Large volume users create a robust food system

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.

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2 Responses to Large volume users create a robust food system

  1. Josh says:

    You raise an interesting point. The link to CMAP is great, very interesting to see their planning and their action. This idea of “large-volume users” is an interesting one, and it’s prevalence only increases as our populations become more centralized and more massive. What is a “large-volume user”? Any given point of distribution, processing, purchasing, production, etc., is still comprised of individuals no matter how massive it’s volume. It seems that when we want high demand we see a need for an institution, group, or any sort of social entity that can act in cohesion. For instance, we can imagine the scenario in which McDonalds decides that every franchise must source all tomatoes for all sandwich toppings within 200 miles. Not only does this create a logistical headache for every one involved with management at McDonalds, it fills the idea of a “large-volume user”. Yet, who is it that truly is demanding this large volume? Is it the board of directors? The marketing team? The financial team? Perhaps those who create the demand are actually those who consume. If 100,000 people are eating burgers which are now topped with regionally sourced tomatoes, the large volume is created, though no single user is responsible. Though every individual which consumes is directly tied to the demand, us individuals have formed a myriad of social groups, and the vast majority of these social groups have some sort of governing body or decision making sub-group. This creates an interesting dichotomy of social change – on one hand, the average individual, the consumer, is what drives demand, but on the other side, established social entities (and their chosen governing body) either control or at least influence what choices the average consumer makes (sometimes this is at the will of the consumer, sometimes not). Problems seem to arise when any individual attempts to take action outside of (or even against) the establishment, as they are outweighed enough to be ignored and their actions are seen as inconsequential. There are multiple ways that are typically used to solve these problems. One of these is to form a new social group, a newly established entity that becomes major enough to exert influence upon or interact with the prior groups. Sometimes this is termed “sub culture”, “counter culture”, “alternative culture” or sometimes “the power of the masses”. The other way that is used to solve the problem is speaking with and convincing those who make decisions for an existing group. By appealing directly to a governing body (such as if the governing body of McDonald’s decided to enact the local-tomato initiative), often times large-scale change can be enacted without speaking to every group member on an individual level. I am under the impression that this “speak to the top” is the approach usually taken when a large volume is desired. Perhaps there is another way we can view this: the dichotomy of the individual consumer vs. the large-volume consumer could be instead seen as a combination when we understand that behind every “large-volume user” there is a group of individual consumers and/or a group of individuals that form a governing body. The actions we need to take are the same in either case. Someone must be convinced, at an individual level, that a change in perspective and a change in action is beneficial. From this perspective, it would seem all arguments are unified, and that the ideas we use to get a farmers market customer are the same ideas that we use to get the governing body of JCPS to provide locally sourced chicken wings, or the governing body of a Kroger to reach out and connect with Grateful Greens. I suppose this is already understood, but perhaps there is room for growth in our understandings of how we can take a holistic approach towards any individual in any social setting that we wish to incite for education, production, and consumption of local food.

    • sfritschner says:

      Thanks, Josh, for your remarks. I am not sure I follow all of your points, but I am certain that the local food movement is a collection of individual volition that has created groups, that has caused at least certain boards of directors — if not McDonald’s – to create change within the functioning system. There was no Steve Jobs to give us what we wanted before we knew we wanted it. It required desire on our collective to create change in the S.O.P that favors low cost, industrial-style production at the cost of local agricultural economic sectors.

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