The York County Food Alliance will host its first public meeting next week, inviting local residents to learn how the grassroots organization intends to strengthen the regional food system.

The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23, at the York Jewish Community Center.

Several local groups and agencies are part of the new alliance, which aims to promote farming and provide fresh, healthy food throughout the county.

"We are very blessed to have some of the best farmland around and have other wonderful assets throughout the county," said JoeAnne Ward-Cottrell, alliance secretary and health educator at WellSpan Health.

Ward-Cottrell was previously chairwoman of the Food Availability Task Force, an effort designed to create community change and a more sustainable food supply. After the task force conducted a research project, one of the recommendations was to form a food alliance to bridge the gap between farms and forks.

She said just 3 percent of people surveyed had consumed three servings of fruits and vegetables the day before they participated in the research project.

"With fruit and veggie consumption so low in York County, we're also seeing chronic illness rates on the rise," Ward-Cottrell said.

The cost factor: Contributing to the low consumption is the cost. About 18 percent of those surveyed said they were stressed about paying for food during the past year. It's especially a problem in York City, she said.

To solve these problems, several local agencies have joined the York County Food Alliance: WellSpan, city and county agencies, local school districts, farms and area nonprofits.

"We have a lot of good organizations. We need to communicate better and support each other better. The food alliance will help us cultivate those partnerships," Ward-Cottrell said.

Together the groups will advocate for policies and collaborate to look for funding, she said.

The collaborative approach will help the coalition secure redevelopment money to create urban farms and community gardens -- shared spaces where local residents can grow and harvest food together.

The alliance will also look for ways to help farmers extend the season, and establish a pipeline to put more local food in area schools and restaurants, Ward-Cottrell said.

Community gardens: Shaun Underkoffler, community health program coordinator for the York City Health Bureau, said his involvement with the food alliance focuses on community gardens.

"It's a complex food system from farm to table. Community gardens definitely help bridge the gaps," he said.

Community gardens are a public benefit because they provide more people with easier access to healthy food choices, Underkoffler said.

For example, the city has one grocery store and multiple corner stores. Having more community gardens will give every resident in the city better access to fresh fruits and vegetables, he said.

The alliance is also encouraging individuals to garden at their homes, according to Tom Smith, administrator of the West Nile program for the York County Penn State Extension.

Smith also works with Keep York County Beautiful.

"We have master gardeners on hand to teach people how to grow their own fruits and vegetables and make healthier food choices," he said.

The alliance will also be kind to wallets.

"We hear the economy is getting better for some, but many people are not better. Getting people to grow their own food is a great way to save money, even if it's just some tomatoes," Smith said.

--Reach Candy Woodall at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.