I recently came across one of the most sophisticated regional planning documentsI have ever seen, assembled by dozens of experts, depending on scores of stakeholders, and designed to reach far into greater Chicagoland’s future. I was delighted to see that it had a substantial section on local food systems. Louisville has set the bar pretty high when it comes to establishing local food systems in this country; finding CMAPs plan gave me hope that I could compare notes with someone.
The report noted that “Illinois residents spend $48 billion annually on food, nearly all of which (an estimated $46 billion) leaves our state. Purchasing food that is grown locally can keep much of that money in the region. Based on estimates from other regions, a 20-percent increase in local food production and purchasing could generate approximately $2.5 billion in economic activity within the region, according to GO TO 2040.”
There’s a beautiful graphic on the website showing the relationship between production, processing, access, consumption and waste reduction.
But drill down a layer and you’ll find why I, at least, think the local food movement is not moving forward the way it should. CMAP’s explanation of access, for instance, is “The point at which people purchase their food at places like farmstands, markets, or restaurants.”
People tend to talk about local food systems in terms of farmstands, markets and restaurants. Yet these parts of the food system are the smallest players and move relatively insignificant amounts of food through the system. I once worked with a 150 seat bistro to introduce them to local producers of cheese, meat and vegetables. The owner enthusiastically embraced the concept, and immediately began order local ground beef for all their burgers. End result: a delivery of 50 pounds per week.
Anybody who raises/sells beef will be happy with any ground beef sales, no matter how large the order There’s always ground beef left over when the center cuts are sold and ground beef seems always to be the bottleneck in the system. But there are more beef cattle in Kentucky than any other state east of the Mississippi. We are 9th in cattle production in the country. If cattle producers are going to find local markets, all of us in the food-system business are going to have to get serious about identifying large-volume buyers, who buy, move and use food more efficiently than a farmstand or a CSA.
Take, for instance, Jefferson County Public Schools and Fayette County Schools. Between them, they are hoping to order more than 40,000 servings of chicken wing parts and drumsticks for lunch service on one day. This order will be production for an entire season (April to November) for one diversified farmer (who also sells beef and pork).
Jefferson County Public Schools has a $17 million food budget. If we can harness 10 percent of that budget for local food, we can begin to move the needle on the local food system in a much more significant way that if we concentrate on farmstands, CSAs and markets.
Meaningful work to change local food systems will have to include large-volume users, and will need to solve issues of large-volume distribution, aggregation and processing.