Consumers have been hearing about the benefits of fresh, local food a lot these days. But, in the very places where hardworking families grow such crops—Southern Wisconsin’s rural communities—locally grown and healthy foods may be almost absent. Grocery co-ops, sustainable farmers and a local non-profit organization are working to change that by bringing fresh local food home to the farm.
It’s hard not to notice the signs of poverty while driving through a crumbling urban center. But rows of corn and soybeans hide the fact that rural areas of the United States suffer from even higher poverty rates than urban areas. One in every seven rural residents lives below the poverty line. Consider also that one in five rural children are poor, with rural child poverty rates exceeding urban rates for all minority groups. In what the government classifies as “persistent poverty” over the past 40 years, all counties falling under the classification are rural. The families living behind row after row of corn and soybeans may not be able to afford the higher cost of fresh healthy food if it’s even available.
Most small towns have a grocery store, but because those store owners have higher costs, rural residents pay 17 percent more on average than urban residents for the same basket of groceries. As Rink DaVee of Shooting Star Farm in Mineral Point explains, “Our single grocery store is very important to us because it’s all we’ve got.” If those stores don’t carry local or healthy products, rural residents have few other choices. Even if Rink would like to sell his products locally and see his neighbors purchase them, if the one store in town isn’t an option, everyone is out of luck.
But aren’t rural families the ones growing all the green veggies and fresh meat found in your average supermarket aisle? The sight of green crops on a July day in farm country may give the illusion of food abundance. But, in reality, the corn and soybeans covering most of Southern Wisconsin bear little resemblance to the food on our dinner plate. Rather, those crops go towards animal feed and industrial food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup. By far the majority of the fresh fruits and vegetables we consume are grown in California. Similarly, meat is produced on feedlots in western states. The farmer doesn’t see his corn crop in his bowl until Kellogg has turned it into Corn Pops. And you can bet the farmer paid significantly more for his Pops than he was paid for the kernels inside it. The end result is the exodus of millions of dollars out of rural communities and into the bank accounts of industrial food giants.
But grocery co-ops outside Madison and Milwaukee offer a way for eaters in smaller communities to gain more control by offering fresh, local foods and buying direct from their farming neighbors. “We are the only store around that carries locally grown foods,” says Lynette Wirth of Basics Cooperative in Janesville. “Our customers come from all over the region, not just Janesville. We serve residents of Lake Geneva, Delevan and many others.”
Another grocery co-op in Southern Wisconsin is Trillium Natural Foods in Mount Horeb that serves residents from Black Earth and Darlington as well as suburban customers from Verona. Just outside the Madison area, Trillium finds itself in a unique position. With dedicated area residents that do most of their shopping at Trillium and members who make regular trips into Madison for much of their food, Trillium strikes a balance between farming communities and commuter communities. But Trillium’s role as a provider of organic and natural foods doesn’t stop at the consumer level. Nearby Blue Marble Dairy buys organic sugar and cocoa from Trillium to make chocolate milk on their farmstead dairy. Blue Marble then bottles the milk in returnable glass bottles and sells it to Trillium customers. These grocery co-ops in smaller communities play a vital role as buyers and sellers.
Making locally grown and healthy food available to rural residents is one way grocery co-ops are addressing food justice in rural areas, but buying from their farming neighbors is another. As Lynette of Basics points out, “We buy from small farms that can’t sell to the big grocery stores in town and don’t have the resources to supply Madison—be it because they farm part time or transportation costs.” During the growing season Lynette sources 70 percent of Basic’s produce from small farmers in her community. Being small and nearer a major market poses difficulties for Trillium. Becky, Trillium’s general manager, explains that she can’t source as much locally as she’d like, “Farmers in our community reserve their supplies for Madison farmers’ markets and Willy Street Co-op. Sometimes we get only the leftovers.”
While grocery co-ops are addressing issues of food justice in rural communities by creating local markets for agricultural products and providing fresh healthy food to rural residents, this approach depends on sufficient demand for those products. REAP Food Group, a Madison-based non-profit is working to grow consumer demand for local products through the Buy Fresh Buy Local Southern Wisconsin program.
Through Buy Fresh Buy Local (BFBL) Southern Wisconsin, grocery co-ops and farmers alike will have access to low cost marketing and graphic materials. Although marketing often looks like nothing more than an invasive and pervasive appeal to our consumerist selves, it can be a positive force for social change. By gathering the growing power of the local food movement on farms, in retail stores and in restaurants Buy Fresh Buy Local shows that farmers, chefs and eaters are building an identity for Southern Wisconsin food.
The centerpiece of Buy Fresh Buy Local’s efforts to encourage eaters to choose local is a logo displaying the abundance of Southern Wisconsin. Grocery co-ops like Trillium, Basics and Willy Street Co-op can try to sell all the kohlrabi a farmer grows but until the consumer recognizes it as valuable, the impact is limited. Buy Fresh Buy Local hopes that consumers may soon look at that kohlrabi and recognize it as a fine crop particularly suited to our climate.
Working with grocery co-ops to craft marketing materials that suit their needs and promote their valuable role in the community the BFBL program hopes to unite the local food community with a beautiful logo on restaurant menus, in grocery co-ops and at farmers markets. By continually reminding consumers that fresh and local food is closer than they think BFBL will grow the market for sustainable farmers to sell into.
Southern Wisconsin’s food culture, like it’s rural culture, is rich and diverse. Our region and our food are something to be proud of. By cultivating a regional food identity we benefit ourselves as eaters and as community members, be it urban or rural.