Growing the local food movement 

click to enlarge Amy Matthews, owner of South Circle Farm (left), with April Hammerand, friend of farmers and manager of Food Coalition of Central Indiana. Photo by Stephen Simonetto
  • Amy Matthews, owner of South Circle Farm (left), with April Hammerand, friend of farmers and manager of Food Coalition of Central Indiana. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

It's the last day of the season for the Indy Winter Farmers Market and spring is in the air. The high-ceilinged space, located downtown in the Maxwell Building on East Ohio Street, is bustling with a diverse Saturday crowd and dozens of local farmers and food vendors. Asparagus and other early spring vegetables are in good supply, offering a taste of more to come at other markets in the weeks ahead. Farmers markets like this one —Marion County alone boasts more than a dozen — are one way that food shoppers can access healthy food in season.

I'm here to shop, but I'm also here to follow April Hammerand around. Hammerand is manager of the newly renamed Food Coalition of Central Indiana (formerly Indy Food, Farm and Family Coalition). Unofficially, she's your local farmer's best friend. And she wants to make that farmer your best friend, too.

"One of the reasons the Coalition exists is because we've lost a lot of our food culture since the 1950s," Hammerand tells me as we walk past a milk vendor. "People don't know how to cook in-season anymore."

Practices such as canning your own tomatoes and jam, for instance, meant seasonal fruits could be enjoyed all year long, offering a form of food security before the pre-packaged, mass-produced food revolution took hold.

The Food Coalition of Central Indiana (FCCI) serves as a catalyst for these and other related issues: where and how we grow our food, how much of it we buy, and from whom. Often, it comes down to a simple economic equation: Is good food available, and is it affordable? Unless you're growing it yourself, would you rather purchase your next tomato from the farmer in your neighborhood or a multi-national corporation in California? And which one is likely to taste better, and offer greater nutritional value?

As FCCI manager, Hammerand sits at the hub of a wheel: its spokes are the small farmers, university researchers, agricultural extension offices, co-op grocery stores, farmers markets, community gardens, restaurants, city policymakers and even health and social workers who understand the benefits of equal access to healthy food.

The need for conservation

Hammerand defies stereotypes when it comes to community organizers, which is essentially what she is. She's young, for starters — a doe-eyed, soft-spoken 20-something with a kind smile who prefers her bike to her car. Her childhood hometown is so small that she instead tells me the name of the town where she attended high school, Woodstock, Ill.

From an early age, Hammerand recognized the need for conservation. Because she lived in a rural setting, she learned to appreciate the crucial role farmers play in sustaining us. "I had rabbits and I sewed dresses," Hammerand recalls, "but I was hanging out with the farmers."

Her parents had fled Chicago, in part because of the lure of the land. "Conservation was key to them from the beginning," Hammerand says. "We had a 10-acre forest behind my house. Developers were going to build 2,000 homes, essentially right in my backyard. It was my playground... all of the kids in the neighborhood played there."

The threat of loss settled deep in her psyche, and when it was time to graduate from high school and consider her future, Hammerand decided to make a career out of this concern for the land — not just in terms of ecology, but human sustainability as well. She stayed close to home, earning a bachelor's degree in international resource economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she focused on natural resource management.

Taking on an interdisciplinary approach, she simultaneously took courses in the agricultural school, the natural resource and environmental science department, and the economics department. Ultimately, it all came down to money: who had it and what they did with it. If you didn't speak that language, no one would listen — a fact that Hammerand believes has in some ways held back the environmental movement.

An activist at heart

Hammerand had originally envisioned becoming an environmental lawyer, but realized soon after her first environmental law class, that "again I was going to be caught in a system, in a box; just like the environmentalists were caught in a box."

Her "aha" moment: "If we can support local farmers, then we can stop urban sprawl." This deceptively simple concept informed the direction she would continue to take. After working for a local produce distributor in Chicago, she returned to school to pursue a graduate degree in environmental communication and management from the University of Agriculture Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden.

The program drove home the importance of economics in the food and conservation equation. In Sweden, she learned about across-the-aisle communication "between the business world, farmers and environmentalists, engineers and designers."

When Hammerand returned to the U.S., she says, "I came back to America as a Swede. I didn't understand why we weren't separating our garbage. I didn't understand why there was so much packaging."

Soon afterward, Hammerand was invited to take on the manager role for the Coalition, which is fiscally managed by Earth Charter Indiana with the support of outside grant funding. "I came here in 2010 not knowing anyone, being an outsider... being a quiet observer," she says.

As soon as Hammerand began her work coordinating the collective efforts of a coalition of growers, producers and local food advocates, it was assumed that she would lead their efforts. She had to remind them that she was not here to lead the movement — that was up to them. "I'm here to organize the leaders of the movement, to strengthen the projects... If we can work together, we will make everyone successful."

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