Maureen McNamara Best hosted the November 13 conversation on Dar Williams’ What I Found in a Thousand Towns. Weaving together a variety of voices, the lively discussion on the role of local food in the community included 34 people and was held at organization’s commercial kitchen on Patterson Avenue in the West End.
Maureen’s professional experience is wide-ranging and includes teaching high school agriculture in Raleigh, NC; working with migrant farmworkers in eastern NC and in the Colorado plains; conducting food safety inspections in Boulder CO; and studying the economic viability of the local food system in Northern Colorado. In Roanoke, Best is at the epicenter of the local food movement, serving as executive director of Roanoke’s Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP).
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: LEAP seems to be all about connections. You connect people to food. You connect farmers to consumers, markets, and each other. What’s a connection you are really proud of making during your time as executive director?
Maureen McNamara Best: The most important connection for me is the connection of people to food. Since the 1950s, as a nation, most people have lost any real connection to food—food comes in boxes from a store and not from the earth. We need to reconnect to food. To taste. To seasonal production. To local varieties. To our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ recipes.
Over the past almost 10 years, LEAP has helped build the hidden infrastructure and link key parts of the food system together. I love seeing people connect over food—farmers sharing best practices, customers trading tips about how to cook winter squash, and farmers talking about how they raise their animals.
We have to think about food, equity, health, agriculture, and resiliency as a community—we have to do this together. I feel really fortunate to be able to work side by side with so many committed farmers, food producers, organizations, individuals, businesses, funders, and government agents to strengthen the local food systems in the Roanoke Valley.
BCR: What connections are you working to make next?
MMB: Next we’re working on regional food system planning—to more explicitly link farmland, economic development, farmers, food access, food security, and health on a regional level. Food doesn’t stop at the county line. Cities can take an active role in agriculture and food production. We have to really start thinking as a foodshed or, in Dar’s words, an “agrosphere.”
BCR: What surprises people most about your mission and the work you’re doing?
MMB: LEAP began out of the first season of Grandin Village Farmers Market (2009) and a lot of people are more familiar with our fantastic markets (West End, Grandin, Mobile Market) and wonderful farmers than with LEAP.
Another surprising thing for people is that The Kitchen (opened in 2016), where the book club met, is the only shared commercial kitchen and food business incubator in the Roanoke Valley. The next closest kitchens are in Farmville, Highland County, and Richmond.
BCR: That’s a big asset to have, and more than a notion to get rolling. What are some things that individuals can do to support LEAP, the region’s growers, or better access to healthy food for all residents of the region?
MMB: The best thing people can do is think about food. Ask questions about where you food comes from. Don’t believe all the marketing about new-fangled processed food products. Question why oodles of noodles are cheaper than a Virginia grown apple. Don’t assume that all people can afford to eat fruits and vegetables or that they can easily get to a place to buy them.
Get your hands dirty. Learn what it takes to grow a tomato (in your yard, a pot, or a community garden). Eat a strawberry fresh from the earth. Talk to the farmers and the people who make/grow the food you eat.
If it’s overwhelming to think about food and/or change—start small. Visit a farmers market and buy one fresh vegetable. Shop at a store that buys from local farmers. Make one meal a week that uses in-season, local ingredients. Share excess produce with a neighbor. Donate your time, talent, or treasure to organizations who are committed to supporting farmers, improving access to fresh food, and educating people and kids about health, cooking, and gardening.
BCR: How about reading suggestions? What are you reading now?
MMB: I love reading about food, obviously, and just about everything else including fiction, historical fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs—some of my favorite authors are Barbara Kingsolver, Beth Macy, Leon Uris, Tom Robbins, and Michael Pollan.
I always have a stack of library books on my bedside table—right now those awesome authors include Neil Gaimen, Dar Williams (of course), Wendell Berry, and TaNeshi Coates.
BCR: That’s a good list. There are some real thought leaders in there on connecting to our places. What happening today gives you the most optimism about where we’re headed as a community and region?
MMB: We have awesome community leaders, organizations, farmers, food businesses and farmers markets in the area who are committed to food and agriculture. And we have land, rain, and sunshine. We have all the ingredients to create a just, equitable, local food system that feeds the community and the environment for years to come.
As a community and a region, we are in a period of transition—trying to define and craft our collective vision of the future. What I love about this area is the history and culture of living with the land (not to conquer or dominate it)— and I hope that the respect for the land and the people who work it continue to be a key part of our community’s plan for generations to come.
BCR: That theme emerging in the Finding Roanoke conversations. I think there’s a real sense that our decisions now are making a real difference, that’s we’re each playing a role in the longer story of our place. It comes with a responsibility and a lot of potential reward.
Get involved with LEAP or learn more about your role in the ‘agrosphere’ at www.leapforlocalfood.org.
Join the next Finding Roanoke conversation on Tuesday, November 21 from 6:30 to 8 PM at the CoLab in Grandin Village. ★