Thursday, February 9, 2012

Building the Local Food Infrastructure

Connecting food to the local economy can provide more people with greater access to local foods. 

Making it happen is another story since the necessary infrastructure was gradually dismantled over the past 70 years in favor of a national/global food system that promises low prices, year-round accessibility of products and convenience.

A food system involves all the steps from “farm to fork” including production, processing, packaging, marketing, sales and distribution.  A handful of corporations now largely runs this system, but people in communities all over the country remain undaunted in their attempt to build their own local food system. 

Among Kalamazoo’s leaders taking on this challenge are Kelly Leach, vegetable farmer at Avalon Farms (Climax); Robb Hammond, executive chef at Food Dance; and Paul Stermer, executive director of Fair Food Matters.  They spoke to 35 people at a Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) event at the Olde Peninsula Brewpub recently, one of several such dialogues being held all over the state on different environmental topics.

Small, local farmers are anxious to supply their communities with fresh food, but they run into several problems.

The pressures of creeping development and low commodity prices have plagued farmers over the past 40 years and sent a lot of them out of business.  Today, less than two percent of the U.S. workforce are farmers on 2 million farms compared to 30 percent during the mid-1930s when there was a peak of close to 7 million farms

It is also difficult to find people willing to do farm work who recognize when a vegetable is ready to pick and who speak English. 

Rising fuel, energy and packaging standards and regulations costs cut into a farm’s profits.

Three generations with Kelly, Bridget and Larry Leach and Norma Pence
Avalon Farms, founded in 1929 by Leach’s great grandfather and currently farmed by three generations, now stretches on 1100 acres of prime farmland.  Although the majority of the land is rented out to grow conventional corn, soybeans and wheat for the national/global market, growing vegetables has become not only a means of the farm’s survival but an opportunity to participate in the increasingly profitable local food movement. 

Seven greenhouses and 10 acres allows Leach to produce 24 tons of tomatoes, lettuce, kale, collards and other vegetables for the farmers market, its 150-member CSA (community supported agriculture) and several area grocers, restaurants and institutions.  She also supplies her customers with cherries, pears, peaches and other fruit she obtains from farmer friends in western Michigan.

Robb Hammond, executive chef at Food Dance 
Sourcing local food has become a good positioning tool for high quality restaurants like Food Dance, which currently uses 48 purveyors for its meat, poultry, vegetables and dairy needs.  However, when it can't find certain ingredients locally, the restaurant relies on corporate suppliers like Sysco, said Hammond. 

Local food is better because it is fresher, he said.  The tomatoes are ripe and ready to eat rather than grown and packaged for a 1500-mile journey, as most food is today.  To get more of it, Food Dance will start a farm and grow such things as fennel, artichokes, heirloom herbs and carrots.

An informal communications network is also being built among food-oriented businesses like Food Dance and the People’s Food Co-Op that readily share information about local food sources with other restaurants and food service providers. 

Another pitfall for restaurants is the seasonal nature of food.

“It's hard to get people to understand that parsnips are available in winter and not tomatoes,” said Hammond.  “We have to educate them why we don't have gazpacho in winter.  On the other hand, we have to learn how to preserve local tomatoes, sweet corn and other vegetables so we can have them in the winter.”

Food preparation, preservation and storage used to be household activities.  People had gardens.  However, as more women entered the workforce and had less time to do these things, major food corporations assumed these responsibilities, too.  Today, people heavily rely on prepared and processed convenience foods because they lack cooking and canning skills.  Home economics programs in schools have been cut so young people don’t learn how to cook.

Paul Stermer, executive director of Fair Food Matters
Fair Food Matters is involved in helping to turn around this trend through several educational and advocacy programs including school and community gardens, the Can-Do Kitchen incubator for aspiring entrepreneurs and sponsorship of the annual Harvest Festival at Tillers International in Scotts. 

Last year Fair Food Matters facilitated 14 community gardens that raised three tons of fresh produce.  Four times that amount are planned for this summer. 

The organization also sponsors various policymaking study groups for such things as the highly complex but important Farm Bill that largely supports the national/global food system through subsidies.

All three speakers admitted that the area does not have the capacity to provide local food to everyone because of an undeveloped infrastructure and the lack of labor to run it.  Price is another factor.

Many people complain about the price of local food, especially if it is organic, said Stermer. 

“A generation ago people paid 20 to 25 percent of their budget on food.  Now it costs them only 10 percent,” he said. 

“I'm in a business, and I have to make money to keep it going,” said Leach who encouraged everyone to become aware of all the aspects of food production.

This low cost of food occurred by design as the federal government instituted a “cheap food” policy in the 1970s that gave rise to huge farms, monoculture specialization, high tech machinery and complex transportation and communications networks.  It also led the demise of many family farms that were told to “get big or get out.”

Then something changed over the past decade as more and more people became concerned about how and where their food was grown and whether it was safe, healthy and tasty.  They also wanted to reinvest their dollars in the local economy, be more sustainable and protect the environment.

Local food, co-ops, gardens and small farms previously looked upon as “hippie” or funky “back-to-earth” operations were seen in a new light. 

“We're not trying to put the major food corporations out of business," said Stermer, "but we are trying to change the business model so that small, local farmers have a chance to sell their crops and people have a choice to buy the food they want.”  

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