convinced the management to allow farmers to set up at one end of the pavilion and non-farmers to set up at the other end. Jody and Christian eventually left the Little Rock Farmers Market to open a growers-only farmers market in North Little Rock. That’s how the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market got its start.

KE: There were seven community gardens that we knew of (not counting school gardens – we were less familiar with those at the time) Lots of farmers but not so many diversified vegetable farms (chem free)  So – we had options, but not at all like the current spread.

 

3.   What kind of response did you get from the community (ies) as you began to build movement? From farmers? From consumers?

NU: The Arkansas Sustainability Network’s Local Food Club was the first year-around online farmers market in Arkansas. As such, we received an extremely positive response from farmers. Farmers were able to sell all year long, and they didn’t have to stand outside.

We received positive responses from consumers, but a year-around farmers market was an educational experience for some of them, including myself. When days become shorter, chickens molt, losing old feathers and re-growing new ones. During molt, chickens generally do not lay eggs. I remember the first fall after we started the food club. One of the participating farmers said that he may not be able to supply eggs because his chickens were molting. I had no clue what he was talking about, so he explained it to me. I then had to explain to our customers.

I suspect year-around farmers markets feel seasons more keenly than those that close during fall and winter. I remember getting questions like “Why are there fewer vegetables?” during wintertime and “Why don’t you have red bell peppers?” as soon as green bell peppers became available. The questions were never posed in a negative manner, but they certainly led to more knowledge for consumers.

KE: Great! Everyone was excited – And especially since we started the Local Food Club on only 5% grower fees plus the membership fees, the growers were super excited to be able to sell (almost) direct.  It’s 10% now, or was when I moved – which is still really good. We had to up it to be able to pay coordinators.

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Backyard Garden Project’s exhibit at Natural State Expo. Image from Katy Elliot.

4.   I understand you all were involved in something called the Arkansas Green Conference which was an early part of the local food movement. Can you tell me more about that?

 NU: The Arkansas Sustainability Network (ASN) started as an umbrella organization for the Natural State Expo. When Katy and Danielle dePreux went to Chicago, they ran into the Green Festival (I believe), which inspired us to host a similar event in Little Rock. The first Natural State Expo was held in 2006 at the Statehouse Convention Center. It showcased resources for sustainable living and development in Arkansas. Three of us felt that Arkansas was home to green businesses, organizations, and people. Unfortunately, the resources were scattered all over the state, so we decided to bring them together under one roof so that they can network among themselves and with the public. The first Expo had over 70 exhibitors and was well attended. The success of the Expo inspired us to keep going under the umbrella of ASN.

KE:  It was Natural State Expo (that’s what stemmed from the original trip to Chicago) – We started ASN (ALFN) so that we could have a nonprofit entity to put together the Natural State Expos and then the other projects sprung from that (Bike Coop, Local Food Club, and Eco-Education/youth stuff, and countless events)

5.   Nao–how did you start GreenAR by the Day? How has it grown over the years?

I started GreenAR by the Day in 2008, several months after I left ASN.

I left ASN for several reasons, one of which was an overwhelming stress from working a full-time job, going to school, and helping to run a nonprofit organization. Although ASN hosted workshops on gardening, composting, rainwater harvesting, and other green topics, I did not have time to implement many of them at my home. I found myself eating out more and not cooking as much.

I decided to dedicate 2008 to a green living experiment – how far could I green my life while living in downtown Little Rock with a full-time job, school, and a modest budget?

That year my partner and I started a garden, installed rain barrels, got chickens and ducks, built compost bins, audited our house for energy use, and learned to brew beer, preserve harvest, and make bread, yogurt, and cheese. Family and friends began to notice our activities and asked us how they could green their lives. One of our friends said that we should start a green living consulting business. Neither of us has any experience with a business, but we are both writers, thus GreenAR by the Day was born.

Initially, the blog focused on our activities at home. I occasionally promoted events hosted by organizations that I belonged. Other green groups soon began sending me their event information, and voilà, the blog assumed the format that it has today – part what I do at home and part what’s going on in the community.

6.   When you all were just getting started with the food (and larger green movement) here, what cities, communities, books, etc., were you looking to for inspiration?

NU: I cannot think of a city or a community that inspired me in my early efforts to help build a local food system. Japan has influenced my relationship with food, but every country, city, and community has its own strengths and weaknesses – landscape, weather, soil, infrastructure, history, politics, social capital, and people. Many cities and communities have amazing projects, but I try to look at them with a lens of how they may fit into our city and community and not the other way around.

I also cannot think of a book that inspired me. I have read my share of books that discuss a local food system, but many of them tend to paint a grim picture of our food system. Even when they paint a positive picture, they aren’t written with my community in mind. I generally consult them for references.

I think I often looked to people for inspirations. Katy and Danielle inspired me to become involved with ASN. Growers also inspired me – Sue and Rusty Nuffer of the Armstead Mountain Farms, Jody and Josh Hardin, Robert Lashley of Willow Springs Market Garden, Patrice Gros of the Foundation Farm, Kelly Carney of North Pulaski Farms, Christian Shuffield, Ragan Satterfield, etc. ASN’s supporters were a source of inspiration. You feel encouraged when a group of dedicated people support local food and green movement.

So for me, it was the people more than anything.

KE:  Not too sure on this one, except that it was good to find out about locallygrown.net (Athens, GA) – Conway Locally Grown started using that website and we followed shortly after.  Prior to that we operated food club through email and spreadsheets – Messy and time consuming!

7.    How have you seen community involvement and interest change over the years?

NU: When Katy, Danielle, and I started the ASN, there was one farmers market in central Arkansas. Jody started Certified Arkansas Farmers Market shortly after we started the food club. Now we have several farmers markets in the Little Rock metropolitan area. Online farmers markets have popped up in several Arkansas communities. (I counted 10 online markets last time I checked, but the number may have changed.) I think organizations like Heifer International, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, Arkansas Local Food Network, and CANAS have done a tremendous job of educating consumers and growers. There are more farmers than ever before, so yes, the community has changed for better over the past several years.

KE: Well, I guess we just watched our somewhat fringe interested go way more mainstream. Way more growers, way more people eating local and of course “going green” is a pretty popular phrase these days.

8.   What do you think are central Arkansas’s greatest strengths when it comes to the growing food movement?

NU: Unlike some other parts of the country, Arkansas is blessed with affordable land and abundant water. Can’t farm without land and water, you know?

As for central Arkansas, I think the greatest strength is that people tend to know each other and are open to ideas. In certain parts of the country (like D.C. where I used to live, or California where my partner used to live), many green ideas have already been implemented. In Arkansas, not all green ideas have been implemented, thus there is a room for growth. People in Arkansas tend to know each other, so they tend to at least listen to your ideas. If they like your ideas, implementation can be much quicker than in larger cities.

Little Rock is also the political capital of Arkansas, and as such, I believe it is important for the city to push for a strong local food system. One of my friends was involved with the efforts to legalize keeping of chickens in the City of Arkadelphia. The city council was concerned that legalization of chickens within the city limits might make Arkadelphia look like a hillbilly. My friend responded to them that keeping of chickens cannot possibly be hillbilly if Little Rock and Fayetteville are doing it.

KE:  I’m going to go with climate, and climate, and a really supportive consumer base.

9.   What are the region’s greatest weaknesses?

NU: I view certain ingrained mindsets as the region’s greatest weaknesses. When I worked with several small farmers in the Delta, they were theoretically on board with a strong local food system, but they still regarded contacts with large national grocery chains as their path to financial success. I find it extremely difficult to convince many farmers to change their ways. Theoretically, they support crop diversity, ecologically sustainable farming methods, and community empowerment, but they don’t believe they can afford to change.

I also meet consumers who believe they can’t change their ways. I believe when you set your mind to it, you can eat locally even when you are busy, you can garden even when you think you have a brown thumb, and you can build a strong local food system even if Arkansas is home to Big Ag.

I think it starts with the mind and ends with the mind.

KE: Bugs (climate?), lack of awareness in terms of grower practices, also farmers shipping in and reselling food, etc. I understand that farmers need supplemental income but I think imported products should be clearly marked and not easily confused with local items/competing with locally grown prices, etc.

10.What kind of thoughts do you have for people who are becoming involved in the food movement here—things you’ve learned that might be of use to those just starting to get involved?

NU: I think it’s important to remember that everyone is different, and that they can become involved in their own ways. There are many ways to become involved. You can buy local produce. You can grow food for yourself or people. You can share your bounty with other people in hope of inspiring them to eat locally. You can promote the local food movement by talking or writing about it. You can educate yourself about food choices. You can volunteer for organizations and farms. You can advocate for laws and ordinances that would help build a stronger local food system.

My advice is for people to become involved in ways that suit them. The movement needs all of them – consumers, growers, educators, organizers, volunteers, etc. – for it to grow!

KE: Do what you enjoy – find your calling!  I think this is the best way to maintain energy, and network/get out and talk with folks doing similar things. But really I don’t have much advice, everyone seems to be doing great!

11. You all did a great deal to educate the area about the importance of local food, the role of urban gardening, and the ability we have to grow for ourselves. What did you learn about yourselves in the process of helping to develop this movement? What did the community/communities teach you?

NU: I learned that I like to grow things. One of the reasons I started to grow food at home is because I wanted to place myself in the shoe of farmers who participated in the ASN Local Food Club. I always considered myself as having a brown thumb. I hated to sweat (still do because sweat aggravates my skin condition) and to be bitten by mosquitoes (still do). I never thought I would be digging dirt. Now I do, and I credit the community of food growers for the change.

12. Anything else you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask you? Things that are important that we’ve overlooked?

NU: Not that I can think of.

KU: Nope!

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Who would you like to hear from in this “Early Days of the Movement” series? Let us know! Contact us at the “Contact” link at the top of the page!