My name is David Cooke and I am the director of Grow Appalachia. I have not posted on the Grow Appalachia blog for quite a while, reasoning that the real stories of Grow Appalachia are to be told the hardworking folks at the fifteen nonprofits who manage the field work of Grow Appalachia (GA).
But my feeling now is that an occasional note from me might help to knit up the various lines of narrative and reflection that make up this blog, as well as updating all readers and posters on issues from the central administrative point of view.
Grow Appalachia has grown at a furious pace since its beginning in 2010. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, this is one of those programs which is embraced by a very diverse range of people. It serves real human needs, it meets each family where they live and addresses their situations and it works in a nonjudgmental way to help families and communities become more sustainable and resilient. I mean, really, what we are talking about is growing really good and safe food that goes to feed a lot of people. And teaching folks how to cook in heart healthy ways, preserve the harvest for the future and generate income with their excess produce.
Second, all GA partners are chosen based on three criteria: do they have real credibility in their communities, do they have a demonstrated interest in food security issues and can they manage money well. If the applicants meet these standards and then present a well thought out work plan you wind up with Grow Appalachia sites where the administrators and the folks in the field work hard and smart to serve the participating families. I have been told by each site how much they appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this. And I have made a point of telling each of them that they are the reasons this is successful. I cannot applaud them enough. Reading the other posts on this blog you start to get a real sense of the across the board dedication of the fifteen GA site partners.
And finally, John Paul DeJoria, the incredibly generous philanthropist who provides virtually all the funding behind GA, has given us a great deal of flexibility in the way the program is run. (You should Google John Paul, he is a fascinating guy.) Instead of telling us that we have to follow some preconceived format he emphasizes results: are we making a difference in the lives of Appalachian families, are we building the independence and enhancing the wellness of these folks, are we increasing the amount of organic, high quality food produced and consumed in these rural communities, are we creating and sharing opportunities for local food to be a real driver of economic growth in Appalachian communities.
The answer to these questions of course is yes. I have said from the beginning to anyone who asked (and maybe a few who didn’t) that the primary purpose of GA is to enable Appalachian families to grow as much of their own food as possible. And that is what we do. In the first two years we worked with over 300 families and grew over 250,000 pounds of food. At least half that food was put up – canned, frozen or dehydrated. From the initial four sites to seven last year, we are now serving over 550 families at fifteen sites in over twenty counties located in four Appalachian states. Growth like that doesn’t happen by accident. I have been in community development work n central Appalachia for twenty years and I ain’t never seen nothin’ like this.
Grow Appalachia expanded this year not only in terms of sheer numbers but also conceptually as the role of the organization continues to evolve. Our first partners were classic Appalachian social service nonprofits all of whom were doing terrific work. This year we are working with all seven of the first two years’ partners and eight new ones as well. We are working with a domestic violence shelter that serves women and children from 17 counties in Kentucky, a group of wonderful Hispanic and Latino families in northern Madison County, KY, a child care center in Letcher County, various churches, alternative high schools  and the list goes on. I am going to ask each of the sites to post a short description of their overall programs over the next couple of weeks so that all readers of this blog can get a real feel for the program.
I am going to post every week from now on. We are doing some exciting work with heirloom/open pollinated vegetable varieties, grafted tomatoes for enhanced vigor and disease resistance, trials with alternative mulches, various trellising systems and more. Each of these ideas merits an extended post at some point soon. And we cannot forget the many county Extension agents and Extension specialists who have been invaluable partners during our three year life span. I invite your comments and questions. This is important work. And it’s a big tent.