Common barriers to changing the food system

chix pieces n summer veg

The Louisville Local Food Demand Analysis commissioned by Seed Capital Kentucky, has been released, quantifying the demand for local food in the Louisville area. It’s important work that will lend its weight to the welcome changes happening in Louisville under our forward-thinking mayor.

After scores of interviews, the report codifies the obstacles to buying local food. The report reveals that consumers, commercial and restaurant buyers indicate that cost, product consistency, distribution and volume are the issues that prevent them from buying local. Additionally, large-volume users cite inability to get food from their preferred “broadline” supplier (like Sysco).

In 2010, the Kentucky Farm to School Task Force enumerated the same barriers among school food service directors.

Anyone who spends 20 minutes talking about local food with people will hear about those same barriers. As an earnest newbie moving Kentucky product into Louisville starting in 2009, I eagerly sought out the least expensive local product, or the ones grown in large quantities over long seasons. But after months of talking to buyers it dawned on me that they had no idea what the costs were, or what the volume was, or what the product looked like or where they could easily get it. They, nearly to a person, believed that the world of local food was represented by farmers markets, and that they had to buy products in the smallest amounts at the highest prices.

Let me pause here to say that there are real barriers to any local food system. Aggregation, distribution and processing are all huge challenges in Kentucky. Many good people are working on those challenges.

However, as to cost, consistency, supply, and distribution, it is time to start asking people to reveal their data.

For instance, if you approach a caterer — whether it’s Centerplate at the Convention Center or a small independent — and you request local food for your wedding reception, or Biology Department meeting, or family reunion, your likely first response will be “it will be very expensive.” It’s time we pushed back.

I once worked with a hospital whose food service contractor mentioned how peeved its board of directors would be if they found out he had spent money on local beef, and within one minute was telling me about the ahi tuna he served at the board meeting. I think he honestly believed that local beef was more expensive than ahi tuna. I’ve had local bar owners think nothing of upcharging for a bison burger, but find it inconceivable to offer a Kentucky Proud burger in a similar way, though the beef, like the bison, has been grown on grass, offered free grain, and grown without antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

The truth is, if you try to replace CAFO boneless skinless chicken breast with pasture-raised, antibiotic-free boneless skinless chicken breast, you will have to pay an astonishing premium. But there are other parts to a chicken, as the Jefferson County Public School food service folks have discovered. They — and Fayette County as well — are exploring how to feed their students drumsticks, thighs, and wing parts from animals raised on Kentucky pasture. For Derby week, they are exploring mixing pasture-raised beef with commodity chicken and vegetables to make burgoo.

In fact, there are plenty of ways to keep costs in check during a catered event and on menus. Consumers, chefs and food service operators can ask themselves the same question the schools ask, “how can we make this food affordable?” People who are out to change the food system should be vigilant to recognize a straw man disguised as a rationale.

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One Response to Common barriers to changing the food system

  1. Martin says:

    Where can one get The Louisville Local Food Demand Analysis commissioned by Seed Capital Kentucky?

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