When his daughter was born four years ago, Michael Jones came across the troubling statistic that her generation appeared destined to be the first in this country to live fewer years than the one preceding it.

When his daughter was born four years ago, Michael Jones came across the troubling statistic that her generation appeared destined to be the first in this country to live fewer years than the one preceding it.

Well, not on his watch.

This reduction in life expectancy was largely due, according to a March 2005 report in The New England Journal of Medicine, to rising rates of obesity, as well as other health problems resulting from poor food choices.

"To me, that was just unbelievable," Jones said.

While it seems unlikely that any offspring of the executive director of Local Matters and the owner of the Greener Grocer produce store in the North Market would ever make poor food choices, Jones extrapolated his concern for his daughter into concern for all children in central Ohio.

Jones decided to steer the nonprofit organization he directs toward a greater emphasis on educating the very young about the benefits of choosing local, healthy and sustainably grown food.

Local Matters, currently based in Clintonville, traces its roots to the Greater Columbus Foodshed Project, which in 2002 received a $200,000 food security grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project, according to the Local Matters Web site, was part of a collaboration between Ohio Citizen Action, Innovative Farmers of Ohio, Denison University, Franklin Park Conservatory and Ohio State University.

The grant was used to create more than 20 community gardens for Head Start families as well as develop instructional material relating to nutrition and even hold cooking classes in inner-city neighborhoods.

The project began operating in 2004 under the Simply Living nonprofit organization, also based in Clintonville.

Early in 2007, the Greater Columbus Foodshed Project merged with the Central Ohio Chef-Grower Network and formed Local Matters, which gained nonprofit status in April 2008.

"What we do is fairly complex and layered," Jones said last week.

Put simply, though, the mission of the organization is to create a healthy community through locally grown food.

"It's that thing that everybody knows," Jones said. "Food really does connect us to the most important things in our life."

But getting people connected with primarily locally grown food is something of an uphill climb, Jones admitted.

Currently, less than 1 percent of the food consumed in Ohio is grown in Ohio, according to Jones. Increasing that to 10 percent, he said, could mean as much as $4.5-billion of the $42-billion spent each year on food in the state would stay in the state.

What needs to take place, according to Jones, is a major transformation in the food distribution system as well as an increased demand for not only healthy food but also food that is grown locally and sustainably. Jones said that he and others on the staff of Local Matters jokingly refer to this monumental task as "eating the elephant."

As executive director of Local Matters and owner of a produce store, Jones is involved in both the coming and the going of locally grown food. This gives him, he said, a perspective on the ways in which income can be derived from food grown in and around Columbus, from produce stand and restaurant operations to increasing the land on which crops are grown.

Local Matters will be moving its office and staff of 14 from Clintonville to larger quarters at the intersection of West Broad Street and Parsons Avenue. Jones said this is not merely for the increased space but also to put the organization closer to some of the neighborhoods where its programs and efforts are needed the most.

"The communities of Franklinton, Hilltop, Linden and the South Side lack access to fresh, health food on a daily basis," according to the organization's Web site. "Obesity and diabetes rates in these communities are some of the highest in the city."

Local Matters staff members refer to these as "food deserts," Jones said, because the lack of a grocery store with fresh produce often pushes residents into relying largely on fast-food chains.

Helping children "develop a different relationship with food," is one of the main focuses of Local Matters, according to Jones. An educational component focuses on the children in the Head Start programs of the Childhood Development Council of Franklin County, an effort that will be expanded over the next two years to reach approximately all 3,000 children in pre-kindergarten through the second grade in these programs. These children learn all about food, what it is, how it's grown and how it's cooked.

"They're learning a different language about food," Jones said. "By beginning with children, we really can develop an audience who are going to try to eat better."

Organization's efforts focus on trio of programs

Local Matters, a nonprofit organization currently based in Clintonville, has three programs -- Local Food to School, Urban Agriculture and Farm to Fork -- that seek to make people understand that it matters if they eat locally grown food.

The first program seeks to educate young people so that they will make healthy food choices, thereby encouraging school cafeteria officials to supply them with such foods rather than worry they might go to waste.

Through Urban Agriculture, Local Matters staff members work with neighborhood groups and organizations, as well as individuals, to get small farms started in the city as well as establish community vegetable gardens.

The role of food in the local economy is the focus of Farm to Fork.

"Our goal is to create market opportunities for local farmers and improve distribution channels for locally grown food, making it available to all communities on an equal basis," according to the organization's Web site. "We also work to increase consumer access to local, sustainably grown food and educate people about the economic benefits of our local food system."

-- Kevin Parks