Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

This interview was conducted before the devastating floods that washed through Eastern Kentucky, including Whitesburg, at the end of July. Now that floodwaters have subsided and cleanup in underway, Valerie Horn and many others in the community face the task of putting lives, homes, and businesses back together. When you read our summer fellow Rebecca Stern’s interview with Horn, it won’t come as a surprise that the organizations she is a part of are in the thick of these efforts.

Cowan Community Action Group is providing relief focused on feeding folks in need of food. Cowan Community Center is continuing their summer “Kids on the Creek” program to offer a place for children to enjoy activities while adults work on cleanup effortsThe Community Center is also offering their building, which was not harmed, as a quiet space for organizations and businesses to gather, plan, and regroup in the evenings.

Rebecca’s conversation with Horn takes this disaster out of the abstract. Whitesburg is a rural community, like any, with strengths and challenges. This interview will give you a sense of the strengths it is inevitably drawing on now, and the challenges this flood will only exacerbate.

Valerie Horn has her hands in everything related to community in Letcher County, but her primary role is that of director of Cowan Community Action Group, also known as Cowan Community Center. She is also the board chair for the City of Whitesburg Farmers Market and the board chair for Community Agricultural Nutritional Enterprises (CANE Kitchen).

Living in Whitesburg this summer, the highlights of my experience in the community (the farmers market, Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, Levitt Amp concerts, and many square dances) were organized by Horn.

Enjoy our conversation about healthy eating, building community through partnerships, and what it means to be a community leader, below.

Valerie Horn is the director of Cowan Community Action Group, and involved in an impressive list of organizations throughout Letcher County. (Photo: Anna Mullins.)

Rebecca Stern, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your hometown and how you ended up being the community leader you are today?

Valerie Horn: I have always lived in Whitesburg. My parents grew up at Cowan and were involved with the formation of Cowan Community Action Group [in] about 1965 related to the war on poverty and efforts that were happening across the country, and especially in rural Appalachia to bring opportunities here. I have always been engaged, be it the square dances on the weekend, summer camps, and field trips, but only in the last 10 years have I become engaged as a community worker beyond “I’ll work this weekend.”

I retired from the Letcher County Public Schools as a counselor and first got involved with the Grow Appalachia program. That was just to help 20 families grow more fruits and veggies and remove barriers to growing in their own garden. Now that’s become over 100 families. Cowan has harvested 750,000 pounds of fresh produce over those years and leveraged all sorts of resources, and eventually it grew into the farmers market. [The idea was:] when families have gotten their needs met, could there be opportunity to generate income from this? From that, the farmers market catapulted into a commercial kitchen. For about five years I was there. I worked as the director of a University of Kentucky research project and lots of good came with that, but there was also frustration around the lack of autonomy in community decision-making. So I found the opportunity to step out and work with a private organization that was invested in community engagement: Appalachian Groundswell. I did that for a few years and was given the flexibility to work with organizations that in my previous work had not been given the opportunity for community decision-making. I just want good things for my community. I’d like Letcher County to shine and be an inspiration to other places, especially other rural communities.

DY: Farmers markets began as a rural necessity, and now they’ve been adopted by large cities. Was there a Whitesburg farmers market in the past, or did you start the first one in the area?

VH: My understanding is that Whitesburg and Letcher County had several attempts at a farmers market, but the City of Whitesburg Farmers Market has been going since about 2014. The first market in 2014 had sales of about five, six thousand. This year we will probably have incentive sales and recorded sales of about $120,000. So it has grown a lot in those seven years, but it requires effort. I don’t know how a farmers market can just happen without a farmers market coordinator manager. And again, someone who is paid for waking up and thinking about the farmers market every day.

DY: I’ve noticed how CANE Kitchen gives free food out to everyone in the community on Thursdays, not just those who’d qualify economically. What is the thinking behind this decision?

VH: Cowan and CANE have a strong partnership and a lot of that deals with food access. One way that we do that is the Summer Food Service Program. Cowan is the sponsor, and it is free food for anyone 18 and younger. CANE Kitchen just recently began a program that is administered through Kentucky River Area Development District (KRAD). That is [for people] 60 and over. We try to — each Thursday at our Levitt concert — be able to offer a community meal. And we work to have sponsors who will support that. It’s all an intentional initiative that involves the Levitt Amp music series, the Cowan Community Center, Summer Food Service Program, CANE kitchen, and the Cowan Creek interns, [who] work at these program to support them. It’s really important because the Letcher County Free and Reduced Lunch Program is utilized over 92%, and Letcher County [population below the poverty line] is about 24.4% — more than that for children and seniors who have the most insecure food access in the country.

We do not like the division that comes with “you do not have money, and we want to give you this,” the division that comes with determining eligibility for programs. We are committed to equality and leveling, removing any stigmas to that. We believe that pretty much everyone in this community is in need of support — of fresh, local, healthy food, whether it’s that you don’t have access because of money, or you don’t have access because of availability. Folks [can] choose not to make those choices, but we like to make them available to everyone. Even if you come from a family that can afford to provide everything you need, if the people beside you don’t have what they need, you are going to suffer from that. It’s going to affect everyone. Our intent is that everybody has enough, and that we also don’t do things to deepen a divide where people point at other people, “They get it for free. Why not me? They don’t deserve it.” It’s a unified approach.

DY: It’s amazing to see how this program connects the community because it is universally available. It seems like you are involved in everything in Letcher County, from Cowan Creek Mountain Music School running summer camps and the Cowan Community Center, to the weekly farmers market and concert series. What is the biggest challenge, and the biggest triumph, of working at the center of so many important community initiatives? How do you balance all of these commitments?

VH: I’m really proud of Cowan, and Cowan provides a really strong base for this work.
Cowan has a solid reputation so we don’t have to continually be proving ourselves and our intent and our worth. That’s a tremendous benefit to have that name tag and the history that the people before us created…we’re given some courtesies that sometimes allow us to skip some steps. I can ask the Letcher County public school system for bus transportation, and because of the history and relationship we have, it can happen as easily as a phone call followed up by a letter. We have people who want this work to succeed. I mean, it’s more than just the farmers at the farmers market who want it to succeed. At the state level, from the Kentucky Ag Commissioner to the governor and many offices in places in between, there’s a core group of people that I feel like we can really trust and work with.

I can still say though, [that personally] it’s not healthy. I do too much for my well-being, my family’s well-being, and eventually the projects’ well-being. I keep believing that I’m just holding the spot as director at Cowan, and soon there’s gonna be money that we can hire a new director and then I can pass on this information, and it could take off from there. But in the meantime, I’m gonna keep doing the CPR and pushing and counting and making sure that it’s alive.

DY: You’ve talked about the importance of family gardening and being able to grow food for yourself. Can you tell me more about why you care so much about food sovereignty for Appalachian families?

VH: Mainly I see the gardening and the food as a way to grow community. It’s a really strong, common bond that is not divisive. And we have, even in this community, so many things that divide us. Food, in particular fresh food and gardens, is one thing that everybody agrees is a good thing. With Grow Appalachia, we would have meetings when there might be 40 people in a room making pickles and at a table I’d look over and there’d be somebody I know who is with the Sierra Club. And there’s somebody that’s a coal miner. And there’s somebody that works at the power company and they’re deciding together how much spices to put in their pickles and how they want to cut them. I also know that this congressional district, we are the poorest, we’re the least healthy. We have the least education. We lead the country in cancer and diabetes and hypertension. And just about whatever is going on, Kentucky ranks in the bottom four or five states. There are all kinds of theories and hypotheses about why that is: whether it’s self-inflicted, whether it’s related to the coal industry. Regardless of however you got there and where you are, I think healthier eating is gonna make your situation better. And if we use Maslow’s hierarchy, until we can get that basic need of healthy food taken care of it’s going to be hard for us to be the best that we can be. And I know that that we can be wonderful. I see wonderful every day. I see potential every day.

DY: The farmers market in Whitesburg is a shining example of what it means to truly be “by the community, for the community.” There are so many ways the market increases accessibility for all the members with unique partnerships. Can you talk about some of those, like the youth double dollars, senior vouchers, and pharmacy programs?

VH: We got to partner with the Farmers Market Support Program, which provides a cost share for the manager, which brought us the Double Dollars program. With the Double Dollars, we can double SNAP and senior benefits. $20 on your SNAP card becomes $40. We recognize, and CFA [Community Farm Alliance] recognizes, that $20 is not gonna go as far with the current supply of food. You could maybe get the quantity, but not the quality. So doubling it makes that more accessible. Also through CFA [we] got introduced to the USDA Food Service Program, and we became the first farmers market in the state and possibly the country to serve meals to youth under 18 at the market.

Additionally, strong partnership came early on here locally with Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation. The first thing they did was just buy us t-shirts, but it wasn’t long until we talked about the veggie prescription program and [now] we’re in our seventh year of the Farmacy program. This year, there are 200 patients with diet-related health issues who get $35 a week to spend at the market. I venture to think that’s as big as it’s happening anywhere across the country.

Grow Appalachia continues to be a partner with programming for our junior market, too. I don’t think youth in our community were ever taught that we could be entrepreneurs. We were taught to be compliant. So we like the idea of bringing youth to the market and giving them the chance to sell their goods — just to plant that seed with them, that they can have their own business, they don’t have to work for someone else.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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