Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: Economics of Local Food forum

Last weeks panel on the Economics of Local Food was stimulating, inspiring and fun. Each speaker was engaging and provided first hand accounts regarding the local food economy and the challenges they face in responsibly bringing quality produce, seafood, and meats to market. Challenges including paying a livable wage to those they work with, engaging with the community they operate in, and the difficulty involved in setting a fair price for the producer, retailer, and consumer.
The major underlying theme I took from the panelists was that we as consumers have to challenge those who supply our food. We need to ask questions, get educated, and make our own decisions. As consumers we vote with our dollar. Every food purchasing decision we make is a reflection of whether we choose to support the local food economy or not.
Moderator Ilene Bezahler, editor of Edible Boston opened the forum by asking the question What is local? to the consumer? the producer? For some local is within a 100 mile radius of where you live, for others local can be defined as the geographic region we are in(New England and Upstate, NY). The fact of the matter is that there is no set answer. We need to ask ourselves what local is and make our own decisions on what we consider local.

Up next was Jamey Lionette, former owner of Lionettes Market and currently the organizer of the Boston Local Food Festival. Jamey started off by stating that there is a huge disconnect between food and people. He made the point that for the first time in human history food is now dangerous, it is actually killing us. Rates of food borne illness are rising, as are the rates of obesity and diabetes. One quote from Jamey that really stuck with me was "It is criminal what our food is doing to us"

Food produced by large scale agribusiness is cheap, whereas locally produced farm food looks expensive. Americans on average spend 9% - 16% of their income on food, whereas worldwide that number is closer to 30%. If you add up the true cost of our food (transportation, petroleum, packaging, environmental devastation, etc.) the prices becomes astronomical. As an example of this he points out how astounding it is that that a Banana at a random gas station in Maine should not cost .59 cents. Thinking about the distance that banana had to travel, the oil for the transportation, the packaging, the cost of labor, and so on - it makes no sense that a banana moved 3000 miles (from Ecuador to Maine) could be so cheap. Globally our food comes from a small group of companies (Tyson, Monsanto, & Dole to name some).

Jamey's main point boiled down to: You can eat local food, but it takes work! In New England, for example, asparagus should only be eaten a few weeks a year, not purchased at a grocery store year round where chances are it is coming from Peru. In order to eat locally you have to eat seasonally. Tomatoes in the northeast should be eaten between July and late September- not in the dead of winter. It is better for our bodies, for our local economies, and for the world. Our food is more flavorful, more nutritious, and there is a greater component of human interaction with your food. Instead of going into a sterile super market where you can get all of your food and check out without interacting with a single person you can buy from Farms, Farmers Markets, and local producers and actually interact with the people providing your food, gaining a true idea of where (and who) your food is coming from.

Jamey's final words were directed towards the parents of young children- Try not to think 'my kids won't eat that' (regarding local vegetables) Your kids aren't special!! Children the world over have been eating locally produced food for generations. They will eat local seasonal produce if you can cook it for them in a way that appeals to their palette.
Up next was David Warner co-owner of City Feed and Supply (a co-sponsor of the forum) Ilene began the forum asking the question what is local? David explained how his store defines it: City Feed and Supply tags every product in the store based on where it originated. They define local as within 100 mile radius of the store, further then that products are tagged as Regional, National, or Imported - Therefore it is upfront to the consumer where their food originates, leaving them the ability to make educated and informed decisions. On the consumer side, David explained that higher prices can be seen (by the customers) as an act of aggression. City Feed is a business, they are looking to charge a fair price, one which is fair to the producer, to the retailer, and to the consumer. Tensions abound in the relationship between producer & retailer and retailer & customer due to money. You do not hear local farmers and producers asking 'how can we make more money.' Instead, they are asking 'how can we make a living? how can we pass our farm/business on to our children and to the next generation of farmers/producers.

David is clearly passionate about keeping things local. City Feed is in the same neighborhood he and his wife call home. They support local non-profit organizations, they opened city feed and supply as a response to what they saw as a need in the neighborhood.

When you buy from an independent, locally owned business more of your dollars go back to other locally owned business and suppliers. As more money is spent at locally owned business' they create more locally based jobs.

Stepping back from the retail and conceptual side of local food the farmer/producer portion of the forum began with farmer Jim Buckle of Allandale Farm. Jim started off by explaining that when you buy directly from Allandale Farm your money goes to the employment of 72 people at the farm, which puts $700,000 into the local economy per year (because your purchase helps pay all of the farms employees). If you include the various local contractors, suppliers, and business' Allandale works with you are putting close to $1 million into the local economy. I think this example perfectly demonstrates the real impact of supporting the local food economy. Allandale is a small farm, yet they employ 72 people and put a good amount of money into the local economy. The next speaker (Ridge Shinn) pointed out a figure I will place here: for every dollar spent directly at a local farm it circulates through the local economy 7 times, which is a very powerful figure. Purchasing your produce/meats/fish from local producers has a drastically large impact on a local economy over going into a large chain grocer and purchasing the same products which are shipped halfway around the world. The money spent at the large chain store is rarely circulated back into the economy, and if it is I am willing to bet it isn't to the great extent which local business recirculate the same amount of money.

Jim went on to say that people are getting sick from food, such as the current e.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce because there is no accountability in the food system. The large scale farmers aren't being held accountable, neither are the produce pickers, those who pack the produce, those who supply the produce, and all the way down to the retailers are not being held accountable. Allandale farm has to be accountable because they can't afford not to be. People won't get sick from their (local) produce because if they did, word would spread by word of mouth that their produce makes people sick and Allandale would find themselves without customers. Using tomatoes as an example Jim explained that each tomato sold at their farm stand is handled by 3 people: The person picking the fruit, the person polishing/cleaning the fruit, and the person putting it on the shelves at the farm stand. Every singe one of them has to be held accountable for the tomato which ends up being sold at the farm stand.

Through the Farm stand and the CSA Allandale is creating an open space in their community. The members/families who participate in the CSA learn that one member is a doctor, or another a graphic designer, or perhaps that 2 member families have kids who are the same age - citing the supermarket example discussed earlier, you don't walk into a chain supermarket and share anything beyond a cursory interaction while you stand in line waiting to pay for your products, whereas at Allandale when you pickup your share or wait in line at the farm stand you can talk to people about what they are getting, exchange recipes, and the reach of the community reaches well beyond the farm when you make such personal connections.

Following Jim, was Ridge Shinn of Hardwick Beef & Rotokawa Cattle Company. Ridge was featured in a January 15, 2010 article in Time: "How Cows (Grass-Fed Only) Could Save the Planet." Ridge began his portion with an adage that was repeated in one way or another throughout the forum: We as consumers vote with our dollar. Every product we buy is a vote for a given product. Hardwick Beef established the price their beef would be sold for at market. Instead of using the conventional methods for setting the price of their beef they established a price they felt was fair for both the farmer raising the cattle and for the retailer/consumer. Ridge stressed the importance of the consumer learning what they want and articulating it to the retailers. As I mentioned in the previous summary of Jim Buckle's portion, Ridge pointed out that every dollar spent directly at a local farm circulates through the local economy 7 times. This figure is at the heart of his point that the consumer votes with their dollar. If you vote to spend your food dollars with a local producer your dollar is being spent throughout the local economy in ways you don't see, but it is clear that your choice has a greater impact on your local economy.

Ridge went on to say that calling your elected officials, or contacting the USDA to voice your concerns isn't going to help because our system is broken. However, as a consumer the more you demand better and local food choices to the retailers it will pull through the system over time. Retailers work to meet what their consumers are asking for, therefore it is a much more effective means of working for more local options at food retailers, but you have to be willing to pay the higher price. Local food costs more to produce (and more to purchase) because it isn't coming from massive wholesalers who can get away with paying people horrendous wages.
The Hardwick beef model involves involves aggressive grazing. All the cows at a given farm graze together on one acre at a time, then they are moved to another acre, letting the land on the original acre rest. This means the cattle is entirely grass fed and the farmers cost is decreased because they need very little industrial equipment, feed, etc.
The final speaker at the forum was Niaz Dorry of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. According to Niaz, the idea of local fish has 'missed the boat' in the local food movement. The fishing industry has taken the same path as other agribusiness' took before it. One way to support local fishing was the creation of Eastman's Local Catch a CSF, similar to a CSA, but the model is based on community supported fisheries instead of agriculture.
Niaz went on to point out that the 'save the whales'/single species approach that most environmentalists and activists take is incorrect because it doesn't take into account the greater balance of a whole ecosystem. If you intensely work to save 1 species when the stock is replenished and numbers are healthy they can easily be over fished, whereas if you build the eco- system over time both the environment and the local fishing industry is much more sustainable and successful. If you wanted to save the whales, she says, start with replenishing the herring population. Once the herring return instead of overfishing them, let the cod and mackerel, who dine on the herring. Once the stock of cod and mackerel have returned the whales come back, the fishing industry has more options instead of focusing on overfishing and eradicating one species. One builds upon the next. Niaz' presence was interesting because rarely is local fishing brought up in the local food discussion. Truthfully, I am allergic to seafood and shellfish, therefore what Niaz was calling for in the fishing industry was not pulling my interest as strongly as the previous speakers, but I feel that her message regarding the balance within the ecosystem was one of the most important points of the entire evening.
At this point the forum was open to audience questions, which I was unable to keep notes on due to the quick pace of the back and forth between audience and panelists, but the message from all the forum participants was clear: Get educated! Be cautious of those who retail your food, ask questions of your food suppliers and let them know you want local options! We as consumers vote with every dollar we spend on food. If we want local food we should support the local farms, meat producers, fisheries, and stores. When we dine out asking the restaurants what local options they have will force them to sit up and take notice. The more attention brought to local food, the more we demand local food on a day to day basis the greater our local food choices will become.
I think the forum was extremely successful and educational and I look forward to attending similar events in the future.

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