By Christian Ashlar
The process of how people in Weakley County get their food is a complicated one. It often involves several dozen steps from the time a seed is planted until the time the end result reaches their plate.
The Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network (LFN) is an organization comprised of agricultural producers, the University of Tennessee at Martin, state health departments, UT Extension, Weakley County Schools and several local businesses.
Their goal is to increase general awareness about the production and distribution of local foods. Along with governmental and non-governmental agencies, representatives from area Farmer’s Markets and private citizens, they come closer and closer to reaching their goals.
The LFN and its various partners have been hosting several free community dinner forums they call “Using Food to Build Community.” According to their website, these forums are “providing an ongoing platform for Northwest Tennessee residents to gather and discuss issues and opportunities around strengthening our local food system.”
In addition to these dinners, LFN puts together educational workshops, which are open to anyone.
Their goal with these workshops is to educate and empower local communities to make improvements though local foods.
They also encourage a national program called, “Planting a Row For The Hungry.”
According to executive director Samantha Goyret, “This is when you have a garden and you can plant a row and reserve that row’s harvest for a donation to local food pantries.”
Weakley County has local food pantries through Santa’s Helpers in Dresden, We Care Ministries in Martin and student-related food pantries on the UT Martin campus.
The Plant a Row program is very similar to “gleaning” where local farms offer the LFN a chance to go into their farms and pick up the extra after a harvest.
Sometimes these local farms will just make donations of their surplus and the LFN is always glad to have this.
“Harvest of the Month” is another program offered by the LFN. This program is a community-wide campaign, which is set up to promote local, seasonal fruits or vegetables each month.
During this time, whatever fruit or vegetable is chosen will be showcased for its nutritional value, different aspects of its growth, how it is harvested, and how it is prepared. Each month, posters of the harvest item are displayed in school cafeterias, thanks to the Weakley County School Nutrition program.
This distribution began last August and has continued on through the new year.
Several people have been instrumental in this program including Trista Snider, director; Coordinated School Health Director Bethany Allen and CTE Director Lindsey Parham.
Along with the LFN Steering Committee and Board, they have helped to expand Tennessee residents’ exposure to seasonal foods all while supporting local farmers and getting them excited about home-cooked meals.
November 2019 featured the sweet potato as its Harvest of the Month. Because of this, the Steele Plant Company, LLC in Gleason became involved. One of its owners, Kay Hudson, was on the original LFN Steering Committee when it first began. Hudson was, in Goyret’s words, “Instrumental in helping us get off the ground.”
The Steele Plant Company is Tennessee’s largest sweet potato plant dealer. According to their website, they were founded in 1953 in Gleason by Claude Steele and Dudley “Butch” Sanders. While Butch was a school teacher, Claude was the produce man.
Hudson said, “It’s a family business. My grandfather started it, then my dad continued on with it. Then, my brother and his wife, my husband (Larry Hudson) and myself are now running the business.”
In November of 2019, Steele Plant Company donated 10,400 pounds of potatoes to the St. Andrews Society, a nonprofit hunger relief organization devoted to ending hunger.
This sizable donation on the part of the Steele Plant Company was distributed throughout the state to food pantries and food distribution sites.
Hudson said of the donation, and others like it, “That’s such a great opportunity to serve the community.”
Goyret says the LFN is collaborating with Weakley County Schools on a grant that the LFN is taking the lead in.
“The end result of this planning process is that we’re going to be developing a Farm to School action plan for Weakley County Schools and it’s going to identify different strengths the schools already have; the needs and barriers and also include resources,” Goyret added.
The goal is to look at the current food system with the intention of strengthening where they can. This will be an inclusive effort and will encompass farmers, school nutrition personnel, teachers, parents, students and anyone else associated with food production and distribution. “It is an intensive process to figure out where we’re at and where we want to go,” Goyret says.
With partners like Steele Plant Company and the Weakley County School System, the goal of bringing together the food-producing community is being met.
No one person or organization could do this on their own, however. It is the concentrated efforts of many different organizations working together, which will accomplish good things.
Goyret says, “When you talk about the food system, it’s never just one person doing something, it’s everyone trying to do something all together.”
On the LFN’s website, http://nwtnlfn.org, a brochure featuring local businesses in Weakley County can be found.
Beekeepers, wineries, farmer’s markets and a variety of farmers are featured, as well as where to find them.
Anyone curious about Steele Plant Company can visit the website at www.sweetpotatoplant.com.