Anyone interested in reducing their food miles—i.e., eating food produced locally—has questioned why it’s harder to find spinach produced around the corner than it is to get spinach that’s grown 10 states away. The answer is complicated, but it boils down to having the right connections. As more people come around to the idea that supporting local farmers is good for the economy, the environment and public health, the need to make the connections between farmer and consumer is coming to the forefront of sustainable living. This is where local-food coordinators come in.
When asked to explain her role as coordinator for Louisville Farm to Table, a city local-food-system program based in Louisville, Ky., Sarah Fritschner says, “I think my Twitter tag line says it all: ‘Increasing the Kentucky farmer’s portion of the local food economy.’ The work falls into two categories: Helping markets find and use local food, and increasing farmer capacity to grow and sell to local markets.”
Having a local-food coordinator in your community to help connect the dots between farmers and consumers is a boost for farmers who want to sell directly to local buyers, as well as for consumers who want to see more local food readily available.
“When people talk about growing, selling, buying, eating local food, I think they might be visualizing it in its shortest possible food chain: farmer to consumer,” Fritschner says. “That link is critical, but only about half the food that’s eaten in the country is eaten at home. Most of the time we’re eating at school, or college, in a retirement community, at a restaurant, at a hotel, at a sports venue. We’re ordering food for a wedding banquet or for a convention or a seminar or a meeting. If many farmers are going to make the kind of living we all want, all of those venues must be engaged in supporting shorter food-supply chains.”
A typical day in the life of a local-food coordinator might involve visiting a farmer to talk about quantity and quality of crops that will be harvested in the next month; talking with the food-service director at a local school district about the already-cut, frozen green beans ready for purchase; or delivering a presentation to local government or civic organizations about the difference a strong local-food economy can make to a city.
With relatively few local-food coordinators out there—but more positions are slowly being developed by local government, university and sustainable-ag groups—the folks doing these jobs need some support from community members. Shopping at the farmers’ market, of course, is a great show of local-food support, but farmers’ markets are just the beginning. If local farmers are going to make a decent wage, they need larger buyers, such as restaurants and institutions, which can be facilitated by local-food coordinators (and you!). Here are some ways you can help out your local-food coordinator.
1. Talk to your (or your child’s, your nephew’s, your friend’s, et cetera) school’s food-service director.
One example of a local-food success in schools is local creamy chicken: “Any Kentucky public school has access to a creamy, cheesy chicken dish that costs $0.55 per serving,” Fritschner says. “There’s no reason whatsoever for nutrition directors not to put it on the menu. Every barrier has been removed. This creamy chicken contains puréed Kentucky orange vegetables that make kids healthier. Kids all over Kentucky have tasted it and rated it highly.”
2. Always ask for local.
“When you plan your next meeting, wedding or conference, ask for local,” Fritschner suggests. “It’s available. Be willing to give a little on price, be willing to buy bone-in chicken instead of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Expect push-back, and be gentle but firm.”
3. Seek out your state’s or region’s “local” label.
There’s Piedmont Grown [http://www.piedmontgrown.org/] in North Carolina, Our Local Food [http://ourlocalfoodks.blogspot.com/] in Kansas, Bountiful Berks [http://www.bountifulberks.org/] in Pennsylvania and more. You’ll find products with these labels in grocery stores, which represent a large sales opportunity for farmers and food producers.
4. Talk to chefs at locally owned restaurants.
Let them know you’re willing to not eat tomatoes in January and can forgo asparagus in August. Fritschner points out a major barrier to getting more local food into more commercial hands is not being able to access all vegetables all the time. If the chefs believe their customers are willing to be flexible in their eating options, they’ll know they’re not losing out on business as a result of seasonal availability.
5. Get to know your food-coordinator.
If you’re lucky enough to have a local-food coordinator in your region, touch base with them. Find out about programs currently underway, and see if you or an organization you belong to can support these programs somehow. If you don’t have a local-food coordinator in your region, get the conversation started with your local government, the cooperative extension or sustainable-foods organizations about creating this position.
Lack of funding—rather than lack of interest—is the major barrier to putting a local-food coordinator in every area. Additionally, funding is often supported by grants, especially in the early stages of a local-food position, so a position might be created for two years but won’t be guaranteed after that time. The Iowa Food System Working Group’s “Local Food Coordinators” publication points out: “This has consequences on the success and longevity of regional food system efforts; coordinators may only be able to commit time to projects for which grants are received, regions may be forced to engage in ‘money chasing’ that can take a coordinator away from mission-related work, or coordinators may be unable to build long-term programs that meet the needs of residents and stakeholders in the community and region.”
Push government and organization leaders to not only develop this food-coordinator job but also to secure funding for a longer-term position to reduce this burden.
In the end, local-food opportunities boil down to economics. All the local-food coordinators in the world can’t help a community if community members aren’t behind the movement.
“This movement is consumer driven,” Fritschner says. “If each of us buys one more item each week that’s local—purchase those local eggs at the grocery store, order local at the restaurant—it will continue to increase the interest and commitment to local food. Consumer interest is absolutely what caused the University of Kentucky dining service to commit $2 million to local purchases. That’s an amount of money that can start to make a difference to farmers. We hold the power.”