The local food movement relies more on kitchens than grocery stores; more on gardens than commercial growers.
While use of locally sourced food by many restaurants has changed to include more of it, a local foods movement cannot be sustained by the hodge-podge of farmers, growers and entrepreneurs who sell locally produced food to restaurants, or for that matter, to grocery stores.
The problems include scalability and sustainability.
We are living in a time where demand for local food exceeds supply. Scaling up to meet demand requires a capital investment most small farmers can’t make. Sustainability relies on creating value along with the food in a way that cooks can afford it and farmers can make a reasonable return on their investment.
Someone recently asked if the area was becoming saturated with Community Supported Agriculture projects and if that’s why some are having trouble growing membership. An answer lies elsewhere. The market for local fresh food has grown so big corporations noticed.
Companies like Hy-Vee, have tapped into the fresh food market by increasing their number of suppliers and offering fresh and local food alongside wares from large commercial growers. They are sucking up market share like a vacuum cleaner as their business model is designed to do – putting pressure on small and mid-sized growers.
Corporate involvement in the local food market is a two edged sword. Growers can sell their best wares to companies like Hy-Vee and get a reasonable return. At the same time reliance on companies rather than CSA members can distract a farmer from his or her core business.
A solution? CSAs should stick to their knitting by getting payment up front and sharing the harvest with members… all of it. It may be tempting to sell some on the side to restaurants and grocery stores, but the further away from the model they get, instead of doing one thing well, everything they do can suffer. In addition, the market share they help corporations grow may be detracting from their core business.
There is nothing wrong with a farmer growing organic greens for restaurant salads and stir fries. In the end, each farmer must make ends meet, and operating a farm —even a small one — is an expensive operation with tight margins. My point is to focus on one thing and do it well.
It is one thing for a farmer to disassemble a barn and use the materials to create raised beds for a ten-person CSA. It is quite another to support a couple hundred families with the variety of produce the market demands. If you ask a hundred CSA members, as I have, why they belong, answers are all over the map. Some want assurance of a grower who uses organic methods to produce food. Some want variety unavailable at Aldi’s or Fareway. Others want to create a cooking experience with young children as part of their education. Most want to feel good about what they are doing with their lives.
One hopes we are beyond the discussion of “food miles” and on to the core value of the nascent local food economy: know the face of the farmer. It’s corollary is know how your food is grown. Try as they might with life-size cutouts of farmers in their stores, corporations have a hard time doing that. Their customers are too diverse, and they have to cater to everyone in the community. If a person combines these two ideas, knowing how our food is produced and creating demand for local, fresh food the local food movement has a chance.
A very few people strive to source every food ingredient locally. It is not with them the future of local food lies. The future of local food is within the potential of every Iowa kitchen.
To sustain the local foods movement requires consideration of what it means to belong to a CSA or buy from a farmers market. Can that fit into culinary habits in a way that is not an encumbrance to what most perceive as very busy lives?
Can kitchen cooks grow some of their own produce? Probably yes, even if it means only a large flower pot with some cherry tomatoes or an herb jar on a window ledge. Even these small things may be a step too far for some.
The trend in food includes extensive prep work done by machines and large companies. Heat and serve has become a by-line for many available grocery items. Along with taking the kitchen work out of meals, risks of contamination have been created and along with it the need for recalls from large processors whose products get contaminated by E. coli and listeria.
In a consumer society it will always be tough for small-scale producers to survive and thrive. That’s why I say the future of the local food movement rests in Iowa kitchens where cooks can use less processed foods and more fresh — secured by buying local and growing their own.
It’s work many can’t do because of choices made about careers and family. What may be the saving grace of the local food movement is the idea of taking control of our kitchens, in part by living and eating local as much as we can.