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Local Food Accessibility

by Patrick Schroeder, Category Manager–Prepared Foods

We Madisonians love to revel in our reputation for being food-driven. We have a vibrant culture of eating out, once boasted the most restaurants per capita, and have one of the largest farmers’ markets in the country. Usually, when we talk about innovation in the food scene, we are talking about that newest restaurant, that awesome must-have from the market, or that hot trend that we can rely on local stores and chefs to cater to. 

These are necessary qualities of our food scene. The creativity and aliveness that comes from these sources helps to build excitement and demand. 

Accessibility

There is another quality that is critical to develop in our local food scene, however: accessibility. This is not flashy like a hot, new restaurant. It’s not super compelling like a delicious, seasonal product. It is necessary, however, if we want to solve the problem of making our locally produced food available to those who want and need it. As folks who work deeply with local food producers, Megan Minnick (our Purchasing Director) and I have been living in this inquiry. As Willy Street Co-op, we can only gather so much and only get it to so many. We realize that our model isn’t for everyone. That hasn’t stopped us from being curious about what else we could be doing. 

Interrelated projects

To that end, we have been working with the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (UW-CIAS) and the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative (WFHC) on a couple of interrelated projects. The intent of these projects are to get more food from Wisconsin producers into the Madison market. Period. The problem? There isn’t much infrastructure in Madison for produce distribution. Most of the farmers that we work with bring their product into town themselves. We have a few distributors in town that can channel local product to restaurants and stores, but it does not comprise the bulk of produce being bought and sold, even in season. UW-CIAS and the WFHC are interested in changing this.

Freight efficiencies project

One of the initiatives, the “Freight Efficiencies Project” has Megan and me, in her words, “working in collaboration with numerous Wisconsin partners to increase the supply of local produce in the Madison metropolitan area.” This means we’ve been meeting with collaborators like the Wisconsin Food Hub, Epic Systems, local distributors, REAP, and many thoughtful individuals from the UW-CIAS and Center for Cooperatives. This group is exploring how large food users (stores like us, institutions like hospitals and schools, and large corporations) could better work together to identify what produce we all use and get it into our hands more efficiently. One of the major goals is to solve “last-mile” requirement that so often stops the supply chain: just getting aggregated product around town. We hope to do this through shared cross-docking and jointly contracted logistics. Ultimately, the outcomes of this project would work to improve the supply chain not just for Madison, but for the region as a whole.

Madison terminal market study

The other project we’ve had the privilege of weighing in on is the “Madison Terminal Market Study.” Another effort by the City and the Mayor’s office, a grant was awarded this year to study the feasibility of opening a terminal market (or another type of product collection/distribution facility) in the vacated Oscar Mayer site (or another site). The grant was awarded this spring to Agricultural and Community Development Services (ACDS), a consulting firm out of Maryland. Founder Phil Gottwals and his team have spent the ensuing time interviewing businesses and farmers to gain insight about our food system. Phil and ACDS’s director, Anna Jensen, made it clear in their pitch to the City that studying the regional demand was the first step, not analyzing its supply. They recently shared some results of their studies, namely showing that Madison has a higher-than-regional demand for organic foods, dining out, fast-food, and home delivery. They are taking these criteria into account in any recommendations they make with regard to proposed food aggregation facilities in Madison. Their business case is due out this fall, and if the ideation process is any indicator, we believe it will be groundbreaking work. 

Goal

Both of these projects are working toward a similar end: to get local products, of which we have plenty in Wisconsin, to be more available to all of us. That means available as the norm, not the exception. On a personal note, it is very heartening to observe the talent and passion in places like the UW, the Food Hub, and the office of the Mayor being directed to this end. I think getting local products to our market more cheaply and effectively would cause a major groundswell for Wisconsin, for consumer and producer alike.