How can rural residents better access the food produced by local farmers? Meanwhile, how can area families simply afford to put food on their tables?
These were among the questions discussed during two gatherings on Oct. 2 in central Steuben County. Although the events were organized separately, they shared the same date as well as involvement by Catholic groups — not to mention concern about the betterment of local lives.
In the morning, "Poverty in Steuben County and What We Can Do About It" was held at Haverling High School in Bath. Forum participants examined area poverty statistics and then considered Syracuse-area models that have been successful in alleviating poverty. Chief among these are the CNY Circles Campaign, in which teams of people from middle and upper classes serve as community allies for those attempting to move out of poverty; and the related Bridges Out of Poverty initiative through which greater understanding and sharing is established between the impoverished and other socioeconomic groups as well as educators, human-service providers and employers.
The Bath event was presented by the Ecumenical Community Forum of Steuben County, with involvement from a wide range of churches, ministries, human-service organizations and community members including Catholic Charities of Steuben County and St. Mary Parish in Bath.
"It was a wonderful success," said Lynda Lowin, who served as planning-team coordinator and is justice-and-peace director for Catholic Charities of Steuben County.
Lowin noted that of the 43 people who attended the annual forum, about half of them signed up for a team that will assess whether the Circles and Bridges models might work in their Steuben communities. She added that this type of grassroots involvement is vital in an area where economic hardship is continually rising.
"The problem of poverty in Steuben County can be stated by the fact that 13,000 people out of 100,000 are living at the poverty level, and 30,000 are not far from it," Lowin told the Courier.
Following the poverty forum, the afternoon of Oct. 2 saw a successful first-time farm fair and market at the Campbell American Legion. More than 80 people turned out as consumers got to meet local farmers and producers, learning about and buying their products. Products offered ranged from garden vegetables and potatoes to processed and frozen lamb, an assortment of honey products, and a display of alpaca wool yarns and products.
The farm fair and market was organized by the five churches in the Central Steuben Catholic Parishes (CSCP) planning group: St. Catherine of Siena, Addison; St. Mary, Bath; St. Stanislaus, Bradford; St. Joseph, Campbell; and St. Gabriel, Hammondsport. Al Donnelly, a St. Joseph parishioner who served as a lead organizer, said the event is likely to be repeated based on its success. He noted that all of the area farmers who participated said they’d return if it were held again.
Joining Donnelly as a lead organizer was Kerri Bartlett, an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Steuben County, who provided a variety of literature on Oct. 2 addressing such subjects as buying local and the difference between "natural" and "organic" food products.
The idea for the farm fair and market was originally proposed by Deacon Dan Williams, who is involved in several Steuben rural-ministry initiatives and has been similarly active on the diocesan level.
"We wanted to focus on local food and build relationships between local food producers and the parishioners of the CSCP," he explained.
Deacon Williams also serves Catholic Charities as a parish social-ministry coordinator out of Lowin’s office, and thus he attended both the farm fair and market and the poverty forum on the same day. He said the two events are connected insofar as they explore "a practical, workable way to develop the viability and durability of their communities with the assets they have at hand."
"We are finding that if we do a little bit of organizing and recognize and honor our local assets, it can be an additional way for everyone to be fed and to thrive," Deacon Williams added.