How to Build a Strong Local Food System

Public Domain. Markus Spiske

It goes beyond farmers' markets and CSA shares.

Before we had ‘local food,’ we just had food. Communities fed themselves with whatever was produced in the region, with farmers selling directly to stores and customers. It was unheard of to truck vegetables from Florida or California all year round in order to feed hungry people in the central U.S.

Over the past half-century, however, a more nationalized food production system has developed. As Brian Williams explains in an article for Strong Towns, agricultural states now grow or raise food that’s sent out of state for processing, and then buy it back:

“Today, if every farmer in Ohio pledged to grow for local markets, and every Ohio consumer vowed to buy local, we would have hungry people and wasted food. That’s because we lack the supply chain – the processing, distribution, and marketing ‘infrastructure’ – to move food from farm to fork.”

If we truly want to develop strong local food economies, similar to the ones we once had, then Williams believes our approach must go beyond supporting CSA (community supported agriculture) shares and farmers’ markets. Those are valuable gateways to the local, farm-fresh movement, but not enough to change the way things are done and to disrupt the current economic model. He gives a number of excellent suggestions for spearheading the movement, some of which are shared here. (Read the whole article here.)

1. Get local-purchasing commitments from schools, hospitals, colleges, and other institutions.

Institutional markets are key to developing the infrastructure that’s necessary for a strong local food scene. These institutions have the power to bring farmers, processors, and distributors into a supply-chain network. Their contracts are big enough to support local growers. Their use of local products will expose a broader range of the population to local food – not just foodies visiting a trendy restaurant.

(This suggestion made me think of a book I recently read and reviewed for TreeHugger, “The New Farm,” by Brent Preston. He and his wife realized early on in their career as organic vegetable gardeners that tapping into the restaurant market was necessary in order to be financially viable, rather than relying on the CSA model.)

2. Enlist the support of existing food processing and distribution businesses.

Williams points out that many smaller-scale food processors, such a family-run dairy, slaughterhouse, or produce distributor, are likely feeling the squeeze from the “our merger-happy, get-big-or-get-out business world.” There’s a good chance they would be willing to partner with farmers in the region and to seek out a niche. Reach out and talk about the possibility of providing services to local institutions.

3. Build a network of local farmers who will collaborate.

While individual farmers may not be able to service the needs of a large institution, if their efforts – meat, dairy, vegetables – are pooled with those of other farmers, it could very well become a reality. There is power in numbers, as they say.

4. Build local food economic development infrastructure.

Find out what food processing services exist within the community, such as washing, packing, dicing, shredding, and see how those businesses can get involved in the supply chain. If not, figure out which additional services are needed and put that out to the community; you never know where and how jobs can be created.

Financial productivity is key to making a local food system work, and it must benefit everyone along the way in order to be sustainable.