Rebuilding our Local Food System

Maggie in Local Growers Guild shirtI work for the Local Growers Guild, a cooperative of small farms (and the restaurants and community members who buy from them), working to strengthen the local food economy.  We want to make small, sustainable farms viable, we want to shrink our community’s carbon footprint by encouraging the consumption of locally grown food, and we want to rebuild our local food distribution system.  There was a time when communities sourced a large percentage of their food from farms in the region and had things like a local dairy, a local butcher, a local baker, and a local produce market where farmers could bring their goods to be sorted, washed, packaged, and sold.  Nowadays that local infrastructure is pretty much gone (with the exception of our most excellent farmers’ markets).  We have restaurants and hospitals and schools that say they are interested in using more local food but no good way to connect them with the growers.  There’s also that chicken-and-egg challenge of the fact that growers don’t really want to grow more if they don’t see a market but institutions don’t want to buy food until it’s available in quantity.  What’s a cooperative to do?

Well, our current plan is to conduct a feasibility study evaluating what resources are available now, what challenges are preventing the effective distribution of local food, and what steps we can take to make it happen.  Today we took a field trip down to Louisville to see some of the projects they’re working on.  Kentucky is actually very progressive in the local food arena thanks to a non-profit group called the Community Farm Alliance (CFA).  Kentucky is well known for horses, booze, and tobacco and that really was the vast majority of their agricultural production until the late 1980’s when the world suddenly decided that tobacco was bad.  Tobacco farmers got very nervous about what was going to happen when their farm product became illegal.  CFA started bringing farmers together to talk about how to deal with the change and also to lobby their state government to direct funds from the tobacco settlement money into retraining tobacco farmers into sustainable food production.  Well, they were quite successful and managed to get something like $1.7 billion over twenty years allocated to developing a sustainable food system.

They have done a lot of cool projects so far.  Initially, they focused a lot on connecting rural small farmers with fresh vegetables and urban residents of West Louisville who live in a “food desert” where there are no good grocery stores and there is no access to fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables.  It has been a challenge to find ways to get the food to the urban communities in a way that is profitable for the farmer and appealing to the urban residents, who may not have any experience cooking fresh vegetables.  They have had a few attempts that have floundered but are currently working on a model that will consist of specialized vans that can drive to a neighborhood and then open up to become produce vendors.  Sort of like an ice cream truck but healthier.

Our main destination was Grasshoppers Distribution, a farmer-owned warehouse and distribution system that buys food from local farmers and resells it to restaurants, groceries, and institutions as well as running a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) program.  Each week they contact the fifty-ish farmers they work with to find out what products are available.  They compile the list and send it out to their buyers, who then place orders.  Grasshoppers then contacts the farms to place the orders.  The next day, they drive around to pick up the produce, bring it back to their warehouse, sort it into orders, and deliver it all.  It’s a lot of logistics and they have to work hard to keep communication channels open but it seems to be going pretty well.  We are considering a similar model for Bloomington but the overhead costs are rather steep (real estate and trucks are not cheap).

A somewhat simpler model is City LIFE Local Food which strives to “deliver fresh local food to the busy professional.”  Subscribers log on to a website once a week and order a box of fresh produce, which is then delivered to their workplace.  This way they can pick exactly what they want and skip a week or two if they’re not interested.  I think the group also includes other food products like meats, cheeses, and honey.  Their system appeals to me because it has relatively low overhead and is a great way to deliver to a large group of people at once (one of the companies they work with has 9,000 employees).

Louisville has been thinking about local food a lot a couple years ago the city hired a consultant to do a thorough study.  One of the recommendations was to build a year-round farmers’ market, which is now starting construction.  The plan is to develop an entire city block with an assortment of retail spaces for food businesses including the local chef’s warehouse Creation Gardens, a local Buffalo company, some smaller indoor permanent market booths (perhaps a butcher and a baker?), some more temporary outdoor market booths (for farmers to use in for three seasons), and a little gathering space outdoors where there can be bands or other entertainment.  It’s going to be pretty impressive but talking with the developer made me realize how intimidating these sorts of large projects can be – beyond the money, there is also a ton of politics and negotiations with other property owners and struggles to get timing and commitments down.  Crazy.

I’m still digesting it all and thinking about what would be the logical next step for Bloomington.  I really like the idea of having a warehouse space that could be used to consolidate produce from different farms and distribute it through a CSA or as restaurant deliveries.  But warehouse space is expensive (especially if you have coolers or freezers) so it seems like there would need to be a major commitment for use before it would be worthwhile.  Hmmmmmmm. this!

5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Karen said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

    louisville is certainly amazing in its efforts. i can’t believe you were in my hometown!!!! next time let me know and i’ll treat you to dinner!


  2. 2

    Emily said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a company called Eat Local Eat Natural is acting as the go-between for farmers and restaurants. They don’t do any warehousing; they pick the food up in a refrigerated truck and take it directly to the restaurants on a regular schedule. Restaurants don’t need a ‘mixed box’ every day like a CSA does; they can take a week’s worth of a single product on one day, then a week’s worth of something else the next day.

  3. 3

    Maggie said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    Karen –
    I am planning to head back to Louisville in early 2009 so I’ll be in touch!

    Emily –
    I have heard good things about the local food movement in Ann Arbor. I’ll definitely check out “Eat Local Eat Natural.” Sounds cool.

  4. 4

    Jessica said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    I sure wish I could find an organization like yours around Littleton, CO. Or even Denver.

  5. 5

    Maggie said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    I have to think there’s stuff going in in Colorado although I would try Boulder first. The web says there’s a very active peak oil group
    and a pretty active Slow Food group
    They might at least have some info on local food activities in the region.

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