Brian Williams is a former local food planner from Columbus, OH. He's sharing a guest article today about local food systems.
To read more about local food and why it's important for building strong towns, visit our Food page.
There are many reasons to promote local food in your community: freshness; knowing where your food came from and how it was grown; supporting local farmers; having an alternative to fruits and vegetables that were trucked across the country from California or Florida.
But one of the best reasons is economic development: keeping your food dollars in your own town, county, and state.
In Ohio, where I live, much of what we produce – notably livestock – is shipped to other states for processing. Then we buy back the finished product at a higher price. We’re exporting our food dollars to other states, even as our once-vibrant rural farm towns have been hollowed out.
This dilemma is not unique to Ohio; it’s the case in states across the land.
Until half a century ago, we didn’t have “local food.” Instead, we had “food,” much of which was raised locally, or within the state. Many places had a local slaughterhouse which bought hogs and steers from local farmers, and processed them into steaks and chops sold in local stores. At the edge of town was a truck farm that hired generations of teens in the summers to pick fruit and vegetables for local consumption. Somewhere in the county, there was probably a greenhouse that supplied off-season “hothouse” tomatoes to the region.
Energy costs, labor costs, larger stores, national chains, and other factors led a shift over the years to a more national system of food production, processing, distribution, and marketing.
Today, if every farmer in Ohio pledged to grow for local markets, and every Ohio consumer vowed to buy local, we would have hungry people and wasted food. That’s because we lack the supply chain – the processing, distribution, and marketing “infrastructure” – to move food from farm to fork. I believe institutional markets are the key to developing that infrastructure. Most institutions cannot accept, say, a truckload of lettuce fresh from the field. They want it washed and trimmed and packaged – meaning the farm itself, or a third-party business, would need to provide those services. In either case, the service would add value and create jobs.
With that in mind, consider these 10 ways to promote local/regional food in your town:
1. Don’t focus on farmers markets, community gardens, and CSAs.
These will not feed you whole town, but they are important, nonetheless. They are very visible “gateway drugs” to a local/regional food system. Most food doesn’t go from farm to fork though. There are many stops along the way that are important to your community and local economy. It’s best to look beyond the markets and gardens to create more mainstream availability of local food.
2. Do recognize the importance of slaughterhouses and trucks.
They don’t sound as pretty or appear as idyllic as community gardens and farmers markets, but you’ll never have a true food system without them.
3. Get local-purchasing commitments from schools, hospitals, colleges, and other institutions.
They not only have the market power to bring local farmers, processors, and distributors into a supply-chain network, they have the strong voice and visibility to promote the benefits of a local/regional food system. Plus, the good local food feeds citizens across the economic spectrum – democratizing the supply of fresh, healthful meals. Local food should not be just for “foodies” at gastropubs.
4. Build a network of local farmers who will collaborate.
Individual farms may not have the capacity now to meet the needs of local institutions, but if they collaborate with their neighbors, they can probably aggregate a sufficient and steady supply of produce, dairy or meat to those buyers. This could be done through informal arrangements, or through the creation of a formal co-op. Your state’s land-grant university can probably assist through its Extension service.
5. Enlist the support of existing food processing and distribution businesses.
Chances are, your town or county already has businesses involved in food processing or distribution – a dairy plant, a family-run slaughterhouse, or a produce distributor. These are crucial partners. In our merger-happy, get-big-or-get-out business world, they may already be feeling pressure. They probably already are tuned in to farmers in your county or around your state and are looking for a niche. They need you and you need them.
6. Reach out to public health officials, economic development officials, food banks, bankers, etc.
Public health officials are focused on health, nutrition, and food safety. They want to flood food deserts with nourishment. They also regulate local food-related businesses. If their regulation seems too rigid or unrealistic, economic development experts can help iron out the details and look for other opportunities. Food banks already have trucks and are possible partners in distribution challenges. Bankers have money to lend to farmers who want to expand, distributors who need another truck, and processors that are growing to meet demand.
7. Use these partners as the base for a local/regional food assessment, plan and council.
Don’t waste time and money on a 100-page local-food assessment that gets into every detail of food deserts, poverty, nutritional needs, health data, etc. You already know where the challenges are and can put together existing data from your Health Department and other sources. Get local food production data from your Extension office or the USDA Census of Agriculture. Identify opportunities and potential barriers. Develop a plan. Create a food council to work with your town, county, and other partners to implement the plan. There are guides out there to help you through the process.
8. Don’t call it a Food Policy Council.
Policy is a silly word that gets in the way. You’re not going to create a strong food system by getting your town or county to issue a proclamation. You need to bring together the right people to develop a network that makes dollars as well as sense. When you come up against policy barriers (and you will), you’ll already have a coalition of businesses, farmers, consumers, and institutions to lobby for change.
9. Build local food economic development infrastructure.
Existing food businesses are a starting point. Another early step is to talk to officials at local institutions to find out how much food they buy, at what costs, and in what form they need it delivered. That information will let farmers know what they need to grow, and in what quantities, to sell to institutions. It also will identify what processing services – washing, dicing, shredding, packing, etc. – can be supplied by existing businesses, and let local entrepreneurs and lenders know the market for additional services. Once that infrastructure, or supply chain, is established to meet institutional needs, it is also available for restaurant and retail grocery needs.
10. A food hub is not a food system.
It’s become a buzzword, but it’s not a magic bullet. A food hub – or a network of hubs – is part of a food system, but it must be integrated with production, processing, distribution, marketing. Some food hubs may focus on aggregating food grown by a number of farmers – and may be part of a farmer-owned co-op. But an existing produce distributor, meatpacking plant, or food bank may also serve many functions of a food hub in a well-organized network.
Get going on any of these steps and you'll be on your way toward a more financially productive local food system.
(Top photo source: Joshua Wickerman)
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About the Author
Brian Williams, a recovering journalist in Columbus, was a local-food planner for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission for eight years and now is a consultant at Local Nexus LLC.