Living Richly and Buying Locally in Paoli

March 4, 2021

All across Indiana, people are taking care of the communities they love through environmental actions big and small. IER's “Tulip Tree Salute” celebrates these individuals and their spirit, creativity and energy. Nominate someone making a difference for the environment in your town or city. Go to the nomination form.

Debbie Turner never intended to stay put in Orange County, but she and her husband, Bob, fell in love with the place 23 years ago. They bought a house in the country outside of Hoosier National Forest, made friends with local musicians and picked up kayaking on the backwaters of Patoka Lake. And just as their neighbors have embraced them, Turner has rolled up her sleeves to return the favor to this southern Indiana county, population 19,646.

As the volunteer management team leader at Lost River Market and Deli in Paoli, Turner has been integral in strengthening local food access and the food system value chain in the region. She calls her goal “economic sustainability,” but how she works to fulfill that goal shows how being a good steward of the environment goes hand in hand with making a community more self-sufficient.

Turner’s volunteerism there began through Orange County HomeGrown, a community development organization. Years ago, the group needed money to support the local farmers market in nearby Orleans, a town of 2,125 people just north of Paoli, so the Turners put out four boxes of books on a card table at the market, charging a “buck a book.” Over the years, the program has grown into a horse trailer painted to look like a red barn, complete with side panels that convert into tables. Farmers market visitors can browse thousands of books, organized neatly in wooden crates. To date, “buck a book” has raised about $40,000.

Debbie Turner goes on a hike on her birthday.

The success of the seasonal Orange County market brought to light an interest in local produce and goods, and led to more conversations around healthful eating in the poorly nourished county, which ranked 83rd among 92 Indiana counties in 2019 for per capita personal income. Following a meeting of more than 60 people in 2006 to discuss the matter, the Orange County Cooperative Development Corp. was formed. Its initial goal: opening a retail food co-op.

Turner took on the task of project manager, and the team spent a year planning. They held public meetings, connected to national and state organizations for guidance and talked to their neighbors about buying habits. Orange County is a one-hour drive to either of its closest metropolitan areas, Bloomington and Louisville, and everyone in town was driving 30-60 minutes to do their grocery shopping.

Someone donated office space, they completed a feasibility study and a business plan, and then a partner who owned a circa-1949 building a half block off the Paoli town square that had been a Jay C Food Store offered it up at a good rate. With new wiring, air conditioning and other renovations, the co-op had a home.

Lost River Market and Deli opened in October 2007 with 344 member-owners, and membership has grown to more than 1,200 members today. Members come from a large geographic area including Lawrence, Orange, Martin, Washington, Harrison and Dubois counties with additional supporters from outside the area and state.

Debbie Turner, in pink shirt, and colleagues attend an event at Lost River Market and Deli in Paoli pre-COVID.

The market sells meat, produce, local artisan goods, beer and wine, bulk items and packaged goods, supplementing locally sourced foods with staples so shoppers don’t have to go to multiple grocery stores. While you might find a local Amish farmer’s tender tatsoi greens or the high school ag class’s pork, you can also pick up a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs.

“It allows you live in a place like this and live richly. We don’t feel like we’re doing without,” Turner says. It doesn’t matter that a large city isn’t close by. Lost River Market and Deli customers have access to products you wouldn’t find in most towns of 3,665 people. But, Turner is quick to point out, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“It’s been a struggle. We think last year was the first year we ended in the black,” she says. “We’ve just been very, very stubborn.”

Co-op members feel strongly enough to support the market, and for different reasons. Some want organic, clean, natural food. Others feel it’s about access to local food and supporting local farmers. Taking in all the reasons people care so much, Turner and her team have listened, and the market has adapted through the years.

Recently, it developed a community supported agriculture (CSA) program whereby customers buy boxes of aggregated products from multiple farmers. At a subscription cost of $545 per season, the CSA grew from 15 customers in 2019 to 37 in 2020, quadrupling the amount the market spent with local vendors ($17,000 in 2020).

Indeed, Turner and the market rose to the challenges of 2020. The team partnered with Indiana University food systems researchers and healthcare providers from Southern Indiana Community Health Care to create the Lost River Local Cooking and Nutrition Education Box program to help residents striving for improved health. For neighbors who simply needed help feeding themselves and their families, through the generosity of members and shoppers, the market was able to pull together boxes of free food — no questions asked.

Debbie Turner, right, makes jam with a friend.

The popularity of meal-delivery services such as Blue Apron and Fresh Hello led to Lost River Market and Deli “artisan chef box” and soon-to-come “farm to kitchen” meal kit product offerings. And just before COVID-19 restrictions put a halt to them, people met outdoors for farm-to-table dinners in Paoli for shared meals, putting money in the pockets of local chefs, servers and growers.

“Anyone can do this,” Turner says about making your community more sustainable. Her personal tactic is to spend her own money at home. And of course, Lost River Market and Deli gives her and her neighbors a way to do it.

“Not everyone should have a food co-op,” she said. “There has to be another way — look for creative ways to choose and use your money.”

Once it’s safe, the impromptu get-togethers will resume under the pergolas at Lost River Market and Deli. Jammers will show up to play mandolin or fiddle, while people like Debbie and Bob Turner will bring food and drinks to share.

No one will feel the itch to drive somewhere else to find the things they want. They’ve worked to make way for those things to prosper right at home.

IER volunteer and writer Casey Patrick loves listening to peoples' stories and sharing them with others. She believes each of us can make the world a better place to live. You just have to figure out your own way to do it.

Living Richly and Buying Locally in Paoli