Local Foods Rebuild Health and Economies

“Buy Fresh, Buy Local.” FoodRoutes, an advocacy group rebuilding local, community-based food systems, punctuates the “locavore” movement with a slogan resonating with U.S. farmers, restaurants and eaters. Once a backbone of the U.S. economy, farming is enjoying a renaissance, seeded by industry veterans and practical entrepreneurs localizing the supply chain and creating harmony between grower and buyer.

Clean, fresh food is great, but locavores also create jobs and pump fresh revenue streams into rural and ailing economies. The long-term implications are buoyed by a proactive, natural flow of resources not tethered to bailouts and band-aid subsidies.

Taking food from local farm to local table chokes the harmful effects long-haul distribution places on the environment. Less flying, driving, fuel – and preservatives – also make for a better product. Restaurateurs can serve zucchini picked that morning by a trusted source. Buying local can feel good and taste better, but the locavore movement’s economic impact on local communities may be the best part.

Where to Find Local Food

Traditional green pastures like King County in Seattle are flush with farmers’ markets, farm-to-table restaurants and discriminating buyers. King County farmers’ markets are pulling in an estimated $30 million annually, and city blocks of locally grown food turn open-air markets into churches and nightclubs – hubs for civic engagement.

Business development types from other cities targeting new growth engines should use Seattle as a blueprint. Entrepreneurs could bump into a winning business plan in King County while out getting a cup of coffee. Although lumped with other renewable initiatives, both ends of the political spectrum agree on clean, fresh food as an economic driver.

Reach and adoption shine a bright light on local food, too. Seattle makes the perfect test market for anything eco-friendly. But the locavore movement enjoys universal appeal, spreading to areas without a Prius population.

Cleveland, anchoring the Rust Belt and ranked the third “least green” city in the U.S. by “The Atlantic,” allows landowners to grow squash and raise chickens without a permit. Computer programmers are becoming farmers and Cleveland policymakers tagged local food as an economic savior. With unemployment in Cleveland at a two-year low, is the bump in local food a coincidence?

Seattle and Cleveland make strange bedfellows, yet both reap the health, communal and monetary benefits of local farming. What about your city? With demand and support present, what would stop a suburban quarter-acre backyard from becoming a turnip factory for downtown restaurants?

What is driving the locavore movement. And, what challenges face thriving local food systems and communities curious about boosting their bottom line. Decades of nationwide and global food distribution networks must be broken. Numbers must back up claims of local economic boons. Reigning philosophies and academic theories clash, pitting localism against globalism. What about political backing? Or do growing farms, co-ops and other NGOs even need subsidization. All of these questions are making me hungry. So let us examine what makes local food so appetizing.

Why Local Food is Better

Local food travels better. Getting from farm to table fast locks in both taste and nutrients. Food targeted for a local distribution loop requires fewer chemicals and additives – less processing, healthier returns. Urban, and other micro-farm concepts usually break ground with sustainable practices producing organic products.

Buyers note the relationships built with local growers forge a unique bond: trust and awareness. You know where your food is coming from. Micro-farmers often sell door to door and restaurant buyers can visit farms to sample the merchandise.

Local food builds community. Ever been to a farmers’ market? The experience does not look or feel like a trip to the supermarket. Yes, you take home food. But you also take home some food science, civic pride and maybe a few new friends.

Local food is eco-friendly. Food can travel 2,500 miles to get to your plate. Communities like Boulder County in Colorado are measuring “food miles,” buying agricultural land for preservation and sustenance. More farmland means fewer developments, and farmers tend to be more sustainable than developers.

A local food system becomes a strategy to reduce a city’s carbon footprint. Community investment in local farming also hedges against volatile oil and food prices.

Why Local Food is Good Business

Michael Shuman, a Stanford-bred business-development specialist, is a champion of local food systems and has uncovered some shocking statistics supporting the locavore movement. According to Shuman, local food is cheaper and producers are scaling operations fast. Under the current global system, 73 cents of every dollar spent on food goes to production, distribution and advertisement. The farmer pockets seven cents.

Buy local and start flipping that equation. More money for the producer, and more room for competitive pricing. And with the average U.S. metropolitan area growing less than 5 percent of what they eat, local food screams opportunity.

Shuman completed studies on Cleveland, Detroit and New Mexico, quantifying the economic impact localized food can make on a community. What if Cleveland produced 25 percent more of its food locally? A seismic shift occurs: $4.2 billion in revenues, $125 million in taxes, and 27,000 new jobs. No wonder Clevelanders are tilling their backyards. Shuman’s work is in high demand. Baltimore and Florida want him to work similar magic – a one-man stimulus package for a jagged U.S. economy.

But Mr. Shuman, we have been applauding Walmart’s sustainable initiatives for years and aren’t they sourcing food locally? According to Shuman’s work with the Community Food Enterprise (CFE), a nonprofit partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, local businesses keep dollars in local circulation, stick around longer, and have a higher obligation to the community at large.

And, his theories apply to developing countries forced to export the bulk of what they produce. So both proximity and ownership matter, and several interesting business models are proving localism goes well with food, making Shuman’s thinking enlightened and capitalist – not just old-world nostalgia.

New Models for Old Business

Community-Supported Agriculture – The U.S. stole subscription farming from Switzerland and Japan. The concept delivers weekly supplies of fresh produce from local farms, guaranteeing cash flow for the producer and healthy, seasonal food for the subscriber. Subscribers pay in advance. Buyers build both business and community ties with local farmers, while taking the labor and guesswork out of shopping.

Food Co-ops – The Oklahoma Food Cooperative took local food distribution digital, with a website linking growers to buyers. A statewide network mobilizes delivery of thousands of products to established locations each month. The supply chain gets squeezed and farmers can focus on what they do best. Although still in its infancy, the co-op model has spread to five other states, including Canada.

Farm to Order – Larger farms unable to compete on a global scale for commodity crops like corn and wheat have reimagined their businesses as niche providers for local restaurants. Harvest based on demand. Whether growing heirloom vegetables or trendy ingredients, this model works best without a middleman – sell direct.

Enter the USDA

A grassroots, independent streak runs through most of the locavore movement. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has admired local food from afar. Not jumping on the bandwagon, but issuing a reminder in 2009 that $1.24 billion of grant and loan money, earmarked for rural governments and nonprofits, is gathering dust in their coffers. Always looking for new ways to revitalize the U.S. agriculture base, the government sees huge potential in developing local food systems.

The notion of cutting time and distance from farm to table is not revolutionary. Still an institution in Europe, and a former pillar of rural America, sourcing food locally from trusted sources got lost along the way to a flatter world, a global economy. But the prospects in the U.S. for job growth, better food and a cleaner environment become impossible to miss.

“Buy Fresh, Buy Local.”