A new year in local eating

The effort to promote local food systems proceeds apace across the U.S. In Kentucky, the Louisville Farm to Table project works to open the local food system to farmers while helping inform those farmers how to grow for particular markets, and investigate what kind of living they might make.

In Kentucky, there are 84,000 farmers who were raised in communities that depended on tobacco for a living, the way their fathers and mothers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers did before them. Now they are wondering if agriculture holds a future for them, or if they should sell the farm for development.

Kentucky farmers and consumers are unique in some ways, but universally representative in others. This blog hopes to draw out the best practices and observations of those more skilled in local food systems, while posing the questions, challenges and understandings of one person’s experience. Please comment in a polite and professional way that moves us all forward.

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Grass fed beef and global warming: a closer look

A resounding “huzzah” was released like so much methane gas among vegans and vegetarians when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released its report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” in 2006.

The well-annotated study alerted us all to “the very substantial contribution of animal agriculture to climate change and air polution, to land, soil and water degradation and to the reduction of biodiversity” and “to encourage decisive measures. . . . .for mitigating the damage.”

Extensive grazing, says the report, degrades cropland. Ruminant-produced methane and livestock economies contribute more to climate change than transportation, it says. Livestock accounts for 8% of the world’s water use, mostly to irrigate feed grains. Rainforest destruction, pesticide use, nitrogen runoff etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Meat, bad. Plants, the vegetarians have said since the report, good.

I could have missed something, but I saw the word “vegetarianism” once in the report, along with a sidelong suggestion that a few of us in North America could survive eating a little less meat, with the implication that we could survive eating a little less everything. In fact, the report’s recommendations were more about policy than about individual food choices.

Some of my best friends are vegetarians. I’m even related to one or two. I support all Americans eating more plant-based foods and I am a fan of Meatless Mondays.

But it’s a leap over Copper Canyon to go from “raising animals for food is a leading cause of climate change” to “never eat meat again.” Instead, let’s try on “never eat McDonald’s again” (which seems to be working), or “never eat a chicken nugget again” (which isn’t).

To narrow down the global lens just a little, if it animals add more methane to the atmosphere than the transportation sector, it is only because most of the world is not developed. In the U.S. the transportation and energy sectors are responsible for nearly 40% of emissions, agriculture is 14%, and much of that comes from the broken industrial livestock production system. So in addition to cutting back on McDonald’s, take the bus, and turn the air conditioner up a degree or two.

Much if not most of the climate damage caused by livestock rearing comes from cutting down forests to grow livestock feed, using water for manure ponds and growing row crops, nitrogen applications that run off into dead zones and evaporate into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. I could go on. The point: these are the practices used by corporate and industrial agriculture. It’s what allows them to offer cheap prices at fast food restaurants, and at discount grocery stores.

Destructive agricultural practices are under review by many Kentucky farmers, and vocal farmer super-stars like Will Harris, who says his his multi-species White Oak Farm “proactively support(s) nature’s food chain, using only sun, soil, and rain to grow organic sweet grasses for our animals to eat.”

In fact, meat production on grassland like the rolling hills of Kentucky is considered by many to be good for the earth, good for farming and good for our health.

Good for the earth

Cows and other ruminants indisputably produce methane. But the grasslands grazed by ruminants have the ability to absorb carbon. In 2013, The English organization National Trust released a study showing “that while the carbon footprint of grass-fed and conventional farms were comparable, the carbon sequestration contribution of well-managed grass pasture on the less intensive systems reduced net emissions by up to 94 per cent, even resulting in a carbon ‘net gain’ in upland areas.” Organic farms did even better at sequestering carbon.

The Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown observed in 2008, “Farming practices that reduce soil erosion and raise cropland productivity usually also lead to higher carbon content in the soil. ” The farming practices he mentions: shifting from conventional tillage to minimum-till and no-till, using cover crops, the return of all livestock and poultry manure to the land, and a return to more mixed crop-livestock farming.

In defense of the environmental soundness of locally produced meat, Maine farmer Eliot Coleman writes that by producing steer for meat, “I am not responsible for any increased CO2. The pasture-raised animal eating grass in my field is not producing CO2, merely recycling it (short term carbon cycle) as grazing animals (and human beings) have since they evolved. It is not meat eating that is responsible for increased greenhouse gasses; it is the corn/ soybean/ chemical fertilizer/ feedlot/ transportation system under which industrial animals are raised.” Also the destruction of forest.

Shop at the farmers’ market for grass fed beef. Quit eating McDonald’s. Take a bus.

Good for farms

What is good for the environment isn’t necessarily good for the farm. But grassfed livestock can add much to a sustainable farm.

Acres of the farmland in Central and Eastern Kentucky is rolling hills or hollows, historically unsuitable for row crops (about 26% of non-frozen land is untillable globally). Though no-till farming is gaining traction here, tilling for row-crops is a longstanding tradition (tilling releases carbon in the atmosphere). Grasslands on slopes prevent erosion, and perenniel crops (like pasture) secure the carbon in the soil. Putting livestock on that grass turns solar energy (sun on grass) into food for people, income for the farmer, fertility for the land.

Managed well, these pastures of perenniel forage can help “feed the world,” by producing more food on the same acreage, while increasing income for the farmer. Todd Clark, who farms in Fayette County, KY, has built his production capacity by adding layers of complementary species who use the same forage land. He moves his cattle to a new grazing spot every day, and moves meat-producing chickens in after them to spread the cow manure, eat pests, and produce manure of their own. Clark uses no fertilizer, yet his pastures have become more fertile every year. He creates other layers of livestock with turkeys, sheep and hens for laying eggs. The 83 acres that once supported only a few beef cattle now diversify and multiply Clark’s income, provide a hedge against falling prices of one product and give an example of how small and medium sized farms could play a part in feeding 9 billion people. All while sequestering carbon.

Good for our health

While we’ve been conditioned for years to believe that eating beef and meat in general was bad for our health — high in fat, increased our blood cholesterol etc, it turns out that picture isn’t black and white either.

Grass fed beef

    • Has less total fat than conventional beef raised in a feed lot
    • Has more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids
    • Has more conjugated linoleic acids, thought to reduce heart disease and cancer and diabetese risk
    • Has more antioxidants, like vitamins A and E

The Village Voice and the Huffington Post both determined that grass-fed tastes best. The Village Voice commented that its rib steaks, “taste so different, it is as though they came from unrelated species.” The grass fed beef had better, firmer texture.

And it was more expensive. Though the $26 per pound price tag 5 years ago in New York City is way more than the price paid at farmers markets in Louisville, or even for the Kentucky grass fed beef sold at Whole Foods. .

Grass fed beef at the at the farmers market can be a little more expensive. As Americans we spend more than $8000 a year in medical costs. Perhaps spending a little more on meat might help bring down the costs of our individual health care. Perhaps we just eat a little less meat. The farmer makes a better living, the environment improves, our health improves.

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Changing the world, one meal at a time

Bruce Ucan with his daughters picking vegetables. Bruce's wife Christina convinced him to serve all local food in his restaurant

Bruce Ucan with his daughters picking vegetables. Bruce’s wife Christina convinced him to serve all local food in his restaurant, the Mayan Cafe in Louisville.

Who can make a positive difference in this time of global climate change, regional strife and unrepressed hatred? All but the most distracted of us certainly wonder whether we will leave the world a little better than before we arrived. Who among us can make that lasting difference, outside of Dr. King, or Gandhi?

Well, there’s Jan Sneegas, who sets up conferences for the Unitarian Universalist Church from her office in Boston. In 2013, the Unitarians’ national assembly was scheduled for Louisville’s Convention Center. Because the Unitarians require that all their meetings are planned in accordance with their environmental values, Sneegas came to Louisville and asked what kind of local food could be served to the 12,000 attendees.

The food at the convention center is the responsibility of a national dining service called Centerplate. Dining services often are hired to provide the food for large institutional settings, including universities, hospitals and entertainment venues. They are all required to buy from certain companies, and buy certain kinds of food for which they contract years in advance. It’s a system that effectively eliminates a local farmer on small or medium-sized farms.

Jan Sneegas works for the Universalist Unitarian Church in Boston. When their national assembly was held in Louisville, she was able to bring change to the city.

The face of a single person making a big change in local food. Jan Sneegas works for the Universalist Unitarian Church in Boston. She pushed conventional boundaries in food service that keep local farmers out of purchasing decisions.

But because Jan Sneegas asked for local food, Centerplate worked hard to get it for her and the other attendees. They had to bend company purchasing rules to buy food for the Unitarians. They had to educate themselves. They asked their food suppliers to find local food. Jan Sneegas was a butterfly flapping her wings to create, if not a hurricane, a long-lasting understanding that local food in Louisville was here to stay. The next year, when 60,000 Future Farmers of America descended upon Louisville, Centerplate was ready with Kentucky-grown green beans and sweet potatoes.

And there is wife and mother Christina Shadle, a Louisville citizen who held a regular office job in downtown Louisville and cared about the things she and her family ate. When she married a local restaurant owner, she asked him why he didn’t serve more local food. Now, the 50-seat Mayan Café buys directly from local farmers in Kentucky and Southern Indiana and serves local food in virtually all its dishes six days a week.

Neither of these situations is earthshattering. Neither will create the dollars that will support a farmer for a year, much less transform the agricultural in Kentucky.

But the entire local food movement in Kentucky and nationwide has relied on personal volition: you and I wanting to make a change. Spending a little more at the farmers market, opting for the restaurant entrée that is raised locally, using the caterer who specializes in local food, asking the school principal to use local food in the cafeteria.

You and I. We are making a difference. You might choose to meet a friend at the local Chipotle, which buys local when it can, or Panera, which buys cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free meat. You might get together with like-minded parents to talk to your school principal or cafeteria manager (at Atherton High School in Louisville, the effort paid off in a salad bar; we’ll work to include local produce on it this fall).

A vocal group of regular students and adults can express their wishes to university trustees. Last year the University of Kentucky signed a contract with Aramark dining services which requires Aramark to spend $2 million on local food.  One administrator at the University of Louisville pushed for a commitment to local food and currently U of L spends 5% of its food budget on food that comes from Kentucky farmers. Berea College buys more mozzarella cheese than any other product in its cafeteria except French fries, and it buys Kentucky cheese. All of these changes are adding up to create change for Kentucky farmers and they all started with the act of a single person.

Nationwide, the decision that each individual makes to feed himself or herself is making itself felt in ways that are beginning to make big differences for livestock, our health, and the environment, including

  • McDonald’s will close more restaurants (700) than it opens this year, for the first time since 1970, when the company first revealed store numbers.
  • In May, Fortune magazine reported on the “mounting mistrust of Big Food,” quoting the CEO of Campbell’s Soup saying “We understand that increasing numbers of consumers are seeking authentic, genuine food experiences.” “Big Food” sales are dropping precipitously as consumers shop the outside of the grocery store with its fresher, healthier foods.
  • Organic food sales more than tripled over the past decade and increased 11% last year alone to $35.9 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.
  • Walmart is asking meat suppliers to raise animals with sufficient space and ability to socialize with other members of their species, keep them free from painful mutilations and spare them mental discomfort or distress.
  • Kroger now hangs large photos of local farmers in its produce sections and is renovating produce sections to feature organic produce in the front.

What you value has been persuasive. While “cost” is the most frequent barrier named by schools, institutions and restaurants preventing them from buying local food, obviously “cost” is only a part of the picture.

It turns out that when each of us voices our opinion, spends and invests our values and cooperates on the work we believe in, we can “be the change we want to see in the world.”

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Eating well: it’s not as simple as it looks

strawberriesI was in high school when I read that vitamin A deficiency was the leading cause of preventable blindness in children worldwide, a deficiency that led to premature death from ridiculously preventable diseases in Africa, Asia, anywhere poverty and malnutrition had settled comfortably.

A subsequent journey through nutrition education left me armed with the blunt instrument of very little knowledge from a very young field of study. Vitamin A! Vision health worldwide! How hard could it be? I was Bill Gates with a bag of carrots.

In fact and of course, the restoration of health through food turned out (is turning out) to be much more complicated than Vitamin A + knowledge = well being of the earth. In my defense, I wasn’t the only one looking for food solutions. Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappe argued in 1971 that wholesale vegetarianism could feed the hungry, spread the wealth and help the environment, only to spend decades hence urging the understanding of power structures that keep people poor.

The last century and this one finds us following linear thinking about nutrition’s contribution to health. With each discovery, we latch on to the next, latest, single solution to illnesses that decimate populations, whether it’s vitamin A deficiency or our own “too many calories.” From neighborhood gardens to reduced salt in school lunch, we identify straight line solutions to complicated problems. Michael Pollan adds some sanity with his advice to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

And yet that, too, is a straight-line strategy that begins and ends with individual volition. It ignores much – our environment, our politics, our agricultural practices. What of the 90-pound 8-year-old diabetic and his decision-making process? Food is the subject of 50 percent of advertising he’ll see watching Cartoon Network, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and most of the food is junk. Tax dollars support low corn prices so soft drinks and chips are among the cheapest foods available. In addition, there is a “conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive,” says Michael Moss author of “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” Willpower has its limits.

Even the “mostly plants” advice should be viewed with at least a little caution. Farmer Joel Salatin can put on a pretty good rant about meat eaters vs vegetarians, pointing out that herbivores (cows) grazing on perennials (like pasture) created all the deep soil environments. Further, studies show that grassfed animals produce the omega 3 fatty acids that can keep Midwesterners as healthy as fish eaters on the coast. In contrast, the soybeans used to create vegetarian proteins are annuals that require tilled ground, with its attending issues of water loss, erosion, and microbe disruption.  So some meat can result in healthy soil and healthy people.

And what if we do eat “mostly plants?” They aren’t as good for us as they used to be. Studies show that many nutrients – calcium, iron, vitamin C and more – have declined in vegetables since 1930. Plant breeders want species that grow faster and bigger, and nutrients can’t keep up. Bigger is not better, according to studies from the University of Texas. Think of supermarket strawberries vs strawberries from the farmers market. Smaller, ephemeral, local berries taste better than berries grown to be big and sturdy and shippable. They are probably better for us too. And we like them better, so we’re more likely to eat them!

In addition, recent studies reveal that produce grown organically apparently does have more nutrients than those grown conventionally. “Monoculture farming practices — another hallmark of the Big Ag industry — have also led to soil-mineral depletion, which, in turn, affects the nutrient content of crops,” reported TIME regarding the Texas studies.

What strikes me in particular is that the bigger, better, faster mentality is also straight-line thinking that seems ultimately as ill-conceived as my young adult fantasy of saving the poor through carrots. Faster production + increased size = bigger profits is a universally accepted approach to business. Feeding corn to confined cattle and administering prophylactic antibiotics makes them grow bigger, faster, and, as a result, cheaper. The better to feed 9 billion people that will inhabit the planet, according to conventional thinking.

But the Centers for Disease Control says overuse of antibiotics is one of our “most serious health threats” (80% of antibiotics are used in livestock production). Meat from confined production contains fat of dubious value. Modern fruit and vegetable varieties bred to grow faster have fewer nutrients.  The fertilizer used on them pollutes water, kills ocean wildlife and kills microbes in the soil that some people say are the next frontier of good nutrition and environmental health. If we grow animals on grass and grow produce organically, we’re likely to be healthier.

That is, we’re likely to suffer less from heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. The big four killers in our country are all related to what we eat. Yet faster, better, cheaper is the agriculture we want to export to countries with exploding populations. Will we export, too, our healthcare costs, now 17 percent of GDP and predicted to rise to 22 percent by 2039? Will we export our obesity rates to the darkest corners of Africa. Here in Kentucky, obesity afflicts more than a third of our citizens, many of them children.

If our goal is to live better, longer, perhaps citizens should consider what “cheap” means. The average American spends $8745 per year on health care. That’s not cheap. If we stayed only as healthy as the average Italian ($3200), we’d have more than $100 per week to spend on food that was good for us, good for the earth and tasted good. Imagine: springing for strawberries that don’t crunch.

The simple equation provides a simplistic solution for a short term goal that provides health to only a few. We need to do the harder math.

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Institutions and local: It’s pay to play


Many people believe that getting local food into a city is a simple, straight line that starts in one place and goes by the most efficient route possible to the destination. A ————– Z, where A is the farm and Z is the table.

Unfortunately, the market doesn’t work in a straight line. Far from it.
I believed in that A-to-Z trajectory when I first started working on farm-to-fork relationships in 2009. My job was to set up relationships, then walk away, to take on another project and relationship. The dominoes would fall and we would have world peace, or at least a local food system, within a few short years.

At every first meeting with buyers, the barriers to buying local are tediously predictable – cost, quantity, quality, safety. Every chef initially voices support for local, then the “buts” begin: the cost is too high, the proper quantities aren’t available, the quality is erratic, the safety suspect.

When I learned how cost, quantity, quality and safety issues could be addressed, I enthusiastically set out to “sell” the idea of local food to large institutions. Then I learned those barriers – cost, quality, etc — are, in some respect, ruses. In general, you cannot interest large institutions in buying local by reducing costs, providing consistent quality, and sufficient quantities of safe food.

The system favors large-volume food processors that pay their way into the system.
There’s something call a “large volume rebate” through which large food companies “reward” dining service workers by returning money to them for ordering lots of, say, chicken nuggets or hamburger patties. To its credit, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture competes with these large volume rebates by offering Restaurant Rewards – money from our Tobacco Settlement fund – that return a portion of the money someone spends on Kentucky-grown food to the purchaser. If the price of local is a little higher than wholesale, the buyer can make it up in Restaurant Rewards.

But large volume rebates are only one business practice that eliminates local food from large-volume, long-distance food chains.

Conventional food industry folks don’t talk about the payments that move food through the system. But I’ve learned that no matter how cheap, prevalent and safe local food might be, it will not be welcome in the typical wholesale food chain.

There are “compliance” numbers and “marketing fees” that are built into the structure of the current long-distance supply chain that maintain pay-to-play standard practice. “Strategic marketing” companies are consultants that keep watch over the numbers.

“Compliance” numbers are minimum goals. A national or multinational dining service company contracting with, say, a large hospital chain, can require 95% compliance from its managers. For that, a hospital dining contractor who buys from Cargill and Tyson is required to buy 95% of all the beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, breakfast products, dressings and so on from those companies. Even if the dining manager can get less expensive (and better quality) beef from a local source (and she often can), her priority is “compliance.” Achieving compliance is how her work is evaluated every year and how she gets her raises, her promotions, her job security.

Becoming one of those “preferred” vendors requires a payoff to the company.
Likewise, the owner of the truck that delivers the food – the large-volume distributor — requires payment from the folks (Cargill and Tyson) whose products are on their trucks. If I want the salesmen to aggressively sell that product, I add a “marketing fee” to the cost of the product.

So it isn’t a simple “I have a product that people want, therefore I will sell successfully.” The system requires that if you want to play, you have to pay.

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We can’t afford local.


Large aluminum kettles at a Louisville processing plant hold 2500 gallons of simmering beef, beans, tomatoes and spices, bubbling away to create a chili that’s destined for public schools all across Kentucky. Mike, the plant owner, will eventually put the chili in 1- or 5-gallon plastic bags. In public schools from Paducah to Pikeville – some of whom have few kitchen amenities or equipment – school lunch managers can tear open the bags and pour them into in sheet pans, and serve them in the cafeteria lines.

What makes this chili different is that it contains Kentucky-grown butternut squash. Inspired by the requirements of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Mike adds butternut squash puree to the chili. HHFK requires that schools serve more orange and dark green leafy vegetables.

Inspired by USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, Mike is buying squash grown by a Kentucky farmer – the man you see in the photo that accompanies this missive. While schools are not required to buy local food, they have been encouraged to by the federal government, and supported with grants that pay for Farm to School programming. In Kentucky, there is a Farm to School coordinator whose peripatetic work includes driving from county to county, encouraging and enabling the use of local food in school lunch.

If a school lunch serves this chili, a child will consume more red and orange vegetables. That’s great for health.

And it’s great for Kentucky’s agricultural economy, providing alternatives to the once-mighty tobacco economy. The man who arranges to buy the squash from farmers — his name is Doug – bought 40,000 pounds of Kentucky-grown squash last year. His company removed the peel and seeds from the squash; then cubed or pureed and froze it.

With Mike’s purchases – and other interest – Doug is preparing to purchase 120,000 pounds of squash during the 2014 growing season.

For people who support the use of nutritious local food in schools, who want to shorten supply chains to help their region’s farmers and food businesses, this model is pretty perfect.

In my experience, it is the first bona-fide food-system-chain-shortening event that involves produce.  Produce is not a lucrative product like meat. It must be grown and sold in high volumes to support a farmer. While the growing number of farmers markets can make us believe direct markets are viable venues for farmers, it’s common knowledge that the 20 or so food companies listed in the Fortune 500 (NOT including WalMart) had revenues more than 500 times what ALL  farmers markets had in 2012

Wholesale is where most produce farmers will make a dependable income.

And now we have a crucible of local food. Kentucky’s squash value chain — potential providing a partial living on medium or small farms — show themselves instead to be perhaps too inefficient to be actually viable. These virtually inevitable inefficiencies beg the question, how much do we want local farmers to prosper? To what ends will we go to see that farms “of the middle,” and smaller farms succeed? In Kentucky, both of them did well growing tobacco, augmented with income they earned selling weaned calves to western CAFO feedlots.

Though building a local food supply is about knocking down barriers, and I fully accept that we have more barriers to knock down, rubber is meeting the road right now in Kentucky.

Public school systems have (roughly) between 90 cents and $1.25 to spend on food for a school lunch. Most directors like to think that their protein-containing entrees will cost 55 to 70 cents per serving, though they’ll pay more. At least one county in Kentucky pays more than 90 cents for Domino’s pizza, but it’s the day of highest participation, and high participation makes the top 2 list of a nutrition director’s priorities.

Right now, Mike’s super-healthy butternut squash chili – which has received high marks in taste tests with Kentucky students – costs more than twice what it needs to for him to sell it to schools. The ingredients in Mike’s aluminum kettle of chili cost $5000. The most expensive ingredient in it? Local butternut squash.

This has caused trepidation throughout the supply line. Mike is pursuing cost reduction through other means. What might those be? Reducing labor costs? That has its own negative implications. Reducing the cost of other ingredients? At what cost to whom?

And Doug is stuck in a difficult place. He says he has lowered his production costs as much as he can and still keep his company viable (the company makes most of its money selling salsa to WalMart). His processing is mechanized – the company employs people to operate equipment, not to physically peel squash. Doug is paying the farmer an agreed-upon and seemingly fair price.

My agriculture-economist friend asks what the farmer is doing to become more efficient, to reduce his costs to the customer. That’s a valid question and one I ask every time I pay $3/pound for tomatoes at a farmers market. But it also gets perilously close to the questions that local-food supporters always ask – efficiency at what cost, at what detriment to the land, the air, the water, the community?

Here’s my issue.We have completed a food supply line. Farmer Ben has sold his squash to a local processor, who has converted that product to a form more usable by the consumer. Mike has added value by making it ready-to-heat-and-eat. These men have worked diligently to put nutritious food on the table of the region’s diners, specifically school children, many of whom come from homes that make them eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch (in Jefferson County, Ky., a majority of those who eat school lunch qualify).

Where do we go from here? With everyone’s best intention, the food has been grown, processed, and cooked. But without efficiencies that may be outside the realm of a small- or medium-sized farm, the cost of a simple vegetable that makes school meals healthier may be out of bounds for virtually everyone in the system.

If the school food system can’t afford to buy it, then Mike can’t make the chili. If Doug loses Mike as a customer, he informs farmer Ben that there’s no need for 40,000 pounds of squash. Farmer Ben then loses – let’s estimate – ¼ of his yearly income. A quick check of butternut-squash harvesting equipment shows that it could cost half a million dollars. Efficiency at a high cost.

Perhaps Farmer Ben could buy the machine and rent it to others in the region. But that would require massive amounts of butternut squash to be raised in a geographical area that allows for large, slow farm equipment to be moving up and down the road – driving such a machine from Louisville to Frankfort can’t be cheap. All of these scenarios add cost.

There are local food proponents who say we don’t appreciate the true cost of food. I agree, but that can’t convince a school to buy food that costs $1.50 per serving when it has 90 cents. There are others who say that farmers deserve a fair price for what they grow. I agree. I buy all my meat and many other foods directly from farmers.

There are those who say that the demand for local food exceeds supply, and that infrastructure is key — all that’s needed is the infrastructure to transport the food to the destination.  But we have completed that system in our squash scenario, and it raises more questions than it answers. More than a few buyers will be stumped by a price tag that is twice (or more) what they usually pay.

I believe that these Kentucky entrepreneurs have done us the service of creating a microcosm food system that provides a fair price for the farmer, access to good and nutritious food for thousands of children from poor families, a system that shortens the supply chain and provides employment for workers in our own community, where taxes will be paid to build our own roads and schools.

But, in fact, the system, as we see it, is untenable.

What now?

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Healthy vs. local

Kentucky farmer Jon Bednarski and his Belted Galloway cattle

Those of us who work on local food issues often seem like a homogeneous group. We all believe the current food system is broken, and we all put our faith in local food to fix it.

But on closer inspection, you’ll find we have different motivations. Real Food Challenge captures these multiple motivations in a graphic they use to organize college students.

Some people work on labor justice – fair wages and safe working conditions. Some people work on food justice – making sure even poor citizens have access to healthful food. Environmental activists act on the idea that local food systems will decrease carbon footprint and environmental abuse by corporate farmers.

Many health professionals believe the broken food system is responsible for America’s staggering health costs and its high rate of chronic diseases. Corn and soybean subsidies keep us awash in cheap food that’s bad for us (including cheap meat, soft drinks, and sweet and salty snacks). For many health advocates, “local food” means “local produce,” and they are eager for higher produce consumption to make Americans healthier.

In my own community of local food activists,there are people with all these interests and more. And when our local-food advocacy results in success, the goals of these factions often differentiate themselves more clearly. People who once agreed on a goal begin to split into camps.

This has happened recently. Our increasingly robust work at the University of Louisville has resulted in a steady supply of local, antibiotic-free beef in a couple of the dining venues. A very positive, energetic, supportive and knowledgeable health advocate on the local food committee recently expressed concern that the local food effort on campus is particularly meat-oriented, and suggested concentrating more on local fruits and vegetables.

Learning about local food groups all over the country, I know this healthy vs. local dichotomy often arises in the work, or is replaced by other common ones: local vs. ecological (organic vs. conventional), local farmers vs. local community development, farmer income vs. affordable food.

I think understanding that our fellow advocates may come from a different place may help group members sort out how and when we can work with each other, help us understand the differences in our goals, can cushion disappointment when goals diverge and help us be more successful in the long term. Different advocates — environmental, health, food justice, local farmers, community development – will occasionally and ultimately travel different paths, even if we’re all traveling the same road now.

I work with the farm economy in Kentucky. It’s an economy based on generations of tobacco farming, complemented by beef, row crops and hay. The tobacco economy is a third of what it was 15 years ago. Some elected officials and concerned citizens (including Wendell Berry) got together to investigate if growing food for consumption might be a good alternative to growing tobacco. They hired me to increase Kentucky farmers’ portion of food dollars spent in Louisville and through large-volume dining services around the state, like schools and universities.

In response to a health advocate’s perfectly valid assertion that we should concentrate more on bringing more produce and less meat into the university food service, I’d like to explain how and why my position differs from hers, even though we serve on the same committee with the same broadly written goal.

  • First, the typical tobacco farm in Kentucky usually includes a beef herd. When the Master Settlement was reached with 46 attorneys general in 1998, and the Governor’s Office of Ag Policy was established in Kentucky to use some of those settlement funds to help farmers, the most obvious action was to help farmers get more profit from crops they were already growing, namely beef. Getting a better profit from their beef, by improving genetics of the herds and the forage on which they graze, is a way to keep farmers on their farms now. Turning a beef farmer into an apple orchardist is like turning a truck driver into a respiratory therapist. It can be done, but its a steep learning curve requiring tremendous resources.
  • Second, livestock is more lucrative than produce farming, and often more suited to the topography of Kentucky. Rolling hillsides of Central and Eastern Kentucky are sometimes not suitable for plowing and planting crops. Using the “solar power” captured by pasture forage to feed animals can be an efficient use of these rolling fields to create food, can repair overused or eroded topsoil and reduce petrochemical use, and produce lucrative crops in relatively small spaces, benefiting small and medium size farms. This use of pasture to feed animals is consistent with the 50-Year Farm Bill proposed by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, which promotes the use of perennial crops to improve the ecology of farmland. In Kentucky, forage is our most prevalent perennial crop.
  • Third, the “local food” initiative, no matter which way you come at it, is a change that is more difficult than most people realize and making stable change in the system is slow. One of the barriers cited most often from those resistant to the change is “inconsistent supply,” which usually means that you can’t get local food year round. Most people think “local food” means “local produce” and, to be sure, local produce is not available all year. In Kentucky, local meat, some dairy and grains are available all year round. For many, meat, cheese or flour might be the “gateway” to local food purchases. It’s easier to add on seasonal produce later. Starting with seasonal produce often proves (to buyers) just how impossible buying local is. It actually sets the work back.
  • Fourth, the Centers for Disease Control has said that we are facing a health care “catastrophe” from antibiotic resistant bacteria and estimates plenty of health care costs and deaths related to the issue. It is estimated that more than 70% of antibiotics in this country are used to keep animals healthy in unconscionable conditions.`Currently, the most productive small meat processing plant in Kentucky (and the one with whom the University of Louisville, Sodexo and Jefferson County Public Schools are working), requires that all their animals be raised without antibiotics (which, conventionally, are typically added to feed for consistent, constant and prophylactic dosage). These Kentucky-raised animals are required to have constant exposure to forage and minimum space allotments, which maintain healthy growing conditions and reduce the need for medical antibiotics. Healthy food advocates and agriculture supporters can agree that responsibly-raised meat is a step toward a healthier diet.
  • Fifth, tobacco was a 6, 7 or 8-generation crop in Kentucky, with an infrastructure of expertise, education and marketing. As no one crop will replace tobacco, it will take many more generations for farmers to gain the same infrastructure with edible crops. In the meantime, consumers, particularly institutional consumers, will be doing a great disservice to Kentucky agriculture if they eliminate animal products from the “local food” discussion.

I don’t expect any health advocate to wholeheartedly agree with every position I take. But our goals do overlap. And I will welcome any help when the discussion turns to local, seasonal produce. Buying food seasonally is a particularly difficult change for virtually any food service to contemplate. It will require more resources and support from the advocacy community.

And make no mistake, I am delighted there are people who work on Americans’ access to and consumption of healthy produce. My college degree was in dietetics. I get it. But their work is not my work.

I think if we understand each other, we’ll make more effective allies. We can work together when our goals overlap, and back off our expectations when they don’t. It’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean one cause is less worthy. It means the causes are different.
I may not be able to rely on a health advocate to fight the fight for local beef. But if she fights the fight for local food, that will be a great deal of help.

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“Local” vs “direct farm impact”

farm photo
To the consternation of many, the University of Kentucky will be releasing imminently a request for proposals for dining services. Citizen, student and faculty groups have organized against replacing the self-operated dining services with one of the big food service contracting companies; even the local newspaper came out against the idea. Opponents cite a litany of issues, including loss of local food and the loss of educational partnerships.

Nearly all Kentucky’s large dining facilities contract for outside help. U of K was one of the last holdouts (Murray is still self-operated). These contract food service companies bring with them a large wad of capital that they can spend upgrading facilities. They can promise UK new dining halls, a great asset for UK, which plans to spend $50 million for facilities to provide new student housing.

Many good arguments have been made for keeping in-house dining services, and university trustees may, in the end, prefer the status quo.

Whatever food service is chosen for dining provisions at the university, it is essential that the citizens, students, faculty and editorial writers be specific about what they want. In the case of sustainable food purchases, the use of the term “local” is not nearly specific enough, and the current dining service has used vagaries in the language to imply that they are making a huge impact on Kentucky agriculture when, in fact, their efforts are commendable, but underwhelming.

The AASHE STARS technical manual is a little more specific. AASHE gives credit to universities when they buy food that is “grown and processed within 250 miles of the institution.”

The distinction “grown and processed” is critical. At Louisville Farm to Table, we use the phrase “direct farm impact” when describing the sort of food purchases that should count toward sustainability. The term “local,” as it is often used now, means bread from a local bakery, or milk from a dairy that is located in the state but imports the majority of its product from California and elsewhere.

Direct farm impact means that the purchase of the food in some way impacts the local farmer (whatever local means to you). It does not necessarily mean that the food is purchased directly from the farmer. Weisenberger Mill sells cornmeal and flour that has direct farm impact, because the mill buys buy corn and (soft) wheat directly from Kentucky farmers. Marksbury Farm sells beef and chicken that has direct farm impact, because they buy animals from Kentucky farmers.

The more I study the buying habits of institutions and their sustainability claims, the more I see that many “local” claims have no bearing on the lives of farmers and contribute nothing to the agriculture sector. At the University of Kentucky, which in the past has boasted $800,000 in “local” purchases and promises $1.2 million this year, the self-operated food service claims coffee, a Kentucky-made soft drink, seafood and doughnuts among the “local” purchases they made. In addition, they claim “local” meat purchased from “Kentucky Proud” distributors, though none of that meat is required to come from Kentucky farmers. If the Kentucky Proud retailer cuts imported primals into smaller pieces, the meat is considered to have been “processed” in Kentucky, and therefore qualifies as Kentucky Proud.

Hence the AASHE STARS rule that the product be “grown and processed” within 250 miles is good and reasonable. Products whose purchase results in money for farmers — a product with “direct farm impact” for Kentucky — makes it clear to all parties what counts as local.

Concerned citizens should make sure that the written contract stipulates “direct farm impact,” or “grown and processed” and not settle for the term “local.” “Local” means a local business. Locally roasted coffee beans might come from a local business but have no direct farm impact.

In addition, new dining service contracts might need new “local purchase” quotas. Currently, coffee and doughnuts count in local purchases, so 20% local is an easy target. But if the language is tightened to “grown and processed” or “direct farm impact,” expectations might need to be modified.

Further, all concerned with a more sustainable food supply should be aware that dining service contract language usually separates the dining hall food from the franchise outlet food. If there’s a Chick-fil-a or a Papa John’s on campus, food purchased by the dining service for those outlets is usually not included in the total when calculating “percent of local.”

More locally-grown food becomes available every day, and the old excuses of why someone “can’t” buy home-grown foods are beginning to drop away. It is perfectly reasonable for the University of Kentucky’s board of trustees to ask any food service — in-house or contracted — to support the agricultural community that surrounds it.

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