Fresh Approach to Localizing Food at the Oberlin Early Childhood Center

Posted by Brad Masi on July 31, 2012 in Local Foods

 

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A local food system provides a number of opportunities to grow a more sustainable local economy. Presently, the majority of food consumed in Oberlin is grown, processed, and transported outside of Ohio. A localization of the food supply helps to more directly connect local farmers, local businesses, and the institutions, restaurants, or households that consume local food. Buying local helps retain dollars in the local economy, reducing the environmental and economic costs of long-distance shipment while creating linkages between diverse communities.

This is the first in a series of blog entries I will be doing to highlight some of the innovative ways Oberlin and other communities in Ohio are leveraging local food systems to create local economies that integrate ecological sustainability, community vitality, and health.

Local food systems offer a more grassroots approach to economic development. Conventional economic development focuses mostly on attracting outside investments to grow industries or businesses that primarily focus on exported products that feed the larger global economy. A local food system, by contrast, begins by identifying the hidden assets within any community and growing more robust networks and collaborative projects between diverse players, from rural farmers to institutional dining programs. 

 

To see other stories about Dave Sokoll and his efforts at the Oberlin Early Childhood Center, visit NEOFoodWeb.org by clicking here.

The Oberlin Early Childhood Center (OECC) provides one innovative example of how a small meal program at a pre-school can foster stronger connections with local farmers while engaging children in healthier eating options and the growth of their own food.  Dave Sokoll, a graduate of Oberlin College, recently became the head chef for the OECC. Having been involved in local food efforts as an Oberlin student, Dave held a number of jobs, after graduating, that continued his local food interests. He became a trucker and logistics coordinator for City Fresh, connecting neighborhoods and local farmers in Lorain County. He also worked with artisan cheese producers, selling local cheeses at the Oberlin Farmers Market and worked with a group of high school and college students to start the Oberlin High School Farm Collaborative.

Sokoll characterized Oberlin’s local food scene as “thriving.” “As a student, there’s tons of options from clubs and gardens in town and coops to cook your own local food. As a college student, it’s really easy to get connected to that.”

Sokoll’s trajectory following graduation was built upon many of the experiences that he had as a student. When he became the head chef of food services at the OECC, he brought with him both his experiences and the network connections that he formed with local farmers and food businesses. Much of the produce utilized in the OECC came from City Fresh, an initiative of the New Agrarian Center, which facilitates connections between local farmers and urban neighborhoods in six cities of Northeast Ohio.

While Sokoll had a lot of experience distributing local food, he had less culinary experience. When he was selling local cheese at the Oberlin Farmers’ Market, he connected with Brian Donnely, who was selling vegetables from a small market garden at his house. Donnely is also a chef at Diso’s Bistro in Lorain. For the past year, Donnely has volunteered one day a week with the OECC, working with Sokoll to grow his culinary skills while coming up with creative recipes that make local food appealing to young children.  

As any parent knows, children can be fussy eaters and the new recipes that they were introduced were not always met with enthusiasm. Sokoll recalls when he introduced a cold gauspacho soup to the children. “They were so excited when I walked in and said, ‘hey we’re going to try something new… and then slowly the ripple of confusion about what it was went through the class… one girl said that she liked it and one kid said he doesn’t try any new ‘dips’.”

Sokoll remains undeterred, however. He recalls a conversation with a physician friend of his who mentioned that it may take 10-15 exposures to unfamiliar food items before children start to make significant changes in their diets.

Sokoll’s story contains a lot of valuable lessons for how local food systems grow. First, his experiences at Oberlin College demonstrate how learning institutions can directly engage students with local food efforts in the community, providing hands-on experiences that can later grow into jobs or enterprises after graduation.

Second, his story reveals the importance of uncovering “hidden assets” in the community to make up for gaps in knowledge or experience. His connection with Chef Brian Donnely allowed him to bridge the lack of experience he had with cooking for groups of children.

Finally, his experience shows the number of pathways that even a small organization like a pre-school can take to transition into a local food system. In addition to meal plans that favor local food, Sokoll, along with community and student volunteers have established new gardens as well as a small greenhouse to involve kids more directly in growing their own food. The harvest from the garden is utilized both in the meals at the OECC as well as sales of products like seedlings, providing revenue to support the garden project.

Learn more about the OECC and other innovations around local foods in the Oberlin community at a screening of For the Love of Food on Saturday, September 8 from 2-4pm at the Oberlin Public Library. For more information on the Oberlin Project film series, click here.

 

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Brad Masi is a graduate of Oberlin College and long-time Oberlinian. Previously the director of the New Agrarian Center, he is currently a freelance writer, consultant, teacher, and filmmaker specializing in local food systems.

Comments

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Nicole Buckwalter August 2, 2012

I think it is great that the children are getting such a great introduction to food it is how they learn to have a healthy food relationship when they are young. I am a family child care provider and a CIA graduate and I bring in food from a local Community Farm Share. Plus we grow fresh food in our garden. The children learn a much bigger picture about how things work and a better connection to the world around them than just the grocery store.

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Brad Masi
Brad Masi is a graduate of Oberlin College and long-time Oberlinian. Previously
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