Rural Community Building in a Digital Landscape

By Hannah Fuller, Community Food Systems Organizer, OSU Extension Service Wasco County

Author and fellow RARE member standing close together in front of a Food Hero display table
Author, Hannah Fuller, standing with fellow RARE, Erica Mooney, in front of a Food Hero demo table at RARE training.

Everyone has logged into Zoom for the first time that month. After a series of meetings over conference call fellow RARE, Eva Kahn, and I convinced our partners in South Wasco County to meet over Zoom so we could see each other’s faces. It was time to develop the mission statement and name for a new non-profit in South Wasco County Oregon. Compared to the county seat, The Dalles, South Wasco County has a very different culture. The Dalles sits on the banks of the Columbia River Gorge, while the southern part of the county stretches through grassy hills along the Deschutes River all the way down to the center of the state. South Wasco County is a collection of small towns “you could miss if you blink” but the community is strong.

Eva had organized a F.E.A.S.T. (Food, Education, Agriculture, Solutions, Together) organizing session in March a week before shutdowns from the pandemic hit, and there was still a lot of energy in the community to come together and work to strengthen the local rural food system.

So, there we sat on Zoom. Eva and I acting as outside consultants, and a handful of eager community members ready to work together to start the foundation of this new organization. Eva and I had spent hours preparing our facilitation to help folks work together and create an organization that really reflected all of the community member’s needs. One member sat in the driveway of another to get better Wifi, someone else sat in their kitchen with their husband making lunch behind them, someone’s hair was constantly blowing in the strong eastern Oregon winds as. It wasn’t a picture-perfect meeting area, but it worked.

For being “new to Zoom” everyone quickly dived into our work. We screenshared and took turns picking words, sharing name ideas, nit-picking over every sentence, comma, and turn of phrase. “Is that name common? …People down here don’t like that word. …What does “sustainability” even look like.” Two hours later, we’d come up with a name, a mission statement (what we will do) and even a vision statement (the world we want to see) too. Everyone sat with satisfied grins and I was so glad I could see them over Zoom.

Reflecting on this experience, the community members didn’t like a single word Eva and I suggested, but they were so grateful for our facilitation. Coming from university and non-profit organization backgrounds, Eva and I were ready with piles of buzzwords and turns of phrase that were common in the bubble that we already worked in. But in South Wasco, it’s outside of the bubble and words land differently here. Everyone has different associations with words, and while so many values they describe are similar—hard work, trust, resilience—words have so much power and connotation that they carry with them. It also showed how much value we have as RARE members to provide the infrastructure and support for community development, but in the end, the community members are the ones doing the work. They know the people they work with, they know what works needs to be done, and they are the ones with the visions for what they want their future to look like.

Photo of the author standing in front of a tree and a brick buildingAbout the author, Hannah Fuller: Hannah Fuller served as the Community Food Systems Coordinator for the Oregon State University Wasco County Extension Service. Hannah played an integral role in connecting OSU and partner agencies including Gorge Grown Food Network, The Blue Zones Project, North Central Public Health District, and Oregon Food Bank. Duties included program management, assessment, community building, volunteer recruitment, teaching, and outreach. Main focus areas included providing nutrition education, engaging volunteers of the Food Hero Volunteer Training program, conducting a School Physical Activity and Nutrition Environment Tool (SPAN-ET) Evaluation in local schools, serving as a liaison between OSU Extension and the Food Security Coalition, developing gardening partnerships, providing support for Mid-Columbia Medical Center’s Food for Life program, and developing reports to share project aims, outcomes, and recommendations with other partners.

The Local Domino Effect

By Molly Murai, Main Street Coordinator, Cottage Grove Main Street

The most rewarding accomplishment is seeing the community’s support and involvement in my projects. I have seen positive responses for the hanging basket project, which benefits the beautification of downtown. The hanging baskets are not a Main Street project, but my responsibility is to help support the watering service and basket purchases. Despite being in a pandemic where people are experiencing their own challenges, they still donate to this project. I have received a higher amount in donations than in previous years, which makes me have faith in humankind. People are willing to help because they care about their community in Cottage Grove; they are passionate and want to see the best for their little town. By donating, they are creating awareness for this vital cause. I have also seen this compassion on social media platforms, like Facebook. People have offered food assistance, help with grocery shopping or mask distribution. People in Cottage Grove genuinely care for each other. Within this group of people who support each other, I would often see local government officials, like the Mayor of Cottage Grove, the City Manager, or City Councilors at community events like the Cottage Grove Art Walk or my seasonal events. I also see business owners in other business’ establishments. It’s nice seeing people I work with who also make the City’s decisions show up for the community. I receive a tremendous amount of support from my Board members who also serve on other boards, attend my events. Through their connections, they create awareness for the Main Street Program and demonstrate their commitment by making time and effort to be there.

From my position, I have learned the importance of supporting local and the domino effect it has. Before this position, I was a huge supporter of the more prominent franchises like Safeway, Target, or Costco. And although those stores have their benefits like Costco selling in bulk, the locally owned grocery stores like Bi-Mart or Grocery Outlet are just as substantial. When Walmart entered the economy in Cottage Grove, the company drove out many small, locally owned businesses. Walmart became customers’ one-stop-shop, which closed smaller and specific stores like pharmacies, jewelry, clothing, etc. It has been very refreshing to visit the historic districts’ businesses because I see the owners in their stores almost every day. I can count on them to be there on days that I go there. I have noticed a greater feeling when you purchase an item from the store owner who may have created that item, or served by the restaurant owner. I am now passionate about sourcing products locally and buying in-store rather than from on line sites, like Amazon. Some people prefer one-stop-shops instead of going to multiple stores to save time. Although I understand this concept, it may be hurting the small businesses more than people think.

A business owner has taught me about the definition of “local.” As Cottage Grove already has limited resources, the term must be used correctly. I made a mistake in an email about the t-shirt company being local, when it wasn’t our actual Cottage Grove company, but a company based out of Happy Valley, Oregon. As a resident from Hawaii, I use the term as statewide because the state is so small that we are proud if something is made in the state. Due to there being so many towns in Oregon, the term is used within the city. Using the city also applies to money. Money must stay in Cottage Grove, distributed, and should go directly back to the area.

Photo of the author standing in front of a tree and a brick buildingAbout the author, Molly Murai: As the Main Street Coordinator, Molly works with the Main Street Board of Directors and local business owners to build sustainable growth within the Cottage Grove Main Street Program. Molly is responsible for organizing fun and engaging community events that help foster local businesses and boosts economic development in the historic downtown district. Molly serves as a liaison between the business owners and the City and helps them improve community engagement and economic development in Cottage Grove.