This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference. We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.
If you’ve been shopping for food or out to a restaurant in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed the “local food movement” taking effect – products or menu items advertised or labeled as “locally grown” or “made with local ingredients”. As one of many facets of “sustainability” the local food trend has been going on for some time now. For example, the term “locavore” was named the word of the year back in 2007 (yes, it was really that long ago, although I had a hard time believing it too!) Since that time, cities and towns across the nation have seen a rapid growth in the number of farmers markets and CSAs available to food consumers. Also increasing have been a number of Farm-to-Fork or Farm-to-Table type programs for restaurants and schools. While these type of direct marketing venues have been good for local economies, there are still plenty of challenges that small and mid-sized farmers face with these direct marketing systems, as well as constraints that consumers have to accessing the variety of products coming from farms in their region.
At this year’s annual Tilth Producers of Washington Conference, I was able to hear from and learn about a group of people that are making great efforts in overcoming some of those challenges in getting local foods into a community – in this case, the greater Spokane region. I was very inspired by the work being done by LINC (Local Inland Northwest Cooperative) Foods, a worker and farmer owned cooperative, founded by Beth Robinette and Joel Williamson. Over the course of a Friday session – including tours to a couple of the cooperative’s farms and their restaurant customers – and a further discussion during a workshop Saturday, the group shared some of their strategies for enhancing the availability of local food products to the Spokane region.
Most of you are probably aware that the region around Spokane (eastern Washington & northern Idaho) is blessed with some of the most agriculturally productive land in the world. This natural bounty, however, is not reflected in the diets of the people living in the same region. In a 2013 report by Food Systems Analyst Ken Meter stated that the greater Spokane region “leaks” up to $1.8 billion per year, because most of the agricultural products are exported, leaving the consumers to purchase over 90% of their food from distantly located sources. Meter noted there was enough demand from local markets to financially sustain the farmers in the region, so what is keeping these two disconnected?
Well it turns out there are quite a few barriers keeping local foods from being easily incorporated into the economies of urban areas like Spokane. One of these major reasons, of course, is the way we have developed our modern food system, especially for businesses and institutions. Consider, for example, food purchasers and chefs for a university or a school. They need large quantities of food, and often ordered in advance for planning purposes. They don’t have the time to contact individual local farms to find out how much of certain types of produce they could get from each place. And the same applies to the farmer’s side; they don’t have the time to contact multiple purchasers to sell the produce that they need to harvest that week. Back to the purchasers – they also need to verify that they have the proper chain of insurance from the farmer to the food they serve for liability issues. And this is where LINC Foods comes in. They serve as a “food hub” – aggregating produce from their farmer members and distributing it to their institutional clients, such as school districts, universities, restaurants, and hospitals.
Another reason institutions have had a hard time incorporating local foods into their meals is that along with the time and convenience factors of being able to order nearly any type of food any time of the year from national food service companies, they have also become accustomed to highly processed food products arriving on their doorsteps. Especially in schools, these institutions run on tight budgets and the added time to wash, peel, and cut up local potatoes as compared to slicing open a bag prepared potatoes makes a large difference. This is why LINC Foods is also working on building their processing abilities and value-added products that they distribute, to make it even easier for institutions to be able to choose to spend their money locally.
The personal insights from the LINC members at the conference were all extremely positive: the farmer members and institutional clients are grateful for the services that LINC provides, and the efforts they have put into really making an impact on the local food economy of the Spokane region. While direct marketing (like farmers markets and CSAs) are great for some producers and the customers that choose that route, being able to leverage the buying power from larger institutions in the area will contribute great strides to the local economy and local food system.
I was especially excited to hear about the next endeavor that LINC Foods is undertaking: a local craft malting operation. It makes a lot of sense, given the large amount of grain grown in the region and the continued boom of small craft breweries, and how their malt needs differ greatly from larger, mainstream breweries. As a home-brewer and craft beer enthusiast myself, I will be looking forward to completion of that project and being able to support it!