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Growing pains: Scaling up local food

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Minnesotans are increasingly interested in eating healthier, supporting local economies and encouraging sustainable living, and, although there has been a local food movement for decades, it's been picking up momentum in recent years.

The number of farmers' markets in the state has climbed 60 percent in two years. Food-buying clubs, farm-to-school food programs and the like have increased similarly.

Minnesota farmers sold $23 million worth of food directly to consumers in 2007, a number that likely is rising about 10 percent a year. Nationally the figure was $1.2 billion.

While that is less than half of 1 percent of total food sales, it doesn't include sales to restaurants, grocery stores or the growing web of distributors that serve them.

In one community after another in Minnesota, consumers, farmers, local leaders and community organizers are encouraging community gardens, institutional buying of local food, producer and consumer cooperatives, farmers' markets, wider producer distribution networks and more.

But, for all the enthusiasm around it, it is a movement challenged by uncertainties and questions. Success varies from one place to another for geographic, population and economic reasons.

Evidence for health and economic benefits is often more anecdotal than systematic. As both the volume of "local food" and interest by mainstream food outlets increases, the web of producer-distributor-retailer-consumer relationships gets more complicated.

Schools that want to use local vegetables don't always have means to process them. Grocers worry about food safety implications. People who love farming find they have to become marketers.

Farmers see less money if they sell to a grocer than if they go to a farmer's market. Development of distribution systems into mainstream outlets looms large as a challenge. And there isn't even an agreed upon definition of what "local food" is.

Many who are involved in the issue talk in terms of this being the time to "step it up a notch."

In a primer on local food, the USDA points to at least two barriers to expanding this movement: 1) small producers, who supply the bulk of local-food sales, have constraints on how much they can produce, and they lack good distribution systems for getting their products into mainstream markets and 2) food safety and other regulations could wind up hurting local producers who can't afford to meet them.

Outline of local foods economy

Farmers' markets - Measuring the local food movement is difficult, partly because the definition of what is local can vary widely. But perhaps its most recognizable form is the farmers' market, where producers sell directly to consumers at a central location.

Sometimes these are motivated by interests in rejuvenating a downtown, sometimes to provide fresh produce where it hasn't been available.

In Minnesota, the number of farmers' markets tracked by the Minnesota Grown project has risen from 81 in 2008 to 128 in 2010. One of the most recent aspects of the phenomenon has been the rise of "mini-markets" of five or fewer farmers, which aim specifically at so-called food deserts in Minneapolis or other urban centers.

Community Supported Agriculture farms - These are producers that form agreements with consumers to take regular supplies of produce, selling shares that consumers often split with friends and family. Most common are vegetable and fruit suppliers, and the kind and amount of produce varies through the season. Some CSAs have extended the season, even growing produce in greenhouses in the winter. In addition, meat CSAs have started to expand.

In 2008 there were 27 CSAs in the state's Minnesota Grown project. In 2010, there are 59 plus six new meat CSA's.

Farm to school - The number of Minnesota school districts buying food from local producers doubled between 2008 and 2009, focusing on products like apples, potatoes, peppers, winter squash, sweet corn and tomatoes and including buffalo, wild rice, dried beans and grains.

Dollars are small - in 2009 among school districts with programs, the average spending on local food was $5,000, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. But school officials say they like supporting the local economy and the opportunity to educate students.

Schools have limited budgets and are very price conscious. Many aren't set up to provide the labor needed to process the food, and in some cases have difficulty making direct connections with farmers. Farmers, on the other hand, find that selling to schools has different requirements than making direct sales to farmers' markets or through CSAs.

Restaurants - Another visible manifestation of the interest in local foods is their appearance on restaurant menus. James Norton, editor of the only food magazine Heavy Table, puts this growth as starting roughly five years ago and being a combination of better labeling (even over-labeling) and truly shifting menus to focus on local food in an effort to convince eaters of a connection between a specific farm and the table.

The Minnesota Project lists 86 restaurants and caterers in Minnesota that use local food.

Scaling up

As interest grows, grocers have responded as well, supplying local food to their customers.

Food cooperatives in the Twin Cities generated an estimated $129 million in revenue in 2009, and about 28 percent of that -- $36 million -- was from local food. In 2010, estimates are that co-op sales will rise to $150 million and a greater share, perhaps $50 million, will be local products.

And, of course, mainstream grocers, have been adding to their local offerings. Even Target and Wal-Mart are marketing local food.

This growth in turn creates demand for aggregation, a more sophisticated distribution system because producers no longer deal directly with the consumer, and restaurateurs and retailers need a consistent and large-volume supply from multiple providers.

Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls, Minn., for example, contracts with several dozen beef producers in the Twin Cities area and supplies the beef to a number of restaurants and grocery stores.

Similarly, the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis owns Co-op Partners Warehouse, which has contracts with organic produce and other food suppliers and which markets to food cooperatives, restaurants and other buyers in five states.

In addition, farmers are creating cooperatives to perform the same distribution function at a larger scale than producers can accomplish on their own.

While many see this as a necessary next step in the evolution of local foods, others see the challenge it provides in terms of losing the direct connection between producer and end user.

And indeed, many producers straddle that line, offering direct farm sales and wider distribution of their products at the same time.

Food safety

Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness involving spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and other produce have brought food safety concerns to the farm. Several sets of protocols to ensure safe products have been launched, some by the federal government and some by private companies seeking to certify that the products they buy for retail outlets are safe.

For example, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California doesn't have the force of law, but companies that buy nearly all the state's leafy greens require growers to adhere to certain standards. This, they say, enables them to market to consumers with confidence.

These protocols worry some in the local foods movement because the cost of complying can be harder for small producers to cope with, particularly if they sell to a variety of buyers with different requirements. Some have criticized the protocols for not being based on good science, arguing that they do little to ensure that a particular food product is indeed safe.

What is local?

The definition of what is local varies with the location, the product and who's talking. The New Oxford American Dictionary declared "locavore" as its word of the year in 2007 and defined it as someone who tries to eat food raised within 100 miles. Some farmers look for vendors in a 50-mile radius. Some think 250 miles is the right number

When Congress wrestled with the question in the 2008 Farm Bill, it declared that to be considered "local," food had to be raised either within a 400-mile radius of the consumer or within the same state. Even that has problems. Some geography-based marketing efforts - Florida oranges and Idaho potatoes, for example - are seen as oriented toward exports, not the local food market.

Even that may not get to the heart of the issue because distance and food miles are not necessarily the most efficient measure of getting food to market. What is more, some argue that the length of the supply chain, not the distance, is what matters. A San Francisco restaurant diner eating pork he knows was raised naturally on the Nuessmeier brothers farm near LeSueur, Minn., may be eating better than someone eating meat raised in different circumstances nearby.

In other words, "local" food involves factors other than distance. To some people, farm practices, labor relations and diversity become part of the definition.

A good discussion of the debate is outlined in the USDA's primer on local food.