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What Is Next for the Local Food System?

Have you ever had an idea that you just couldn’t shake? A kernel of something bigger, something that grabs you by the imagination? An idea that you can’t seem to shut up about? I have one of those ideas. It’s been stuck in the craw of my psyche for two years now. It’s been through many different iterations, faced compliment and criticism, and gone in and out of being on the forefront of my mind, but it’s always there. 

 

In essence, it is this: what is next for the local food system?

In this writer’s opinion, this is at the heart of Willy Street Co-op’s purpose. Our Board of Directors revised our Co-op’s Ends Policy last year to this:

“Willy Street Grocery Co-op will be at theforefront of a cooperative and just society that:

•“has a robust local economy built around equitable relationships;

•“nourishes and enriches our community and environment; and

•“has a culture of respect, generosity, and authenticity.”

Given these revised Ends, building our participation in and helping to develop local food systems and supply chains clearly fulfills on all of them.

Take just one aspect of local food production that we’re pretty heavily involved in: organic farm products (grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy). Wisconsin was third in the U.S. in organic land acreage and second in the number of organic farming operations for the same time period. Despite that, we were fifth in sales of organic product in 2014, our most recent data, with $200,800,000 in sales. Average sales per farm were $164,000. Compared to the U.S. leader, California (surprise!), organic farms on their soil average $795,000 per farm. So what does this mean? I interpret it to mean that Wisconsin is full of small-scale organic producers—which is great! That said, it means we are only supporting a small percentage of what is a comparatively small market. It isn’t yet enough!

So we still have room to grow. You could imagine that a large percentage of these organic sales in Wisconsin (that aren’t organic silage and livestock feed, a majority of the total sales) are still being directly marketed through community supported agriculture programs and farmers’ markets. Both of these direct-to-consumer models are treasured aspects of Wisconsin’s food culture, but they don’t deliver the food to the end-user in a way that promotes a larger scale of use. To increase the scale of use of local, organic products (which, again, is only one category of local product), I feel there are four major facets that need to be addressed:

Cost

Food costs have been going down for decades as large-scale operations leverage economies of scale to drive efficiency and competition. To some extent, local food systems have to present ways to take advantage of similar practices to achieve similar reduction. Cost is a driving force for the majority of consumers, and a direct corollary to accessibility.

Aggregation

Moving into more local and regional collection of food is one way to mitigate cost and build accessibility to local foods. The USDA likes to describe this type of operation as a “food hub” which they define as, “a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products, primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.”

Education

Successful promotion of local food has to be tied closely to education of the end-user. Despite what we, as local food system participants, may achieve in terms of greater efficiency in our systems, we will likely never reach the levels of market penetration or cost reduction that large-scale operators enjoy. Therefore, we must rely on education and marketing to help consumers and end users to see the value in local food use.

Accessibility

Local food systems have to actively pursue new pathways to present food to the market. Finding ways to work with large-scale community institutions like hospitals, schools of all levels, and meal programs, as well as restaurants and grocery stores, is a way to ensure that local food reaches ever increasing numbers of people. This, coupled with cost reduction through efficiencies gained in the supply chain, might be our best chance to get more local food into more local hands. Reliance on retailers like restaurants and grocers alone will not reach the widest audience.

 

This year, I am part of a research project to determine just what part the Co-op is to play in this next step for local food systems. This idea isn’t just mine and it needs all the nurturing we can offer it. In addition, it could use anything you might see to contribute. If there are players in the local food scene that you think we should be speaking with as part of our research, please let me know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I look forward to your contributions to the evolution of this inquiry. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest and most worthy of our time.

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