Last September, the Co-op’s Eat Local Challenge drew commitments from 630 people to consume food produced in our region. The challenge of the coming decade will be to plan for a local food system that encompasses all residents of Humboldt County.
In the past several years there has been a surge of growth in the local food movement. Locavores are speaking with their wallets at farmers’ markets, grocery stores and restaurants, inspired to action for both health and environmental reasons.
By directly supporting our farms and farmers, local food advocates aim to cultivate a sense of community, celebrate seasonality and strengthen local wealth.
However, Humboldt County, known for its small-scale, niche farming and active local food movement still suffers from a fragmented food system. Our region has dozens of small farmers producing a variety of crops that meet most of our dietary preferences.
We also have a number of large institutions that have expressed a commitment to buying locally produced food. Humboldt State University, Mad River Community Hospital and Arcata School District and area charter schools have all written local preference into their greening and wellness policies.
Numerous restaurants and caterers feature local, seasonal menu items. Such examples illustrate the escalating interest in the local food system, but many in our community do not have adequate access to nutritious foods, let alone locally grown, heirloom and organic produce.
Achieving a viable food system is a shared responsibility. Every consumer is accountable for how they spend their money. As a consumer, the decision to invest in the local farm economy and provide nutritious meals to put on the table contributes to a thriving local financial system, increased community health and positively impacts the environment.
Bearing in mind the popularity of the local food movement, lack of access, especially within committed institutions is frustrating and puzzling. Institutions like schools and hospitals serve a broad cross section of Humboldt County’s demographics and have the potential to provide preventative health access to lower income residents. If we can’t see successful local food purchasing in institutions resolved to do so, we must ask the question: what is missing in our food system?
The answer can be summarized in the highly loaded and presumptive assertion: Individual commitment and community coordination are the two essential elements in constructing a functional and resilient local food system.
First things first. Achieving a viable food system is a shared responsibility. Every consumer is accountable for how they spend their money. As a consumer, the decision to invest in the local farm economy and provide nutritious meals to put on the table contributes to a thriving local financial system, increased community health and positively impacts the environment.
Whether we vote with our wallets, encourage our favorite restaurants to feature seasonal items, or petition institutions to serve local food, we have the power to support our local food systems.
However, a functioning food system also relies on the coordinated efforts and commitments of individuals, advocacy groups, institutions and policy makers. In order to critically examine the local food system, we must identify and understand the roles and responsibilities of the major stakeholders involved.
Farmers work long days cultivating land, tending and harvesting their crops. Institutional buyers at schools and hospitals must maintain the quality of educational and health services they provide on site.
Their job descriptions do not extend to patching gaping potholes between farm and fork. Instead, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, the North Coast Growers Association, Heirloom Tomatoes, Food for People, Greenway Partners, the North Coast Co-op, University of California Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County and many more are determined to enhance the community food system. Only in coordinating the pooled knowledge and resources of these interest groups can we work toward a functioning local food system.
Expanding the local market to institutional buyers provides ripe economic opportunities for farmers and increases fresh food access to lower income individuals. However, several challenges limit the reality of local purchasing.
Without critical infrastructure in the form of a drop sites, refrigerated staging areas and coordinated deliveries and pickups, there is no way for institutions to utilize local foods, or for farmers to reliably contract with institutional buyers.
It is much easier for institutions to maintain large contracts with distributors that provide commodity foods that are processed, packaged and shipped from all over the nation. Unfortunately, large distributors like Sysco require a contract of at least 80 percent of purchases, thereby limiting the potential for local purchasing to 20 percent or less.
Melanie Patrick, the market development coordinator for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), has been working to piece the puzzle together for the past several years. She has assembled a matrix of farmers, buyers and distributors that details potential routes, sites and trucks that comprise the existing barebones infrastructure of our local distribution system. Patrick concedes that institutions and restaurants struggle to get regular, local produce because producers are farmer’s market oriented.
Many farmers prefer direct sales over wholesale because they can get better prices for their products at a smaller scale. Without a wholesaler coordinating local produce in the area, the pricing system is not well established for institutional sales. Ultimately, Patrick says the public does not demand local, instead opting for price, ease and junk food.
However, without prioritized planning, infrastructure development and active, outcomes-based coordination of local food community groups, a functioning local food system remains just beyond our reach. Last Saturday, the North Coast Co-op and Community Alliance with Family Farmers hosted a Food Security Forum to discuss the local food system as it is and plan for improved coordination.
The forum examined the multifaceted local food system: local distribution options, coordinated deliveries, collaboration between nonprofits, access to food for low-income residents and accounting for the needs of our producers.
This discussion and the action it will inspire are essential to drawing attention to the future of food in our area and in hurdling the roadblocks between farm and fork.
The challenge to the local food system starts right here—at home, in Humboldt County.
Kristyna Solawetz is a member of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.