Communities have been celebrating successful autumn harvests for centuries, when the season’s crops took center stage at town-wide public feasts. There are echoes of these festive, “eat and be merry” occasions in our modern Thanksgiving, but the connection to the land and to the community has gotten lost in the mix.
These days, we still celebrate big moments with food, but among the weddings, banquets and galas, Athens’ local food community is reviving the traditional autumn harvest feast in the hopes that a celebration of bounty will beget bounty for others in need.
In October, the Athens Farmers Market, Athens Land Trust and UGArden all hosted fall feast events. Each of these groups represent local growers, whether they are family farmers working the land outside city limits or urban community and school gardeners. They all offer a source of fresh produce. All of these groups also work behind the scenes to make sure they don’t leave out Athens’ most vulnerable communities.
UGArden’s Meals in the Middle Benefit Dinner raised money to continue its culinary programs in Clarke County middle schools. The Athens Land Trust threw a Harvest Moon dinner to support its many urban ag and food-access programs—the West Broad Farmers Market and community garden have filled a crucial gap in food access for the Hancock Corridor community.
As one of the largest markets in the region, the Athens Farmers Market is trying to do its part to connect everyone in Athens with local food. “We believe that local, fresh, organic and nutrient-dense produce should be accessible to all members of our community,” says Sarah Thurman, AFM’s manager. The market held its seventh annual Autumn Harvest Feast on Oct. 8.
“This is our large annual fundraiser that goes to fund our SNAP doubling program at the market,” Thurman says. “We are the third largest redeeming market in the state, and therefore have one of the largest financial burdens to contribute to the program.”
The SNAP doubling program is supported statewide by Wholesome Wave Georgia and allows SNAP benefit users to double their dollars when they purchase produce from farmers markets. Thurman says program participants are getting a bigger bang for their buck in terms of quality. “When customers do this, we see our local and organic produce match and sometimes beat big-box retailers’ lower-quality produce,” she says.
There is an obvious health benefit from eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, but low-income families can struggle to afford these types of foods. In June, AFM partnered with the the Athens Nurses Clinic and UGA’s SNAP-Ed program to launch the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx), which allows medical professionals to prescribe healthy produce for patients with diet-related illnesses.
“Each participant is prescribed $1 per day per person in their family to spend at the market,” says Thurman. “It is still too early in the program to discuss specific health outcomes, but I can say that participants have started walking groups together, are getting excited about cooking seasonal produce and are enthusiastic and open-minded about trying new foods.”
At the end of the evening, the market had raised $21,000 to support these programs. “We were incredibly blessed with generous community donations to the silent auction, great local sponsors as well as an abundance of the best food that this community has to offer,” Thurman says.
The best of Athens’ culinary talent prepared a smorgasbord of appetizers, breads, soups, salad, meats, veggies and desserts, accompanied by craft cocktails, beer, wine and coffee. For many farmers, says Thurman, the Autumn Harvest Feast is their “annual treat” at the end of a long and hot growing season.
Thurman believes these types of feasts are becoming more popular in Athens because they are more than fundraising events. “I think that food is the foundation of community, and genuine, loving bonds with people are what we need most in life,” she says.
“Locally grown food prepared with love is unbeatable. Those who have sat down at a table and eaten food grown and prepared locally know that there is something sacred about it, something deeply gratifying.”
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