Nourishing a ‘food desert’
Commonly referred to as “food deserts,” these are places where large proportions of households have low incomes, inadequate access to transportation, and a limited number of food retailers that offer fresh produce and healthy groceries for affordable prices. Also, many stores don’t accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and EBT customers.
In fact, Rappahannock County is formally classified as a food desert. Many residents are unaware of this fact, as Rappahannock enjoys enormous wealth and enormous poverty. Volunteering at the Food Pantry for many a year, this author is all too familiar with the county’s economic disparities.
Enter Jon Henry, son of Al Henry, a former member of the Board of Supervisors who is currently Hampton District’s Planning Commission representative. Al is also a founder and board member of Warrenton-based Oakview National Bank, which has an office in Washington.
Born and raised in Rappahannock, Jon spent many weekends on his family’s fifth-generation farm in Mt. Jackson. But he had no interest in farming as a hobby nor as a career.
Rather, Jon pursued art, and holds two Masters in Art degrees from New York University and James Madison.
His dad Al, on the other hand, grew up in Mt. Jackson, at the elbow of his grandfather, who planted cantaloupe, didn’t fall far from the tree.
Jon, seeking summer employment while attending JMU, worked at his dad’s stand in Warrenton. The money he earned surpassed monies he could have earned making minimum wage and art books, he tells this author, are wildly expensive, “think 450 illustrated, colored pages per book…”
While Jon worked the stand, his father shares, “the gene was planted.”
Over time Jon became disheartened and disillusioned with academia. Teaching as an adjunct professor while taking courses, he sat through painful staff meetings revolving around such riveting bureaucratic subjects as “reviewing university locker policies.”
So Jon began to think outside his art focused parameters and, fast forward, ended up coupling his artistic flair with the newly birthed interest in the natural jewels nourished by sun, water and earth.
In 2018, the Jon Henry General Store in New Market was born.
Thanks in large part to Rappahannock native Jon Henry, the nearby town of New Market is no longer a food desert.
REVIVING A HISTORIC HERITAGE
At first a seedling, the idea was inspired by a JMU professor who suggested Jon create an art show about raising vegetables.
A grant won, and many more to come, along with the purchase his dad orchestrated of what was once the old BB&T building in New Market, the seedling took root and flourished.
The store is in the town's oldest building, the Abbie Henkel House of 1802. This limestone
and brick building features a stone foundation and poured glass windows. A later occupant, Miss Abbie Henkel, was a talented pianist who taught music lessons for many years. In addition to being the home of one of the town’s founding families, the building has had several commercial uses, including as a general store operated by Abe Ne and Samuel Funkhouser around 1835.
The Shenandoah County seat, about 40 minutes from Sperryville, is home to the New Market Rebels of the Valley Baseball League, the Schultz Theatre and School of Performing Arts, and the Shenvalee Golf Course. The town is known for having been the site in 1864 of the last major Confederate victory in the American Civil War.
It is now home to Jon’s General Store.
Jon shares: “We converted a former inventory room at our store into a full retail room, and with support from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, we can now add an entire seafood section for Virginia aquaculture folks, frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen meals, and an entire cooler just for Virginia dairy products.
Additional infrastructure for the project was purchased with a grant from the Virginia Food Access Investment Fund. Jon was also interested in a frozen inventory expansion because his store participates in the Virginia Fresh Match program, which allows customers shopping with EBT, P-EBT, and SNAP bene ts to get half o produce.
Jon explains: “We also o er an instore CSA, so every Wednesday and Friday we have premade food boxes of fruits and vegetables and produce, and those are 50% o , so instead of being $20, they’re $10 for folks with an EBT, P-EBT or SNAP card.”
“We are proud to be 1 of 4 storefronts in the Commonwealth to o er Fresh Match incentives to our EBT and SNAP card holding clients.”
In addition to fresh, affordable food, “The store focuses on sourcing local, regional and Fair Trade treats, gigs, and eats. Just about everything — brooms, vintage license plates, jams and jellies, local honey, memorabilia, wooden toys, canned goods, snacks, candies and gluten- free our ll the shelves.” Henry’s store also o ers an art gallery now featuring 22 Valley artists.
EVOLVING, INNOVATING, REMOVING BARRIERS
A lot of changes have happened recently at the general store, thanks to numerous grants and Jon’s powerful determination. For instance, it was one of 10 businesses nationwide to receive $10,000 as part of Main Street America’s Future of Shopping Small Grant. With the funding, businesses are expected to evolve what retail looks like as an experience and environment for shoppers.
Jon’s sta of four converted everything to a computer system that now takes EBT and SNAP, a model the State of Virginia expresses a keen interest in. They've also been hosting a lot more events since opening, both on- and o -site.
"This little store in New Market has both a local audience and an international one," Jon says proudly.
Jon’s mission is to gure out ways to remove barriers.
He was the rst to o er curbside pick up at the onset of COVID-19, in excess of 250 boxes of fresh vegetables provided weekly and his EBT sales once an average of 500 now top in excess of 1,400 per year.
Nearly half of children in Shenandoah County’s public schools receive reduced and free lunches.
Rappahannock unfortunately enjoys a large number as well. Hence the Food Pantry’s backpack program giving kids backpacks of food to take home over weekends where normally food would be scarce. Jon’s success with EBT sales and Fresh Match serves as a role model.
Jon shares his creative spirit. He loves to o er what he calls “weird vegetables” and gets creative with largely unknown varieties. For example, his tomato offerings are a paint palette of colors ranging from yellow and red to black. Local farmers, aware of his so spot, will tell him of new and unusual delicacies in their expansive gardens. Indeed, Jon o ers 22 varieties of tomatoes, plus peaches and apples coming from Moore’s Orchard and Thornton River Orchard, both in Rappahannock.
And there’s more good work to come.
A Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development grant recently awarded to Jon will enable him to create a room for ash-freezers. The machines will quickly freeze high volumes of fruits and vegetables from producers in the Shenandoah Valley region and then package the frozen produce into retail-ready bags for wholesale distribution to local stores.
“It is a food hut and we sell to restaurants like Red Truck Bakery, The Golden Pony and more. The ash freezers are great for blueberries and especially peaches.”
“We now have the chicken and the egg if you will and are completing the retail space. “
Jon and his dad recently purchased the building next door for further expansion.
Texting Al, shortly a er my interview with Jon, this author wrote in part, “Al, just nished interviewing your son. He’s amazing. I know you know that.”
A proud father’s response was simple and telling: “Yes and Yes.”
This model could be a very welcome addition to Rappahannock. Jon and his dad are in the exploratory stage.
Jon Henry General Store is located at 9383 N. Congress St., New Market. Online: facebook. com/JonHenryGeneralStore and jonhenrygeneralstore.com