The local foods movement of the last decade or so is evolving in interesting ways.
Nationally, farms and food hub (alternative distribution) organizations are surviving and thriving to the extent that they are careful in their financial management and in their success in attracting consumers to business models that promote actual community-scale food systems viability.
In the last few years, though, a number of food hubs have gone under as the result of over-extension, over-optimism and over-capitalization in pursuit of the whims of consumers. This has often come at the expense of actual and potential farm revenue.
In Colorado, SOURCE Local Foods imploded five years ago, owing substantial payments to the region’s growers. Door-to-Door Organics disappeared last year after being gobbled up by Whole Foods – a victim of the volatile urban home delivery market. Grasshoppers Distribution, in the Louisville, Kentucky, area, was one of the early failures, shutting down in 2013 when it couldn’t meet its financial objectives.
There are many success stories, though, and both producers and local foods distributors are adapting as lessons are learned. The exuberance of the mid-2000s following such events as the publication of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the explosion of new farmers markets across the country has begun to sort itself out, thankfully, into strategies that promote farm and community-scale business viability. Previous assumptions are being questioned – like the real benefit of farmers’ markets – and farms are increasingly engaging in more innovative forms of direct marketing as well as experimenting with adding value to their products.
Challenges abound, however, well beyond the evolving food hub movement.
Local food continues to carry the stigma – sometimes earned, sometimes distorted – of being an elite niche (it’s more expensive to produce food at a community scale and with reverence for land health).
Consumers still don’t generally make time for food preparation or actively seek out less convenient market models. Wholesale buyers are swayed by freshness and the opportunity to use the ill-defined “local” tag, but values around farm viability and community economics get lost in the day-to-day adherence to price point conventions.
It’s understandably difficult to attach a conventional sales margin to local food products, so buyers often will stock just enough to align themselves with “local” and get customers in the door.
This “greenwashing” – the insincere commercial cooptation of once-meaningful language describing, in this case, local food – has inundated the local foods movement and has made it hard to know what’s real. It happens nationwide, and it happens here.
Durango supermarkets crow about using “local” products from northeastern Colorado – eight hours away. You’ve seen countless restaurant menus assure you that “we use local products whenever possible,” which often means whenever they are cheap, convenient and in abundance. Everyone loves the idea of local food, but few are willing to pay for the real article.
A recent full-page ad insert in The Durango Herald promoting a local health food store serves this point well. The store’s tag line of “Locally grown, family owned” suggests plainly that it sells locally grown food products, which it does, somewhat, when in season. The ad belies the reality of our food system, though – of the dozens of featured products, none are local. Chocolate, snacks, processed foods, vitamins, skin care products – these are the globally-produced margin drivers of the modern American health food store, rather than the much-needed indicators of producer-consumer c-dependence.
There is a significant difference between an entity using the word “local” to enhance its own image and that same entity using the word to actually promote the products of its local vendors.
The classic rejoinder from retailers is that they’re just providing the (highest-margin) products that their customers want. Unfortunately, I generally agree, and so I would like to suggest, at the outset of this new year, that we as food consumers act more forcefully in our pursuit of local food.
Ask what a store or restaurant means by “local.” Request more products from local growers. Better yet, seek out and patronize independent local farms – join an independent or farmer-owned CSA program and commit to preparing fresh food at home.
Buying local food directly from the farm is (a little) less convenient, but not more expensive, and its positive impacts on local food production are significant. And don’t forget local meat – our area raises plenty of grass finished beef, lamb and free range pork, and there are many ranchers offering direct sales of larger quantities.
Committing to local food is committing not just to health, flavor and community vitality, but ultimately to a better economic truth.
Ole Bye is the teaching assistant to the University of Vermont’s Food Hub Business Management program and has been involved in local food systems development in southwestern Colorado since 2011. He lives in Cortez.