by Ruth Simpson, LFPSA and Andrew Lehto, Community Gardener at St. Paul’s
February 11th, 2005. It’s the dead of winter in Madison. The thoughts of fresh local foods are a dim memory for most people of Dane County. So it was particularly special for nearly 100 of us residents to share a meal reminiscent of a summertime picnic inside on that cold winter’s day. A simple spinach and tomato salad—that this time of year would typically have come off a truck from California and out of a plastic bag—was grown in the County and traveled less than 25 miles. Purplish blue potato salad, egg salad, chicken salad, locally baked breads for making your own sandwiches, many types of gourmet cheeses, and a sumptuous carrot cake for dessert rounded out the meal. The meal arrived on each plate having been grown, processed, delivered, and cooked almost entirely locally.
The meal was the midpoint of the Local Food Policy Summit Conference organized by the Local Food Policy Advisory Subcommittee (LFPAS) of the Dane County Board Environment, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee (EANR). The LFPAS is made up of 15 individuals with a passion for building a better local food system. Since its establishment in June 2004, LFPAS has developed governing principles to help guide Dane County in supporting and promoting a healthy regional food system. The conference itself provided a chance for the nearly 100 attendees to practice and celebrate a portion of the principles that many Dane County residents and all Subcommittee members hope will be the future for us here: nutritious and tasty food increasingly produced, processed, distributed and consumed locally that is available and affordable to everyone in adequate quantity.
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and EANR Chair Kyle Richmond greeted Summit participants. They expressed excitement about all the people gathered there to share their thoughts and generate new ideas that, if acted upon, may benefit our local food system.
Professor Jack Kloppenberg, a member of the LFPAS, kicked off the sharing of ideas with an engaging presentation on the vibrant qualities of Dane County’s food system and the challenges it faces collectively as farms and farm acreage both succumb to development pressure. Jack declared there is no better place than Dane County and surrounding counties to work to increase local food consumption in Wisconsin because the local production of food ranks first among the state’s counties and totals nearly $300 million annually.
The day was to culminate in a presentation of ideas generated by conference attendees that can help Dane County develop, in the words of LFPAS’s Jim Arts, an “ideal but achievable” food system. A seemingly modest goal of increasing each County resident’s local food purchases to five percent of their dollars spent on food annually would bring the total spent on local food to around $50 million. The current dollar figure spent in Dane County on Dane County foods is much lower but not even calculable. Commodity crops such as milk may leave Dane County for processing far away in some cases, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how many of those truckloads of milk ever make it back home in cartons or as cheese. As this example implies, money spent here for locally-produced food is more likely to keep circulating and strengthening our community compared to money spent on food produced or processed outside the state or even the country.
Later in the day, Jill Rubin and Laura Brown, both UW-Madison graduate students, provided background about local governmental efforts around the country to support the production and consumption of local foods. It became clear that there was much more that can be done here, and fairly painlessly, even though Dane County is Wisconsin’s most innovative supporter of local food projects. One not-very-obvious but intriguing example would be to have Dane County’s correctional facilities purchase some local food as Multnomah County, Oregon already does for its own correctional facilities.
But the real heart of the conference was the participation of each and every attendee during facilitated brainstorming sessions. Participants shared thoughts and generated new ideas about Dane County’s food system assets, barriers to progress, solutions to those barriers, and specific roles that Dane County government can plan in the development of solutions.
As of press time, LFPAS is performing a preliminary analysis of the rich set of ideas generated which will become part of the conference’s report. The results of the conference will be invaluable to the local food subcommittee as it determines recommendations it will make to our County government later this summer. Many attendees expressed a desire for a deeper commitment by Dane Country residents and government to develop our local food system which is an increasingly vital and sustainable portion of Dane County’s long-term security.
To get more involved and find out about the LFPAS go to our website http://www.co.dane.wi.us/ committees/foodpolicy. The conference report should be available in May.