Appalachians Together Restoring the Eating Environment to help Eastern Kentucky communities develop local, healthy foods

A new project searches for ways to increase access to healthy foods in Eastern Kentucky and looks to communities to find these solutions.

Appalachians Together Restoring the Eating Environment, or Appal-TREE, is a collaborative project between the Community Farm Alliance and the University of Kentucky. It is based in Whitesburg and funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Other partners include Grow Appalachia, the Cowan Community Center and the Mountain Garden Initiative.

“This project is unique in that the community got to determine the pathway and the goal of the grant funding,” Valerie Horn, director of the project, told the UKNow news service. “We wanted to talk to the people who have the most influence about food issues, as well as those people who are most affected by those decisions.”

About one in six Kentuckians, or 16.4 percent, struggles with food insecurity in Kentucky, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food insecurity is defined as the lack of reliable access to a sufficient amount of affordable, nutritious food.

Horn has worked with several grass-roots efforts in Appalachia to combat food insecurity: Grow Appalachia, local farmer’s markets, local food pantries, summer feeding programs for country children, weekend backpack programs and a free meal program at the weekend farmer’s market for children. She told UKNow that these grassroots efforts represent a “growing awareness about local, healthy foods in Eastern Kentucky over the last several years.”

The first year of the project was spent gathering community input about the topic. “The problems related to nutrition are ones that can be solved locally and they’re not insurmountable, said Mark Swanson, associate professor in UK’s College of Public Health and principal investigator on the grant. “We have solutions in the communities. It’s neat when UK can help communities solve their own problems. We don’t know the solution — they do. It’s the idea of pairing academic knowledge with local expertise.”

The next two years of the grant will focus on several key projects, two of which focus on schools. The first is a “water first” campaign to encourage middle- and high-school students to choose water over sugary drinks, and the second will focus on increasing healthy options in school concession stands in Letcher County.

“We’d like to work with the schools to help them see that at a ball game, you can still make money selling snacks that are less harmful,” Horn said.

Appal-TREE will organize free cooking classes throughout Letcher County.
Each program will include six sessions that emphasize healthy food on a budget.

Nearby, the Clay County Cooperative Extension Service has also promoted food security through community cooking classes, teaching families how to can their own food and helping to start Clay County’s first farmers market last summer, UKNow reports.

“Food is tied to so many things here — when there’s a funeral, dining room tables are covered with cakes and dumplings and just the best of food. We have wonderful cooks here,” Horn said. “I say that it’s like being a talented musician and learning another instrument — it’s just learning another way to make food.”

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