Local Food Heroes in the Hoosier State

By Jon Shoulders

The Hoosier state is seeing a growing number of programs, projects, and initiatives aimed at improving our local food systems, and the reason is fairly simple — Hoosiers are willing to sacrifice time and energy to dig in and create solutions. Read up on 10 local food champions you might not know of yet … but should.

Torrie Birkemeier

Torrie Birkemeier

1. Torrie Birkemeier

Torrie Birkemeier’s inspiration to launch SEED Brown County, a nonprofit that organizes annual seed swaps, workshops, lectures, and a Seed Lending Library, came while she was attending a class on permaculture design in Arizona. Bill McDorman, executive director for a Tucson-based seed conservation organization called Native Seeds/SEARCH, gave a speech about seeds, and Birkemeier was instantly intrigued.

   “The message I took away was about how we had lost a significant amount of the world’s food crops and biodiversity with the development of industrial agriculture,” says Birkemeier, a Pittsburgh native. “I left there forever changed. I felt a sense of urgency to share the message about the loss of biodiversity, but, more importantly, I began to see solutions and actions I could take within my gardening community....”

   Founded in 2016, SEED Brown County now offers programs and events almost every month including public film screenings and round-table discussions on seed education. The Brown County Seed Lending Library is a free source of more than 65 heirloom varieties of grain, corn, beans, herbs and flowers supplied by and for local residents. seedbrowncounty.org

2. Nate and Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee

In addition to operating Nightfall Farm, a chicken, pig, turkey, and lamb operation in Crothersville, the Brownlees are co-founders of the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition (HYFC), a networking group for small-scale sustainable farmers statewide. Nate also serves as director for the Southeastern Indiana Farmer Training Initiative, a pilot program designed to provide training for farmers in the greater Batesville area who are interested in growing specialty crops, and which reaches out to the entire community — farmers, eaters, and institutions — to support the local food system.

Nate Brownlee

Nate Brownlee

   “Liz and I feel like Indiana is big and diffuse when it comes to small-scale farmers, and it’s hard to know who’s out there and what they’re doing,” Nate says. “HYFC is a way for us to network, to connect with the other great farmers in Indiana. That’s important because we can help each other with technical assistance, but honestly I’m most excited about the emotional support I draw from other farmers. Our jobs are hard and often lonely, and to know there are other people like you, not far away, dealing with the same challenges, helps to get through those rough patches.” nightfallfarm.com, facebook.com/hoosieryfc, foodandgrowers.org/sifti

3. Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan

A native of Bowling Green, Ohio, Annie Corrigan co-hosts Earth Eats, a Bloomington-based weekly podcast and public radio show with Danial Orr, chef and owner of FARMbloomington restaurant. The podcast covers issues related to local food and sustainable agriculture as well as recipes and cooking tips, and Corrigan says her involvement has made her more conscious of not only her diet, but of the challenges facing many local farmers. In 2015 Indiana University Press approached Orr and Corrigan about compiling a book of recipes and seasonal cooking tips, and Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living was published in March. Also an accomplished oboe performer who tours regularly, Corrigan recently embarked on a book tour of central Indiana, and says the experience reinvigorated her interest in all things local.

   “I’ve had some fantastic conversations not just about food and farming, but also about the importance of locally produced radio,” she says. “Through Earth Eats, I try to give a platform for people in the local food scene to tell their stories, and I hope I do it without bias. There are so many passionate people in our area who have fantastic personal stories.” indianapublicmedia.org/eartheats 

4. Anne Fassnacht

Anne Fassnacht

Anne Fassnacht

While working at Trader Joe’s in the San Francisco Bay area, where she lived from 1997 until 2014, Anne Fassnacht found herself engrossed in conversations about local growing and healthy eating almost daily. The experience led to two major endeavors after relocating to Indianapolis — she launched a Wit, Wisdom and Food podcast in October 2016 to engage experts in conversation about local food initiatives, diet, and cooking. Additionally, last July Fassnacht founded Olive It Marketing after seeing what she felt was too many local businesses with little more than a social media page to market their products online. She recognized an opportunity to create quality websites for such businesses at reasonable prices.

   “Food manufacturers, distributors, and sellers don’t have personal relationships — it is now just dumbed down to a business transaction,” she says. “Lost is where our food comes from, how it is grown, and why that matters economically, environmentally, and socially. The further we get from that knowledge and decision-making the more control we lose over our communities. Supporting local food and local businesses, and fostering that community, keeps money in our towns and cities, not with the large corporations. It gives us a stake in the survival of our neighbors and the farmers just down the road.” witwisdomandfood.com; oliveitmarketing.com

5. Naima Gardner

Naima Gardner

Naima Gardner

As acting coordinator for the Indiana Healthy Food Access Coalition (HFAC) since December 2016, Naima Gardner has been working with state lawmakers and advocating for legislation that would create a healthy food financing fund and to expand healthy food access through loans and grants for food retailers and nonprofits in low-income and low-access areas. The HFAC is planning a series of town hall gatherings this summer to further understand how local communities struggle with inadequate access to healthy food.

   “It is very challenging to convince some lawmakers that they need to play a role in addressing food deserts,” says Gardner, who currently serves on the steering committee for the Indiana Healthy Weight Initiative and the planning committee for Purdue Extension’s local food summits. “Without the state as a partner, it is very difficult to create a program with enough capacity to address the diverse needs of different communities throughout the state. It has been challenging to convince some key decision makers that there is a huge need to address low food access in Indiana, and that it is worth it for the state to invest resources to address the issue.” inhealthyfoodaccess.com

6. Austin Kasso

Austin Kasso

Austin Kasso

During his high school years in Long Island, New York, Austin Kasso realized he wasn’t interested in a typical nine-to-five office job, and while studying agriculture at Ivy Tech he began envisaging what would later become Red Giant Union, a Lafayette-based nonprofit formed to promote public health through urban farming projects and education. As executive director, Kasso launched a fundraising campaign for 12 aeroponic towers that currently grow lettuces, tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, and more. Kasso makes 30 percent of the produce he grows free to the public.

   “This kind of method uses 90 to 95 percent less water than traditional farming,” Kasso says of his tower gardens. “It’s an efficient system that has good yields. Right now we have a goal of raising $30,000 for a centralized space where we can offer cooking classes, a juice bar, and things like that. And hopefully we can do more gardens over time, and start to build a more sustainable community and provide job opportunities.” redgiantunion.org

Janet Katz

Janet Katz

7. Janet Katz

Throughout the past year, Janet Katz has worked on behalf of the Northeast Indiana Local Food Network (NILFN) to promote local food culture and entrepreneurship in northeast Indiana. Working alongside economic development leaders from across the northeastern portion of the state, Katz and her NILFN colleagues are developing a plan for increasing visibility and economic opportunities for the region’s local food producers and businesses.

   This summer NILFN representatives will be traveling across the 11 counties in Indiana’s northeast region for a Listening & Learning tour. “We’ll be gathering stories to share on our website and social media, and organizing events where local food producers, buyers, advocates, and eaters can build relationships and collaborate to strengthen our local food economy,” says Katz, who directed From Fencerows to Foodsheds, a 2015 documentary about local food infrastructure that became a capstone project she undertook for a master’s degree in sustainable food systems from Green Mountain College in Vermont.

   “My generation is realizing that some of the choices we’ve made are unsustainable, and that we need to make changes if future generations are going to be able to enjoy a good quality of life in this region,” she says. “Change is hard, but the consequences of complacency are real. It’s so exciting to work with the growing number of Hoosiers, young and old, who are committed to sustainability initiatives across the state.” neifood.org

8. Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

“2017 has been our most exciting year,” says Jim Poyser of Earth Charter Indiana (ECI), a nonprofit whose members work toward environmental sustainability through community projects and education. The Indianapolis City-County Council adopted ECI’s Climate Recovery Resolution on Feb. 27, making Indy the largest city in the country to pass a youth-led climate resolution. The resolution calls for carbon neutrality in city functions by 2050 and for the formation of a climate action plan for the city.

   Under Poyser’s direction, ECI created a Resilient Indiana campaign, which helps communities better understand the impacts of climate change and works to develop climate action and climate resiliency plans. ECI officials have set a goal to help 20 Indiana cities formulate a climate action plan by 2020.

   What Poyser has found since taking the helm at Earth Charter Indiana: climate and food are both intricately related factors in a sustainability plan for the state. Representatives from ECI work with Carmel-based Food Rescue, the leaders of which have helped hundreds of businesses and school cafeterias prevent perfectly edible food from being discarded, instead redirecting it to food pantries and other outlets for those in need. “What better way to mitigate and prepare for climate change than to build strong communities through growing and rescuing food,” Poyser says. earthcharterindiana.org

Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart

9. Sara Stewart

In the summer of 2008 Sara Stewart acted on a relatively simple idea — to grow a public produce garden that anyone in the South Bend area could take advantage of, regardless of socioeconomic status. “As a community health nurse I realized it could be about more than food — it could be an empowerment model for the community, to feed hungry people and be a place where everyone is welcome,” she says. Within a year, Stewart had established Unity Gardens, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with 12 gardens located around South Bend. With a seven-acre central growing location, the organization now offers cooking and gardening classes, internships, a presence at the South Bend Farmers Market, and a CSA program to raise funds that directly support the gardens.

   In 2011 Stewart began devoting her energies to Unity Gardens projects full-time, and currently works 80-plus hours per week making sure each of the 40-some gardens continues to thrive. “All the food is shared — the people that come to the gardens don’t have to prove that they’re poor or have a certain ZIP code,” she says. “We welcome everyone. With the healthcare system in disarray, and chronic obesity, diabetes, cardiac illnesses, and all of these things on the rise, it’s important to have community programs that can help break down the barriers to health and wellness.” theunitygardens.org

Mimi Zakem

Mimi Zakem

10. Mimi Zakem

After the Double 8 Foods grocery chain closed its collective doors in Indianapolis in 2015, officials at the Indy-based Kheprw Institute (KI), a community organization that establishes programs to further equality and environmental sustainability, launched the Community Controlled Food Initiative (CCFI) to help residents in food-insecure areas. Led by Mimi Zakem, who is currently serving as a KI Equity Fellow, and several additional KI team members, CCFI partners with local farmers and gardeners to make produce available for direct purchase from local residents.  

   Now with more than 40 members, CCFI membership has grown steadily since the program was founded in June of last year, according to Zakem. “There are many challenges to community food work based in the root issues of inequity and poverty, but we haven’t let anything stop us from building what we want with what we have,” she says. “Through control of food production, distribution, economics, culture, policy and eating for health, communities can build self-reliance and self-determination.” kheprw.org