The FoodShed Project Takes Seed
By Andrew McLeod
"Buy local" has become a rallying cry, and nowhere is it heard more clearly than when it comes to food. For some people, localism stems from a desire to connect with the producers of our food, and support a local economy. Others are concerned about food safety, loss of farmland, and dwindling petroleum supplies.
In the South Puget Sound region, the desire for local produce gave rise to the Foodshed Project. This project takes its name from a concept similar to a watershed; it describes the area from which food flows into a community.
According to this model, a healthy foodshed is one that is highly local. Buying local is a common and rapidly growing interest. A recent issue of Time magazine featured an apple with a sticker that read, "Forget organic. Eat local" (March 12, 2007). Some surveys indicate that consumers are willing to pay a premium for local foods, and if prices were comparable, they would choose local over organic.
In spite of local's emergence as one of the major criteria for choosing food, there are significant obstacles to buying local. Chief among these is a lack of wholesale outlets that provide a path from farmers to nearby retailers. Some retailers - especially food co-ops - already buy direct from local producers. While many more would like to tap into this rapidly growing market, they are not ready to set up accounts with a large number of local producers.
Currently, consumers purchase much local produce at farmers' markets. This can be a satisfying way to buy some goods, but it is not an efficient way to build a local economy. To do that, local goods must be available alongside a wide variety of other products, so that they are accessible to people who want to do all their grocery shopping in one trip. This will require retailers to be able to purchase local goods from the producers without routing them through distant warehouses. Meanwhile, local farmers who want to sell locally must establish and maintain relationships with any potential wholesale customers, or spend long hours at farmers markets to conduct direct sales.
Farmers may also establish a community supported agriculture program (or CSA). CSA's are subscription plans in which the consumer gets a box of produce each week featuring a cross-section of the farm's bounty. These have the added benefit of providing the farmer with an income before the growing season, and guaranteeing that produce will be sold, but CSA's require a commitment beyond what most consumers are willing to make.
There is also the option of selling through a wholesaler. However, this route to market reduces the percentage of the retail cost that goes to the farmer. And since no wholesalers are located in Olympia, this option reduces some of the key benefits of buying local.
This January, nearly 30 concerned citizens met in Tumwater to discuss these and other models for how the South Sound area can foster the development of a more independent food system. The Northwest Cooperative Development Center and the Olympia Food Coop co-hosted the meeting as a collaborative project.
After a presentation that introduced the idea of cooperatives and some specific solutions, participants divided into several groups to discuss what they had heard. There was a high level of interest in a cooperative warehouse.
Several meeting attendees volunteered to join a steering committee charged with a further exploration of this key project. This committee is searching for funding opportunities, and will be developing a survey to gauge interest in this project among possible members - i.e., local producers and those considering local production. At a second public meeting on March 18, participants were invited to get involved with one of several committees: fundraising, outreach, or organization.
Olympia is not the first community to tackle the food system issue, and so the Foodshed Project is learning from examples across the country.
The Oklahoma Food Co-op has created an online shopping system that connects producers and consumers statewide, using a volunteer-run distribution system. The Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative has set up a full-scale produce warehouse, which services markets throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Many communities like Sandpoint, Idaho, have created business incubators with commercial kitchens that are available by the hour.
There are also local efforts that provide a precedent for this work. Rick Kramer, Pat Meyer, and other local producers founded the Farmers Wholesale Cooperative in the early 1980s. It began as a small, local warehouse, which grew into a major regional operation that imported produce from warmer climates and had customers from coast to coast.
Unfortunately, this producer-owned cooperative ran into financial and organizational difficulties, and in the mid-1990s the business was sold to regional produce wholesaler Charlie's, where it now lives on as that company's "Farmer's Own" label. While the regional network of growers has been preserved, it no longer has the same intensely local and cooperative focus that initially launched the project.
Another important predecessor to the Foodshed Project is the Sound FoodShed, by Shonie Shlotzhauer and Jackson Sillars. Started in 2000 as an Evergreen student project, the Sound FoodShed sought to understand "the modern crisis of the conventional food system" and propose local alternatives.
They facilitated a series of meetings throughout the year, creating a dialogue among stakeholders in the local food system. The accomplishments of this project included hosting a spring planting celebration, and launching the Thurston County Farm Map in 2001.
The new - and coincidentally named - foodshed development effort has now taken the baton, and is working to recreate something similar Farmers Wholesale Cooperative, while learning from its challenges.
One challenge that has already become apparent is the serious and essential distraction of actually farming during the growing season. Ideally, the producers themselves would coordinate this effort, so the best time to do this work is during the winter. Accordingly, as we head into the growing season, the Foodshed Project may shift to a lower gear, while laying the groundwork for a renewed push beginning next fall.
However, we need more help to keep this effort going. We are looking for grant writers, researchers, and new contacts. Building a sustainable food system is a challenging task, and we must prioritize finding ways to feed ourselves without relying so much on far-flung distribution systems and fossil fuels.
For more information, please visit the Foodshed Project's website was at www.oly-wa.us/foodshed
Andrew McLeod is a Cooperative Development Specialist at the Northwest Cooperative Development Center. He is currently serving on the Foodshed Project's steering committee.
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