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Local Food System Development— A Strategic Goal for Willy Street Co-op

“Never before has the food system been so broken, but never before have so many people been willing to stand up and do something about it.” -Slow Food of Southeast WI

Each year the Willy Street Co-op’s Board of Directors holds an annual planning retreat. The 2011 Board retreat took place on February 20th in the Goodman Community Center. Most of the day’s conversation centered on developing tangible strategic goals for the Co-op to work toward over the next three to five years. The Strategic Planning Committee presented 10 white papers (brief analyses of benefits and challengesof each idea), with each one focused on suggestions provided by Co-op Owners (see the Board Report on pages 4-5). Board members reviewed all 10 papers and, over the course of the retreat, selected three to delegate to management for implementation. The three finalists were: #1.) Local Food System Development; #2.) Financial Accessibility; and #3.) Green Initiatives.

Obviously, these are three very broad topics that could include any number of projects/initiatives. Staff have been charged with working toward these goals, and would love to hear input from you, our Owners, on what shape that work could take. To that end, we will be devoting articles in the Reader to expanding on the ideas/concepts behind each of these topics. This month we will focus on the Board’s top strategic priority: Local Food System Development.

Board member Jeff Bessmer summarized the aim of the food system development goal in his white paper in this way: “Our Owners have indicated that developing our local food system is a project that they would like us to consider for the next three to five years. This would involve partnering with organizations with goals in local food system development such as the UW and community organizations to maximize our collective impact.” Before we can tackle any projects that would work toward achieving this goal, we need to do a couple of things. First, we need to figure out what the heck a “local food system” is, and why it would need development. Second, we need to know what other organizations/efforts are already underway that we could partner with or augment.

What is a Local Food System?
So...what is a “local food system?” According to the National Agricultural Law Center, a food system “refers to the interconnected processes that connect the complex spectrum of food production to food processing, consumption, and ultimately disposal.” Cornell University takes it a step further, stipulating that a food system “includes all processes involved in keeping us fed: growing, harvesting, processing (or transforming or changing), packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming and disposing of food and food packages.” A local food system then is one that accomplishes all of these things within certain geographical boundaries. There is no universal agreement on what those boundaries should be. For our purposes, the Willy Street Co-op has labeled foods produced within the state of Wisconsin, or within 150 miles of the Capitol, as “local.”

Why Should We Develop Our Local Food System?
The National Agricultural Law Center states, “The food system in the United States is predominantly characterized as a complex and globally integrated system in which products are routinely produced, processed, and shipped hundreds and thousands of miles from the point of consumption.” In other words, most of the food available to us is from anywhere in the world except our local areas. What’s the matter with that?

Problems with the Global Food System
“Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. Being healthy is not just medicine; it’s living what we know is right. And seasonal, regional food fresh from the earth is the best medicine our money can buy. We get our food from corporate sources all over the world who are making their local communities sick from their unsustainable practices. Is this what we really want to support? Not to mention feed our families? No, it’s not. We have a wonderful community to sustain, people in our own communities to support.” -Monique Hooker

A few warning bells go off in my head when I think about the global food system. While I love deliciously ripe avocados, cucumbers in winter, or munching on one of those cool “Buddha’s hand” fruits, I don’t feel great about the amount of fuel that was expended to bring that food to me. Shipping food from all around the globe means airplanes, trains, trucks, cars... and a whole bunch of steps separating me from whoever produced that food in the first place. Since I can’t go and visit the farm in, say, New Zealand that grew my Pink Lady apples, I have to take on faith that their production practices are up to par. When I buy a pre-packaged meal from the freezer section, I need to trust that the labels on the food accurately document the processes/ingredients enclosed in that package. Since agricultural safety standards vary greatly from country to country, it can take quite a bit of sleuthing before I’m confident that I am eating something that is good for my body and me.

Another concern that comes to mind is the food security of our lovely region of the world. Food security can mean many things, and one of them is the ability of a particular area to be able to feed itself should food supply chains ever be interrupted. This ties our food directly to global security concerns, and to fuel prices and availability. Last, but certainly not least, our local economies depend on dollars staying within the community. When we buy our goods from far away, only a small portion of the money we spend actually stays here.

Choosing Local
“Learn the origins of the food you buy, and the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.” -Wendell Berry

A robust local food system satisfies a number of these concerns. Let’s address the last point first. In a 2002 study on the local food economy of Central Puget Sound, researcher Viki Sonntag concluded that, “spending food dollars locally significantly increases regional income because local food economy businesses are likely to use local suppliers. Locally directing spending [also] supports a web of relationships, rooted in place, which serve to restore the land and regenerate the community.” According to the 100-Mile Diet, a British study tracked how much money that was spent at a local food business stayed in the local economy, and how many times it was reinvested. The total value was almost twice the contribution of a dollar spent at a supermarket chain.

“A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country.” -The 100-Mile Diet

Purchasing local food certainly reduces the distance food travels between producers and consumers, which not only reduces the overall transportation energy output, but also increases the freshness of the food itself. A robust local food system can protect local farmland, which increases the overall amount of local food available, which in turn can increase a region’s food security by reducing the area’s vulnerability to supply disruptions. It is also significantly easierto get the specifics about how a food is produced when you can actually go visit the farm or speak with the person who produced it.

What’s Going On Now?
“What really makes me hopeful is the existence of so many experiments on the ground now, all over the country. Everything from Growing Power in Milwaukee and farm revitalization in Detroit, to the restoration of an integrated food system in Hardwick, Vermont, and the Slow Money movement, finding ways to let us all invest in local agriculture and the food system across the country.” - Joan Gussow

We are fortunate to be living in a region that has a thriving local food system. As we think about ways the Co-op can work to further develop that system, we can start by looking at what is already in place and working. There are many dedicated and passionate people working on local food projects within our community. We don’t have the space here to cover everything that is going on, but we will cover a few of the major ones!

Farmers’ Markets
Our area is very fortunate to be served by a variety of farmers’ markets, including one of the biggest farmers’ markets in the world.

The Dane County Farmers’ Market takes place on Saturday mornings from 6:00am–2:00pm, rain or shine. Warm market season starts this month, on April 16th, and fills the Capitol Square. This market has been highlighted in cookbooks, food magazines, and on blogs across the internet. Though farmers’ markets in Madison began way back in the 1850s, the Dane County Farmers’ Market that we know and love really began in 1970. A citizen at a public information session asked the mayor at the time, Bill Dyke, “Why doesn’t Madison have a good farmers’ market?” This question sparked Mayor Dyke and his assistant Bob Brennan to begin the involved process of establishing a farmers’ market in downtown Madison. The first market, held on September 30th, 1972, had 11 vendor participants. They were quickly overwhelmed by the crowd of customers clamoring for fresh produce. The next week, 85 sellers came to the market, and met several thousand more eager customers. The market continued to grow in leaps and bounds over the years. The Saturday market now has over 150 vendors each week during the warm weather season, and tens of thousands of customers.

The Dane County Farmers’ market also carries the distinction of being the single largest producer-only market in the country. This means that all of the agriculturally-related products are produced within the state of Wisconsin, by the vendors selling them—food transparency and direct marketing at its best.

We have many other farmers’ markets in the area as well! Check out the information box on the side for a list of all local farmers’ market dates and times.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
“CSA is a unique social and economic arrangement between local households and farmers who work together to share the responsibility of producing and delivering fresh food. Households support the farm by paying an annual fee in the winter or spring that entitles them to a ‘share’ of the season’s harvest. Once harvesting begins, members pick-up a weekly box of fresh foods which may include produce, fruits, cheeses, eggs, meats, poultry, flowers, herbs or preserves. The goals of CSA support a sustainable agriculture system which provides farmers with direct outlets for farm products and ensures fair compensation.” -MACSAC

In last month’s Reader Kiera Mulvey, the Executive Director of MACSAC (Madison Area CSA Coalition) wrote an excellent piece explaining what Community Supported Agriculture is and how it manifests in our area. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, check it out at in the Reader archives!

Community Gardens
A community garden is, very simply, any piece of land gardened by a group of people. It can be in the city, in the suburbs, or out in a rural area. It can take many forms, from a single plot farmed by a small group of people to a larger collection of plots tended by many. We have a wealth of community gardens in the Madison and Middleton areas.

Community Organizations
Dynamic communities like Middleton and Madison are home to a variety of organizations dedicated working to improve and protect our access to food. Here’s a short list of some of the exciting groups we have the pleasure of working with.

REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy on) Food Group
REAP Food Group is a non-profit organization that is devoted to “building a regional food system that is healthful, just and both environmentally and economically sustainable.” This team of individuals, led by Executive Director Miriam Grunes, administers a variety of programs to link individuals with theproducers of their food and to grow our local food system. One program of particular note is the REAP Farm to School program, which works to get locally produced foods into Madison area schools. Another is the Buy Fresh Buy Local program, which works to connect local farmers with restaurants, health care providers, grocers and other food sellers. REAP also coordinates the annual Food for Thought Festival in September.

Middleton Sustainability Committee
The City of Middleton has an ad hoc Sustainability Committee that works on a variety of sustainability initiatives throughout the Middleton community. From working to create a public community garden to organizing the bi-annual Clean & Green Event (sponsored this year by the City of Middleton and Willy Street Co-op), the Sustainability Committee is a powerhouse for change within Middleton.

UW Center for Integrated Agriculture systems (CIAS)
The CIAS is a research center in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They are also a part of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. CIAS works to “learn how particular integrated farming systems can contribute to environmental, economic, social and intergenerational sustainability.” They focus on the needs of farmers and citizens while setting their agricultural research agendas, and offer a variety of educational and outreach programs.

UW Cooperative Extension
The University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension “extends the knowledge and resources of the University of Wisconsin to people where they live and work.” Their programs work to meet community challenges while protecting natural resources, strengthening Wisconsin families, supporting young people, and working with agriculture. UW Extension runs 4-H and Master Gardener programs throughout the state. The Master Gardener program provides interested citizens with the fundamental information needed to grow food and other plants in a variety of settings. This program also emphasizes community involvement by setting a volunteer hour requirement to maintain Master Gardener certification.

Slow Food—USA, Madison and UW
Slow Food USA describes themselves as, “an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with commitment to community and the environment.” There are numerous local Slow Food chapters across the USA, including one here in Madison, one at the UW, and others throughout the state. This non-profit organization works on multiple levels to promote whole, local and sustainable foods within individual households and institutions.

Sustain Dane
Sustain Dane is a non-profit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin that works on a variety of sustainability initiatives. To quote their website, “We connect world trends to local needs and interests to create innovative new programs and projects. With a comprehensive approach to sustainability, we work with all the sectors that affect our daily lives, including school districts, municipal governments, business communities and neighborhoods.” Sustain Dane also puts on the annual Bioneers conference.

Madison Fruits and Nuts
Madison Fruits and Nuts is a new group that encourages planting and harvesting of fruits and nuts in Madison. They offer orchard planning and pruning workshops, advocate for fruit trees as street trees, and link with other organizations throughout the city for various educational activities.

Food co-ops, such as Willy Street Co-op, Nature’s Bakery, Just Coffee, Regent Street Market Co-op, etc., have long emphasized the importance of developing local communities through safe and sustainable food. Here at Willy Street Co-op we strive to offer as many local products as we can, and to connect you, our Owners, with our local vendors. To help make finding local products easier, we have developed a three-level labeling program within the store. A tag that says “100% Locally Grown” indicates that the product is entirely produced within the state of Wisconsin or within 150 miles of the Capitol. A product that is labeled “Locally Grown” has been almost entirely produced in Wisconsin, except for a few ingredients. The last label, “Locally Produced,” stands in front of products that have been made by locally owned businesses, but may not contain exclusively local ingredients.

Our Co-op will also be hosting our second Eat Local Challenge in September of this year. The Eat Local Challenge provides an excellent opportunity to try incorporating more local foods into your diet with the support of the cooperative community behind you!

Do We Really Need to Do More?
We are incredibly fortunate to live in a region with a thriving local food system. However, a study by the CIAS has found that the demand and need for local product will require scaling up of local and regional food systems. Simply put... we need to grow more local food! The study goes on to say, “Scaling up regional food systems calls for reassessment of current practices and will necessarily draw on expertise from a variety of fields including horticulture, agronomy, food processing, transportation logistics and marketing. Improving production and supply chain management, filling gaps in regional wholesale food networks and building lasting supply chain partnerships will require investment in technical and entrepreneurial capacity, basic business acumen and drive.”

Willy Street Co-op, as a grocery retailer, a cooperative, and a for-profit organization, is uniquely qualified to help in this work. But how?

How Indeed...
This article could become a full book if I went into detail about all of the incredible food-related activities that are currently happening in our communities. The purpose of this article, however, is to provide a broad base of information for your comments and suggestions for ways Willy Street Co-op can work to develop our local food system. Some ideas that have been suggested include a farm, a foundation and a warehouse.

What do you think? How could the Willy Street Co-op work to further develop our local food system? Email your suggestions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or leave a comment at our Customer Comments area in either store! Also, the Board will be holding its monthly Owner Forum at Willy East this month, from 5:30-6:00pm across from the coffee bins. Stop by and discuss ideas you have with Board members!