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SAVOR THE SEASON: Keeseville Farmacy creates a tiny oasis in local food desert
December 21, 2018

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KEESEVILLE - A now empty building on Front Street was once home to a Tops grocery store. At one point, it was a Mac's Market. At another time, it was a Grand Union. Today, this hamlet of a little more than 1,800 residents hasn't had a grocery store for about five years despite being surrounded by plenty of local farms.

Since then, many Keeseville residents would do their shopping at one of the grocery stores in Plattsburgh, which is about 25 minutes away, or they would stop at a Stewart's or a Dollar General for smaller items.

Right next door to the empty building, which now acts like an extra parking lot, is the Keeseville Pharmacy. The folks at ADK Action, a community advocacy group, saw a necessity that needed to be filled, so in November 2017 they created the Farmacy, a section of the Keeseville Pharmacy that offers locally produced vegetables, bread, meats, cheeses and milk.

"It's so that the community would still have access to fresh food," said Brittany Christenson, ADK Action executive director. "In some ways, it's better than a grocery store because the food is from the farms right in our neighborhood."

Modern medicine has its benefits. Got asthma? Get some prescription albuterol. Your head is pounding? Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like Tylenol. But most medicine is reactionary, meaning it soothes existing ailments.

A healthy diet can keep people from getting sick in the first place. Christenson calls food preventative medicine.

"I think everything starts with food," she said. "We have the opportunity to eat really well here. Part of the pharmacy is about making sure that everyone has access to the health-promoting benefits of good food. Local food is fresh because it comes from our community, and it doesn't travel for days and weeks on large trucks. It's not subjected to various methods of preservation. It just is what it is."

The food comes from farms such as North Country Creamery in Keeseville, Rehoboth Homestead in Peru, Fledging Crow Vegetables in Keeseville, Juniper Hill Farm in Wadhams, Triple Green Jade Farm in Willsboro and Small Town Cultures in Lake Placid. The grocery selection also changes regularly.

"We carry whatever is in stock," Christenson said. "We're in constant contact with the farmers, and whatever they have that looks good, we order."

Christenson said the farmacy has received a positive reception from local shoppers.

"We've had a lot of good feedback and a lot of suggestions, too," she said. "You know, this has been a real grassroots effort. It started very small with one cooler unit and a freezer and a very small shelving space. We've had a lot of people say they love the farms and like to go to the farms to get their food, but they really love to come here because they can get food from all the farms at one place, whereas the farms might have limited hours. The pharmacy is open six days a week, so that's really convenient.

"We've also had people who didn't even know that there were farms in this area," she continued, "or at least thought that there were just big corn farms and grain farms. They didn't realize there was this more diversified artisan product base out there. It's been really fun to open people up to that."

One of the drawbacks to local organic food is that it tends to be more expensive than most products at a big chain grocery store. In a place like Keeseville, where the median income is just more than $32,000 per household a year, buying locally can be tough. It costs a lot of money to raise livestock and grow produce.

"There's no way around that," Christenson said, "but at the same time, we've been trying to encourage people to use their (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. We do accept SNAP here, and then we've also been giving out incentive coupons. We got a mini-grant from the (Adirondack North Country Association) for $50 to do 50 $10 incentive coupons. We've also been blessed with the Clinton County Health Department to get about 30 of their farm fresh cash cards for cooking class participants. So we're trying to find every way we can to make that local food affordable to everybody."

Currently, the Farmacy section isn't too large compared to the rest of the store, maybe about a sixth of the square footage, but Christenson said they're looking to expand to a third of the store. The Farmacy is looking to get three new coolers, a display freezer for meats and a bulk unit for things like pastas, nuts and sugar. Christenson said this all goes toward ADK Action's goals of community revitalization and food justice.

"We're trying to really bring the energy from the farms into the downtown to help revitalize the downtown," she said. "There's also food access because we think it's really important that all people have access to the best quality food available."

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