Surveys of Willy Street Co-op customers show that your vision for the Co-op lies squarely with the local. When asked to complete the sentence “Because of Willy Street Co-op,” survey respondents overwhelmingly associate the Co-op with local food. In the 2016 survey, 83% of people chose “shoppers can choose more locally produced items, and local farmers and food producers are supported and thriving” as one of their top three options. This demonstrates quite clearly how passionate you are about local food and how much you want the Co-op to focus on and invest in it. With Madison also being home to an enormous array of farmers’ markets, it’s no surprise that our city is ready to put our money where our mouth is. Local food is increasingly accessible to us through a variety of channels—not just farmers’ markets and the Co-op, but also community supported agriculture (CSA) options and resources, formal and informal, for starting a garden. Personally, I don’t have much of a green thumb, but as a pedestrian on the near-east side of Madison, I acquired basil seedlings and a free cherry tomato plant from different sources marked “free” just by walking home from work. My point is, we’re collaboratively creating a culture in which eating local is easier than in the last few decades.
Environmental impact is a huge reason many people choose to eat local foods, but that’s a more complex issue than it might seem at first glance. For example, according to Anna Lappé in Diet for a Hot Planet, a 2007 analysis in the New York Times by author James McWilliams purported that it was more environmentally friendly for British people to eat lamb from New Zealand than from the United Kingdom. Seem strange? Apparently, New Zealand (at least at the time of this analysis) had more environmentally friendly energy sources and therefore cleaner farming practices than the UK—enough so to offset the advantage offered by skipping the flight miles. As Lappé explains, “Lamb raised in New Zealand used seven times less nitrogen.” Of course, environmental impact isn’t the only reason to eat locally; but this author’s point is that it’s easy to focus solely on food miles as a value and to overlook related matters. When we’re interested in supporting local producers, we should also investigate our underlying reasons for that desire and strive to create local food systems that support those connected values.
Lappé also notes that many “locavores,” as they’re often called, care greatly about farming practices and about knowing their farmers. “Yes, food miles are important, but just as important is how your food was produced and by whom...it matters that food has been raised sustainably and comes from people you know, or at least have the possibility of knowing...the ‘local’ in locavore is really code for sustainability and connectivity.”
Part of the reason local is even more important than organic certification to many people may be because they know that local farms often follow, or do their best to follow, organic practices, even if they are too small to access support for organic certification. Organic certification can be expensivefor a small farm, and in some areas, not well supported by local or state governments. As Douglas Gayeton explains in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America about visiting Alabama and not finding organic farms, “Many areas [in the American South] lack local distribution systems to connect interested farmers with the consumers who want these organic goods. Second, Alabama farmers don’t get enough guidance and support to go organic....[t]hird, southern farmers don’t want the federal government to come in and tell them what to do with their land.” Instead, as Gayeton learns from talking with farmer Edwin Marty at Jones Valley Urban Farm, Marty lives by a principle called “Local first, certification second…’Organic certification or a piece of paper will never ensure you’re getting good food. You have to know your farmer.’”
“Know Your Farmer” is an important mantra of the local food movement. You may have seen the “Know Your Farmer” and “Know Your Maker” signs at Willy Street Co-op locations. Even the USDA uses this phrase in their “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. If you frequent farmers’ markets, you know how easy it can be to get to know your farmer; we want to help you see the direct and close relationships the buyers at Willy Street Co-op have with local farmers and producers, hence the signs we make to highlight where your food comes from and introduce you to the people working so hard to bring it to your plate.
The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems published a brochure, available freely online at foodsystems.msu.edu/uploads/files/Local_Food_Movement.pdf, that includes a wealth of information on the history and trajectory of the local food movement in the United States. Some high points, paraphrased:
•The merging of the local food movement with other food-related issues such as food justice, food access and health is fairly recent.
•Number of CSAs in the United States over time:
•2005: 1,046, an increase of about 1,740 percent since 1990
•2009: 2,932, almost tripled in four years
•Number of farmers’ markets in the United States over time:
•2004: 3,706, more than doubled in a decade
•2011: 7,864, more than doubled again in seven years
•In 1996, the first farm-to-school program was piloted in California and Florida.
•In 2012, a census of farm-to-school program participation showed 38,000 participating schools, serving 21 million students.
The word “locavore,” by the way, is a relatively recent term. Coined in 2005 by Jessica Prentice; it caught on like wildfire and became the Oxford American Dictionary word of the year just two years later.
Types of Local Products
Local produce in the Madison area not only could have a whole article written about it, but it does. Check out the article on page 17 written by Leah Perri of FairShare CSA Coalition with information about CSAs and their role in the local food community in the Madison area. And later in this article, I’ll review some interesting information I learned about how Co-op Buyers source local produce for the Prepared Foods departments.
What could be a prouder local Wisconsin product than cheese? As the #1 cheese producer in the United States ever since 1910, Wisconsin does distribute cheese nationally and globally, but those of us who live here get to enjoy top-quality cheese as a local food. Around 80 percent of the cheese sold at Willy Street Co-op islocal. If you were around the Co-op stores in March, you might have participated in the annual Cheese Challenge, which pits 32 cheeses—all local—against each other in a March Madness-style competition. Due to everyone who voted, we now have a winner: Hook’s Triple Play Extra Innings, an aged cheese made from goat, sheep and cow milk. The competition was stiff, though, and if you are feeling nostalgic as you’re reading this right now, make sure to stop by the Cheese department next time you’re at the Co-op and pick up any one of the competitors. Every one of them was from a local producer that would be delighted to have your support.
As an east-sider, I’m infatuated with the bakery options on Willy Street alone. With Nature’s Bakery, Batch Bakehouse and Madison Sourdough, one will never want for freshly baked bread options around here. And all of them are different with uniquely special options; all are available at Willy East, West and North, alongside many additional fantastic breads from other vendors.
Madison Sourdough is taking local to a particularly deep level. They mill grains for their bread. If you’ve never tasted bread made from freshly milled flour, you’re in for a treat; it’s fantastic. Madison Sourdough describes on their website, “Our Austrian stone mill is currently producing whole grain flours milled from Wisconsin-grown grains. Most of our loaves in production include our in-house milled flour.”
Sourcing Local Products for the Co-op
Patrick Schroeder, Prepared Foods Category Manager, shared with me some information about how the Co-op sources local products, along with an innovative method used to keep track of vendors. The Co-op buys from over 400 separate vendors over the course of a calendar year—a very high number. As Patrick explains, this takes a lot more work than dealing with only a few large distribution houses, as might happen at a grocery store that’s less focused on small local farms and producers. How to handle all the information for the many vendors? In the Prepared Foods departments, the buyers use a spreadsheet with frequently updated information on vendors and their prices. Aside from just indicating prices, the spreadsheet indicates when buyers should make purchasing from a local vendor the top priority, based on seasonality and the commitment to buy local.
Patrick describes the process of sourcing from individual local vendors as “ear-to-the-ground,” involving word of mouth and “meeting them at conferences, farmers‘ markets, or food shows”-—again, a whole different ballgame than buying everything from a few large distributors.
One particular challenge in keeping local products in the stores revolves around weather, particularly when it comes to produce. Volatility in supply due to weather means that buyers need to keep backup options in mind; so, if you expect to see a local product during a particular season and you see a non-local version instead, this is a likely reason. And, as Patrick explains, “Even vendors dealing in shelf-stable goods can sometimes gap in production or have their inventory rapidly reduced by acts of God or larger retailers buying them out. You [a Co-op buyer] just have to roll with the punches and be communicative.” The good news is that the systems in place, and the people who created and work with them, are doing a great job of maximizing the local products we’re able to keep available for shoppers. Patrick cites the vendor spreadsheet as having exponentially increased the amount of local produce buying in the Delis and Production Kitchen. The amount of work that goes into the ever-dynamic purchasing system impressively showcases the buyers’ dedication to Owners’ values when it comes to local products.
Local Food in Schools
Feeding their family local food at home might be a priority for many in the Madison area, but what about kids’ school lunches? The USDA began a Farm-to-School program in 2012, and the non-profit called National Farm to School Network began in 2007. Here in town, the Madison Metropolitan School District Food and Nutrition Department works with REAP Food Group in a partnership called MMSD Farm to School Project, which “brings fresh, local, sustainably produced food to children, establishes reliable markets for local farms using sustainable agriculture practices, and provides hands-on education in Madison classrooms.” (www.reapfoodgroup.org/farm-to-school) According to the school district’s website, in 2014-2015, 50,000 pounds of local fruits and vegetables went into meals for 25,000 students. In fact, when REAP encountered a funding gap last spring, your Co-op was able to donate money to help them continue providing fresh produce for the remainder of the school year.
Local on a Budget
When certain items are in season and plentiful, eating locally can be effortlessly cheaper than buying globally. At other times, and for certain items that are more expensive to produce, eating locally can feel like it’s taking a hit on the ol’ wallet. Fortunately, there’s a whole book with innovative ideas on how to eat locally and thriftily. Eat Local for Less by Julie Castillo has many lists, including this one:
1. Eat less meat
2. Make several meals from each chicken or large piece of meat
3. Buy the seasonal avalanche and then freeze it
4. Buy single-ingredient items and cook meals from scratch
5. Buy directly from real farmers
6. Plan meals around what’s cheapest at the time
7. Serve a filling first course made of what’s cheap, serve a smaller second course of the pricier stuff
8. Grow some of it yourself
9. Buy the farmer’s seconds
10. Buy the whole cow or pig, not just the pricey cuts
And I would add: check the scratch-and-dent produce baskets underneath the regular produce displays at the Co-op for discounted items that are still delicious. For more tips on thrifty shopping at the Co-op specifically, see the article from August 2016 by that title, online at www.willystreet.coop/reader/august-2016/thrifty-shopping-willy-street-co-op. Many of the tips in that article can be applied to local food, given that the Co-op stocks so many local products! (Note that in the time since that article was published, the IDEALS program has changed names to Co+op Basics, but still serves the same purpose.)
Another way to eat locally on a budget is through foraging wild foods. Of course, do your research on what you’re gathering before you start eating what you see around. But if you know how to identify safe-to-eat foods, you might be surprised to know how much can be found freely available. Several organizations have created maps for foraging, including a large, global one at fallingfruit.org. Check out the website and zoom in on the map to find out where the publicly accessible fruit trees are in Madison or wherever you may be.
Further Reading & Involvement
In Wisconsin, REAP Food Group would be a great place to start if you want to work to increase access to local food. According to their website, “[f]or more than 19 years, REAP Food Group has been working throughout Southern Wisconsin to build and sustain a local food system that supports small family farms and locally owned businesses, promotes sustainable agriculture practices, and provides access to fresh, healthy food for the entire community.” You can support them by volunteering, attending their events, becoming a member, or buying a t-shirt. Information on how to do all of these things is available on their website at www.reapfoodgroup.org/about/get-involved.
In all my research for this article, one book stood out to me as an excellent—and beautiful—resource on many interconnected topics related to local food. That book was Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America by Douglas Gayeton, published in 2014. To learn an incredible amount about what specific people and groups are doing across the country to farm and eat more consciously, check out this book. It’s full of a huge variety of photos and stories.
In the realm of cookbooks, check out From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce by Fairshare CSA Coalition, from right here in Madison. From Asparagus to Zucchini is available for sale at all three Willy Street Co-op stores. As the book’s promotional description explains, “From Asparagus to Zucchini is more than just a cookbook. Also included are essays that address the larger picture of sustainable agriculture, how our food choices fit into our economy, environment, and community, and more information on home food preservation and how to help kids appreciate—and even eat—their vegetables.” How deliciously thorough!