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Asheville's ASAP launched local food research center



1/16/2012 - Asheville's ASAP launched local food research center
by Carol Motsinger - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project's new Center for Local Food Research aims to transform theories about the nonprofit's success into valuable -- and exportable -- evidence.

The center will examine the social, economic and environmental impacts of localizing food systems, according to executive director Charlie Jackson.

"Having a research center like this is unique ... we need to have solid, scholarly research that's designed to be applied," Jackson said.

This information will be used to improve ASAP's programming, which includes projects like the Local Food Guide and Growing Minds Farm to School Program, as well as assist other communities' local food efforts.

"In the last decade or so, we've seen a lot of research in local food," said Leah Mathews, professor of economics at UNC Asheville. UNCA is one of ASAP's research partners.

"We are on the early edge of things," she noted. "(ASAP) is known nationally for raising awareness for local food movements, and their position is really well-respected. They will be a powerful force in the up-and-coming research in the local food arena."

Research has always been a part of ASAP, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting local farms and building healthy communities through connections to local food.

"One of the things we realized really early on in our work with local farms is how little information we had on what it really meant to be a localized food system," Jackson said.

Since forming in 2002, the organization has studied such issues as local food market potential and economic impact of farm fresh foods in area schools.

"Research has been a commitment that we haven't been able to fully dedicate ourselves to," Jackson said. "The organization now has the capacity to have a fully integrated research center ... We really have all of the pieces in place now. Our programs are strong so we can dedicate ourselves to the research that is essential to (the local food movement's) sustainability and success."

In 10 years, ASAP has grown from a volunteer-only organization to an office with 18 employees. It shifted some employees' responsibilities and hired a research assistant to handle the center's work, Jackson said.

One of the advantages of ASAP's decade of advocacy is its " incredible network of farmer partners," Mathews said. "We can hit the ground running because of that."

Support for the center comes from private donors and organizations such as N.C. Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation and the WK Kellogg Foundation.

The center's two largest projects are with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (NIFA AFRI).

The SARE project explores ASAP leaders' belief that when the distance between a consumer and food producer decreases, this close connection leads to informed choices that can change the food system.

The NIFA AFRI project aims to enhance and expand economic opportunities for small and medium-sized farms; immediate goals include developing effective messaging and marketing for a model local food branding program.

ASAP has already helped other communities cultivate an interest in local food; they just finished mentoring food leaders in South Carolina and Chattanooga, Tenn., for instance, Jackson said.

"This is a real national movement," Jackson said. "Local food has moved from being a niche market to a transformation of our relationship with food ... Since we've been doing it for a decade, we have had great lessons, a lot of data and history here. It's the perfect place to study, to learn and provide best practices."



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