10 Years, 10 Stories: Noreen Warnock and Michael Jones

In celebration of Local Matters' 10th anniversary, we are taking some time to reflect. Where have we come from? Who has nurtured our growth? Where are we now? What will the future hold? These are questions we have asked ten friends of Local Matters - ten people who have truly shaped the organization to be what it is today. Today's story comes from a conversation with the none other than Noreen Warnock and Michael Jones - the co-founders of Local Matters.

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The stories behind social movements, leaders, and organizations do not have singular beginnings. There is always a back-story, something that came before that created space for new growth. The story of Local Matters and co-founders Noreen Warnock and Michael Jones is no different. To honor Local Matters’ 10th anniversary, we look to tell three separate stories that lead to the founding and early years of this nonprofit.

 

Noreen Warnock

“I came from a very poor family. I know what it’s like to have to stretch dollars, to have to see the pain on my mother’s face when it was getting toward the end of the month and there wasn’t any more money, any more food. Each month, we would get a VA (Veteran’s Administration) check and go to the grocery. The car would be packed with us kids and the groceries. So, there was a lot of canned food, not much fresh food. The only fresh food came from our garden, but we moved a lot so we didn’t even always have a garden.

I know the world of not having, of stretching and feeling the emotional pain of it. So, for me, when I got to a place financially when I could afford any kind of food I wanted for myself and my family, I realized that I am not leaving this earth until I’ve done a lot to try to help every child have access to healthier food. That has been major driver for me ever since.”

 

Michael Jones

“For me, this journey has been a culmination of a lifetime interest in food - in one way or another. I grew up on a farm with my grandparents and we primarily existed on what we raised or grew. Later, I went to college and studied public health at UNC-Chapel Hill, and eventually drifted into the culinary world. Throughout my life, food has been a constant theme for me. All these experiences together have allowed me to keep looking at and thinking about food in many different ways.

But the event that inspired me to eventually co-found Local Matters began with the imminent birth of my daughter back in 2005. One evening my wife and I were sitting on the couch together reading. I was going through various books and magazines in hopes of not screwing up fatherhood – I was becoming a dad late in life and wanted to get it right. I remember reading an article that evening that talked about how my daughter’s generation was the first generation whose lifespan would be shorter than their parents. I just found that extremely jarring. The question I kept asking was: ‘Why? What is behind this?’ After talking to people in the community, I became more and more certain that this had something to do with food. Not just food itself, but the whole food system – from the farm all the way to the table. That’s really the impetus that sent me out on this journey of discovery that ultimately led to a serendipitous meeting with Noreen.”

 

Greater Columbus Foodshed Project

In 2002, long before Michael and Noreen met, a coalition formed to connect rural and the urban communities in Ohio’s food system. This group, which became the Greater Columbus Foodshed Project, included Ohio Citizen Action, Innovative Farmers of Ohio, Stratford Ecological Center, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, and Denison University - in partnership with Head Start, Perry Clutts of Pleasantview Farm, Franklin Park Conservatory, and The Ohio State University.

Reflecting on the Greater Columbus Foodshed Project, Noreen (who coordinated the project) shared that beyond the physical projects they carried out, the $200,000 USDA Community Food Security Grant they received enabled a lot of people who cared about the community having access to healthy, affordable food to come together. During the grant period, relationships formed and trust developed. When USDA funding ran out, the project needed to transition. In order to grow into something more, it was decided that the project would be housed under Simply Living until the next phase could be defined.

 

When paths intersect

Noreen and Michael met when they were both looking for answers to big questions about our food system – how we can change it to keep our children healthier, and ensure that everyone has access to healthy and affordable food. In Michael’s words, “the beginnings of Local Matters were very organic. There was an immediate click in our personalities, our understanding of food, and our hope for the future. We agreed that working with children as young as possible in healthful food education was where we wanted to plant our first flag.”

Noreen agrees, and emphasizes that Local Matters started operating under a set of values before it was ever really formed. “We thought we had identified a gap in terms of the need for food education to accompany people accessing food, and in early childhood education settings.” However, before they plowed forward with action, Michael and Noreen knew they had to ensure that their vision aligned with the community’s vision. Did the community agree that this was a need?

The answer to that question has turned out to be a resounding “yes.” The yes included a need to build strong community partnerships and encourage dialogue among players. These partnerships have remained a keystone of Local Matters’ work. Noreen and Michael take pride in the knowledge that they made sure to always meet with anyone interested in working together – whether something was to come of it or not. Because of this, and because of the hands-on, evidence-informed, and fun programming that Local Matters brings to the table, fellow nonprofits, corporations, and citizens have come to know Local Matters as a leader in food education.  

Over the past ten years, the partnerships Local Matters has formed are due, in no small part, to the values and trust on which Noreen and Michael created from day one. They nurtured key relationships like those with Child Development Council of Franklin County (CDCFC) Head Start, Godman Guild, Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Councilmember Priscilla Tyson, Columbus Public Health, OSU Extension, and the YMCA. These relationships have contributed to Local Matters’ ability to deliver meaningful programs to play a key role in transforming our food system.

Noreen and Michael co-founded Local Matters with a vision, a strong set of values, and a desire to collaborate with others. Ten years later, Local Matters continues to follow this same path to success. Noreen and Michael laid the groundwork for partnerships and programming that have touched over 78,000 of our neighbors in ten years. For that, and for so much more, we thank them.