Healing with Local Food


Building COVID resilience through networks for locally-grown food and cooking education

Think back to the spring of 2020 as we stumbled into the shutdown period of the pandemic. Suddenly things that we took for granted, like where our food comes from, became pressing concerns. Restaurants closed and supermarkets sold out of staples as COVID disrupted global food processing and supply chains.

In this unfamiliar territory, many people gained a new appreciation for home-cooked, local food. Farmers and local food system entrepreneurs stepped up to feed their neighbors by diversifying their sales channels. And local food systems emerged as a clear element of preparedness for future crises.

We saw the fragility of the global food system firsthand, not being able to get orders, so we are creating a safety net on the chance that something like that would happen again.

Brandon Query Bey, Healthy Initiatives Coordinator, Lost River Market and Deli

As a small-town grocery store and one of a limited number of food retailers in Paoli, IN, Lost River Market and Deli lived through this difficult scenario. The store had always sourced locally grown food, but the pandemic gave them a reason to recommit to that mission. Lost River Market’s Healthy Initiatives Coordinator Brandon Query Bey noted, we saw the fragility of the global food system firsthand, not being able to get orders, so we are creating a safety net on the chance that something like that would happen again.” Working with the Center for Rural Engagement, the store developed stronger relationships with local farmers and increased their local purchasing by 800 percent.

In addition to sourcing more locally grown food, Lost River also took advantage of the community’s growing appreciation for local food by launching a food as medicine program in collaboration with IU and Southern Indiana Community Health Care to help people cook using whole, local, fresh foods.

The Southern Indiana Farm to Health initiative is part of a growing national trend to explore the effectiveness of food-as-medicine approaches to eating more vegetables and fruit as a way to reduce chronic disease. Reviews of research evidence indicate that food-as-medicine programs can be as effective as certain major classes of pharmaceuticals, such as statins and glucose medications, and would be cost effective for medical insurance to cover.

The initiative supported the launch of the Lost River Local program: an educational, locally grown version of Blue Apron or Hello Fresh. Every week for three months, participants learned to cook a recipe made from a free box of whole foods, many of them local. Participants also received weekly nutrition and cooking lessons through the Cooking Matters curriculum. Since up to half of the participants were food insecure or low-income, they also received staple kitchen tools and supplies to make it more feasible to cook at home such as oils, spices, knives, cutting boards, and pots.

Our preliminary analysis of data from the Lost River Local Nutrition Box program suggests that, compared to a similar group of their peers who were not part of the program, the 30 participants showed improvement in such positive outcomes as:

  • Confidence in helping their families to eat healthy
  • More days with good mental health and ability to perform regular activities (such as work, recreation, and self-care)
  • Making health-conscious adjustments to meals (such as baking instead of frying)
  • Eating fruit, salad, whole grains, and low-sodium foods

We are excited to announce that the food-as-medicine program is now expanding across seven counties in the Indiana Uplands with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Indiana Department of Health. Residents of Crawford, Daviess, Greene, Jackson, Lawrence, Orange, and Washington counties who are interested in participating can contact me at jdv@indiana.edu for more information.

Listen to Gregory Emmons’ experience taking the Lost River Local Nutrition Box on the road in this EarthEats feature.

The IU Center for Rural Engagement improves the lives of Hoosiers through collaborative initiatives that discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. Working in full-spectrum community innovation through research, community-engaged teaching and student service, the center builds vision, harnesses assets and cultivates sustainable leadership structures within the communities with which it engages to ensure long-term success.