Category Archives: Farmers Markets

Sales and marketing channels of farmers, including farmers markets, farm stands and CSA programs

Top 10 Selling Grocery Items (Change Needed!)

Take a look at this information regarding the Top 10 items people are spending money on at food stores.

While you’re reading through the list, make a note of what is missing. Consider what it takes to create each product, e.g., value-added process, ingredients, etc. Think about which food crops are needed to create each product. And, if you can, think about how the money flows from your pocket to which participants in the food value chain.

For the 52 weeks ending June 14, 2009, the Top 10-selling grocery items are (NOTE – ranked by dollar sales, in $billions):

ITEM                                                  SALES ($B)                     % CHANGE

1.)  Carbonated Beverages                                     $12.00                                         1.86

2.)  Milk                                                                          $11.20                                        -8.44

3.)  Fresh Bread & Rolls                                             $9.57                                         4.77

4.)  Beer/Ale/Hard Cider                                          $8.17                                          5.42

5.)  Salty Snacks                                                            $8.09                                         9.75

6.)  Natural Cheese                                                      $7.64                                         7.75

7.)  Frozen Dinners/Entrees                                    $6.13                                          0.18

8.)  Cold Cereal                                                               $6.11                                          2.12

9.)  Wine                                                                            $5.49                                         3.72

10.) Cigarettes                                                                $4.63                                        -2.18

SOURCE: INFORMATION RESOURCES INC. (IRI)

While its great to see Milk on the list (although share is dropping fast), as well as Grains (i.e., bread, cereal), did you also notice that Vegetables (2-1/2 cups recommended per day), Fruits (1-1/2 cups) and Meat & Beans (5 ounces) were not on the list?  Considering how many empty calories are wrapped up in soda and snacks, you can start to see why America has a problem with its waistline.

The other important thing that jumps out is how much of this list is occupied by highly processed “foods”, including sodas, snacks and (many) frozen dinners/entrees. Lots of added sugar, salt and oils originating from heavily subsidized corn and soy crops, much of which is grown using genetically modified seeds, chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Do you see anything on the list that diversified farms are benefiting from?  Dairy farms show up, but if you’ve been following their industry as of late you know most smaller dairies are facing serious financial troubles.

Without getting into the many influences that make this list look the way it does, from food science to marketing to consumer behaviors, I would like to issue a homework assignment to anyone interested in using your food expenditures to increasingly benefit farmers (rather than the industrial food system that dominates today’s market).

  1. Over the next 2-3 months capture information on your own household’s grocery purchases.
  2. Compare the data you capture to the list above.
  3. Develop a game plan to replace processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables and your preferred protein sources (meat, beans, etc.).
  4. After several months of effort, gauge how you and others in your household feel.

My expectations is that your body, mind and soul will feel nourished in ways that strongly reinforce your decision to shift how you spend your food dollars.

Give it a try. Make a difference.

Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday series.

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5 Ways to a Better Eat Local Challenge

Like any good entrepreneur, I believe there are always better ways to do something. In this particular case, I have identified five ways to improve Eat Local Challenges to ensure they best achieve their desired objectives. Before sharing those suggestions, let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding why such challenges exist in the first place.

Ask 10 people why they eat local and you’re bound to get 10 or more different answers. In Burlington, Vermont, where my family just completed its weeklong “eating local” adventure, the reason for the challenge was loosely described as:

“Help keep your community thriving by being becoming a Localvore! We love Vermont and want to keep as much business as possible in our wonderful home! Anytime you buy locally grown or produced products, you keep money and jobs in Vermont.”

In the Mad River Valley of Vermont, where its localvore chapter is well known, its Eat Local Challenge the week before Burlington’s had the following objective:

“The Eat Local Challenge is an event where participants pledge to eat only locally grown and produced foods.  Participants will have the option of choosing to pledge by the meal (one or more meals), by the day (one or more days), or for the entire week.”

Notice a pattern?

Perhaps it’s unique to Vermont, but it seems that the primary reason for participating in an Eat Local Challenge is because it’s a good thing or the right thing to do for your community and the regional economy. Not bad, but after spending a week in the trenches with my family, I’m convinced we need a better objective. Here’s my suggestion:

To fundamentally change the region’s food system – from seed to plate – to ensure locally grown, raised and processed food is widely available and easy for consumers to find and purchase from regionally-owned retailers.

Think about that for a minute.

Rather than simply joining a challenge to feel good, shouldn’t we be doing so with the intent of demanding change and reinforcing those demands with our actions and dollars?  If everyone involved, from the farmer to the processor to the family of six is thinking “fundamental change”, then that is what they will be talking about, brainstorming about and working toward.

With that objective in mind, here are the five things I believe must change or be improved to make every Eat Local Challenge successful in driving permanent change in our regional food systems.

  1. Season-Long Challenge – In today’s hectic, go-go world, people need time to ease into new ideas. That is why I’m recommending that Eat Local Challenges begin when school gets out and go through the autumn harvest. Giving people the chance to get their feet wet, try new foods, try growing and preserving their own food, etc. will go a long way in winning their hearts, minds, pocketbooks and, most important, ongoing commitment to local foods.
  2. Food System Coordination – With a longer window to positively impact behaviors, it will be critical that more food chain businesses participate and promote the Challenge to keep in front and center in people’s minds. Farmers markets and CSA programs are two great places to reinforce the Challenge, as are restaurants and food retailers (thinking weekly Challenge Specials). The point is that by aligning the Challenge with most of the growing season, we make eating local a bigger, more visible part of everyday life.
  3. Shades of Local Labeling – Possibly my biggest frustration with eating local is finding local food, beyond produce, which at times can be a little challenging as well. My suggestion is to develop a Challenge labeling structure that allows farms, processors and retailers to help direct consumers to foods containing all or some local ingredients that were partially or completely processed within the Challenge radius (typically 100 miles). The highest marks and “most attractive” label would go to products that were 100 percent grown/raised and processed (if applicable) in the region and sold by a retailer that is 100 percent regionally owned. You could throw “organic” or some other sustainable criteria on top for good measure. You would also provide labels for “Shades of Local,” which would allow products with greater than 50 percent local traits to be considered the next best alternative.
  4. Peak Week Celebrations – Rather than have the Challenge be a single week, where by the time it is over most people are just getting their legs under them, why not have the season-long challenge culminate in a Peak (Harvest) Week celebration? Participating consumers would go for the 100 percent local diet during this week, which they would hit in stride, with the added bonus of people coming together to celebrate the Challenge, food producers, retailers and each other.
  5. School District Involvement – Given our kids will likely be back in school when the Peak Week hits, and given my kids first-hand experience with school lunch hours, it will be ideal to have the region’s school dialed in on the challenge. While they may not be able to alter their lunch menus much, they like retailers could draw attention to the “localness” of menu items. In addition, they could actively promote the Challenge and encourage teachers and students to do their part to raise awareness and increase consumption of local foods.

Now imagine this happening every year and capturing more participants from all walks each time around. The real, measurable impact in every region employing such an approach will make it all worthwhile, especially as permanent, year-round, regional food options become more available. Think of it as an upwardly spiraling regional food economy. Get the picture?

Of course there is one problem my regions will face in trying to implement these suggestions – lack of resources.

That is why I am recommending that local food retailers drive this more advanced version of Eat Local Challenges based on its potential to serve their bottom line interests, while equally benefiting the regional food economy.

To be clear, when I say “local food retailers” I’m talking about locally-owned stores, not your “friendly” national-owned, 50,000-square-foot, 45,000-item supermarket just around the corner. Such businesses need not apply.

Now who’s with me?

Related Posts:

10 Joys of Eating Local

Yesterday, my family finished a week of opening our eyes to something we thought we understood pretty well, but were humbled by reality – eating local food.

You see, for the last four years we have been making conscious choices about how we spend our food dollars, and, as a result, firmly believed that what we were doing was great for our regional food economy. We joined a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. We shopped regularly at our local food cooperative. We even grew a large family garden this year.

As it turns out our actions, while definitely important and pointed in the right direction, were much further from being classified as “localvore” than we realized. Because of that this week’s Eat Local Challenge turned out to be more “stressful” than expected.

Yet, I remain very proud of the job my family did, from my four year old daughter to my very patient wife, who thankfully has a gift of making just about anything taste great.

With that in mind, I am wrapping up our first Eat Local Challenge with 10 Joys we took from this eye-opening experience. We are already building on these joys and expect to leverage them again next year when we once again engage in the Challenge.

  1. Common Family Goal – When was the last time you can recall your family sharing a common objective for an entire week, an objective that you talked about every day? It’s hard to imagine too many things bringing people together more effectively than food, whether preparing a meal together or sitting down around a table to share the bounty. Last week’s Eat Local Challenge did just that for us.  Even better, as a family that takes its food pretty seriously, we spent most of the time trying to understand how far eating local could take us, where it worked well, what was missing, etc. An invaluable experience on so many fronts.
  2. Breakfast Together – It’s funny how something like eating local for a week can force a family to spend more time around its kitchen table. With three distinct morning schedules (i.e., people eat at different times) and many of our standard breakfast options (bagels, cereal, toast) were off the table due to a lack of localness, we resorted to preparing breakfast nearly every day. This meant that to “get it while it’s hot,” everyone needed to be in the kitchen ready at the same time, ready to eat. A nice bonus, although there were definitely some gorgy kids!
  3. Food Found – Prior to this week, we never thought twice about reaching for the olive oil or all-purpose flour; and we reach quite often it turns out. Forced to reconsider these commonly used ingredients, we were happy to discover several Vermont-made alternatives, e.g., Rainville Farms Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil and a wonderful array of flours from Gleason Grains and Butterworks Farms. Our pantry has made room for these newcomers, which I expect will retain their popularity from last week. Having said that, there are many more needed; an opportunity for the numerous food entrepreneurs tucked away throughout the region.
  4. Vermont Wine & Cheese – OK, so we’re not perfect. We didn’t give up wine for the challenge, but we did look for and bought only red wines made by Vermont wineries that grew their own grapes, including Boyden Valley Winery (our favorite VT winery), Shelburne Vineyard, East Shore Vineyard (really enjoyed their Cabernet Franc) and North Branch Vineyards (first experience drinking a Marechal Foch – liked it!). Of course, what wine drinking opportunity would be complete without artisan cheese to go with it? Thank God for Vermont cheese makers! They are arguably some of the best in the world, as everything we tasted was absolutely wonderful, especially Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar and Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen Blue (my personal favorite).
  5. Making Something Out of Nothing – What I’m really getting at is how in the course of a single week my family learned ways to make something we were accustom to preparing out of different sets of ingredients. Improvisation is hard enough as it is for most people, but throwing a local requirement on top of that makes it all the more challenge. As my 11 year old said as we were finishing up our last Challenge dinner, “We made things different, but they still tasted good. It’s great to know we can make things with different stuff.” Another great lesson learned.
  6. A Teenager’s Perspective – What would an Eat Local Challenge be without the tension hovering around a teenager trying to carve out his or her own path? Peaceful? Less stressful? Perhaps. But what I found rewarding was watching my teenage daughter test new boundaries of her independence by objecting to something she didn’t think was all that important; this despite my active involvement in the overall Eat Local Challenge. It was admittedly frustrating, but also required compromise, both important parts of raising a strong, independent child.
  7. A Budding Chef’s Perspective – My 11 year old daughter loves to cook. She has been doing so for years, and has become quite good and is very helpful to have around in a busy kitchen. Perhaps that is why she was more aware than anyone in our household regarding local foods. She was also the one most dedicated to following the rules. To put this in perspective imagine someone who loves good food heading to the school cafeteria with brown bag in hand (all local stuff) where her friends offer her Positive Pie pizza or homemade cake with homemade icing. It wasn’t easy, but she not only did it, she also hip-checked me on occasion to make sure I stayed on course.
  8. Bradley’s Beat – Within moments of announcing that I was going to be officially blogging about the Eat Local Challenge, you could see my son’s wheels turning. You see, he’s an aspiring newspaper man, having started his own weekly (in home) newspaper when he was eight years old – The Plainfield Press. In fact, he had already written a piece for my Every Kitchen Table blog titled O’Donalds: The Organic McDonald’s, which describes his vision for sustainable fast food. It received a lot of praise from my readers, so I was thrilled when he wanted to write about the Eat Local Challenge, just like his dad! His Eating Local – A 10 Year Old’s Perspective post did a great job setting things up for the week.
  9. From the Mouths of Babes – If you’ve ever had children, then you know how funny they can be, especially when they are young. With that in mind, imagine a cute little four year old at Hunger Mountain Co-op shopping with her mom during the middle of the Eat Local Challenge. She asks for something, which her mom tells her she can’t have because it’s not local. After a couple requests, it starts to settle in that a lot of what she wants she can’t have. For the balance of the shopping trip she adapts. She points to something and instead of asking for it simply says “It’s not local. We can’t have it.” Makes me think that a generation of similarly enlightened kids has the power to change just about anything!
  10. Seeing Opportunities – As a budding food entrepreneur, what really jumped out to me this week is just how limited consumer choices are when shopping for food. Yes, I know, today’s supermarkets carry over 45,000 products on their shelves, so how can I suggest there are not lots of choices.  It’s simple, really. The next time you go shopping try to determine which of the products you want to buy comes from within 100 miles. Make it 500 miles if you want. The point is that you can’t typically determine such things with the exception of a well-managed, local-oriented produce department. As our food system has become increasingly consolidated and centralized, consumer-friendly information has disappeared, as has the overall transparency of knowing where our food comes from. Building transparent, regional food systems has the potential to disrupt the status quo in important ways, so it’s time to get to work!

There was a more to the Eat Local Challenge than I could possibly capture here, but I hope that after reading this, along with my previous blog posts, you and your family will join us next year to experience similar things for yourself.

If you participated this year, I hope your experience was equally joyful (along with whatever other emotions you felt) for you and that you will be that much more prepared for the next Eat Local Challenge.

Bon appétit!

Related Posts:

  • Day 1 – Refrigerator & Pantry Stocked for Local Eating Challenge
  • Day 2 – Wrapping Our Heads around Eating Local
  • Day 3 – Thinking “Eat Local” Season v. Single Week
  • Day 4 – Seeing Shades of Local Food
  • Day 5 – Downsides to Eating Local?
  • Day 6 – From Pizza Night to Crazy Saturday Schedule

Every Kitchen Table is proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday series.

Shades of Local Food

Day 4 of Eat Local Challenge Series

While the purpose of the Eat Local Challenge in Burlington, Vermont seems clear enough – help support our local food economy, the commitment asked for is somewhat open to interpretation. Each individual decides his or her comfort level of becoming a “localvore” for a day, the week or longer.

As I mentioned yesterday, how one approaches an eat local challenge will have a big impact on what they take away from it, which is why I think it is important to jump fully in so that the individual or family participating will grow their appreciation for what needs to be done to increase the consumption of local foods.

Having said that, I also talked yesterday about easing into this sort of effort, since the last thing any of us wants is for someone to be discouraged by their efforts. As the week progresses, I can see how that might happen, so I have yet another suggestion for the organizers to consider.

One of the difficulties in eating local is finding local products to substitute for non-local foods people are accustom to eating. Primarily, I’m talking about processed and preserved foods within the perishable perimeter of conventional food stores. Assuming such local products are available, which may not be the case as often as us “localvores” might like, how do you find the products? How can you tell whether the ingredients inside are local?

You can’t, generally speaking, unless the food producer or food retailer brings that to your attention using product or shelf labels. More important, even if you did find such labels, how often would such products be 100 percent local? I doubt often.

What we need to consider are “Shades of Local” determined using three locally beneficial components of any food product: Where it was grown/raised, processed and sold. The ideal product would be grown, processed and sold in Vermont by Vermont owned businesses, AND would be (certified) organic. Next best, and not far behind, would be the same product that is not certified organic. At the other end of the spectrum would be the minimum requirements for a product to be considered “acceptable” for the challenge.

While I’m not exactly sure what those requirements should be, intuitively I would say it’s 100 percent of one of the three criteria (e.g., sold by 100 percent Vermont owned business) and greater than 50 percent of the other two (e.g., locally grown or raised and/or processed). After all, for a regional food economy to succeed, all elements of the food chain need to be healthy and growing.

For this to work, the organizers of the Eat Local Challenge will need to work closely with local farms, dairies, food processors and retailers to ensure visual cues are present where people buy their food. This special labeling doesn’t have to be permanent, although that would be ideal, which should make it more manageable. Perhaps the organizers could get a grant to cover the administrative and material costs.

For an example of how this might look and work, we need to look no further than Burlington’s own City Market/Onion River Co-op‘s produce section, which includes color-coded labels for Local, Organic and Conventional. While it takes extra effort and tighter logistics, my family for one found it very helpful.

(Local) food for thought…

Wrapping Our Heads around Eating Local

Day 2 of Eat Local Challenge Series

My family has been eating healthy food for as far back as I can remember. By healthy, I mean using fresh ingredients, with some preserved foods, mostly done so by food processors, to prepare home cooked meals.

Coming into this week’s Eat Local Challenge 2009, we figured it wouldn’t be a big stretch for us to add “local” to our routine, especially since we participate in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program at Wellspring Farm in Marshfield and have a large vegetable garden of our own.

What we are finding out is all the things we have been taking for granted, including many commonly used ingredients that are difficult, if not impossible to source from within 100 miles: sugar, flour, coffee, exotic spices, baking powder, baking soda, citrus fruits and juices, and so on.

Granted, we are using the Marco Polo Rule to allow the use of some of these food products, as well as five “wild card” foods, so we aren’t going cold turkey. But what if we, as a family or as a region, truly had to make such adjustments? How would we make that work? It’s hard to imagine given how accustom we have become to getting what we want when we want it.

Yesterday, my 11 year old daughter asked why more Vermont farmers and processors don’t find ways to create the products we import, e.g., grapes and raisins. Great question. The answer can be quite complex, and depends quite a bit on one’s perspective. For example, in a household with two working adults, time is a severely limiting factor, which is at least part of the reason why nearly half of the money American’s spend on food is spent eating out. Of that, nearly half is spent on fast food. In other words, even if Vermont farmers produced more of the ingredients needed, this group of consumers would not likely become regular customers.

On the other hand, if those farmers were able to sell such products to Vermont’s restaurants and institutions, e.g., UVM and Fletcher Allen, in significantly greater quantities, then those same consumers would indirectly be supporting those farmers with their “away from home” food expenditures, assuming they ate out at Vermont-owned restaurants versus national chains or fast food joints.

My point? Vermont, like any other region, has significant upside potential in supporting local farmers, dairies, ranchers and processors through consumer food expenditures for at home and away from home consumption. Taking a week out of our year to understand the subtleties and challenges of eating local has already opened our eyes to how we can better do our part.

Today’s Localvore Meals

  • Breakfast:  Scrambled eggs (Savage Gardens in North Hero), Vermont Maple Sausage (Vermont Smoke and Cure in South Barre), strawberries (Taste of the North, St. Lawrence Valley, Quebec), and Cold Hollow Cider Mill apple cider…to grogy this AM to remember to add peppers and chives from our garden and some wonderful Vermont-made cheese, but did get to sit down with entire family from breakfast on a school day, which was quite the treat
  • Lunch:  Vermont Soy Maple Ginger Tofu, Cabot Sharp Cheddar Cheese, homemade “local” muffins, hard boiled eggs (Savage Gardens), and lemon and regular cucumbers and carrots from our garden and Wellspring Farm (13-Year-Old Exception: U-32 cafeteria…no luck yet on getting her to take a lunch, although we will keep trying)
  • Dinner (Previous Night):  Savory Vegetables in Polenta Crust (recipe in From the Cook’s Garden by Ellen Ecker Ogden) – utilized great local ingredients, e.g., Butterworks Farm cornmeal, Rainville Family Farm organic sunflower oil and red bell peppers, onion, garlic, zucchini, basil and oregano from our garden; salad made from our garden and Wellspring Farm CSA produce; Monument Farm milk
  • Wild Cards: French Roast Coffee (Fresh Coffee Now in Burlington), baking powder (muffins)
  • Exceptions: (1) 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar in last night’s dinner; (2) raw cane sugar for coffee (were going to try out maple syrup, but ran out over weekend; will be buying syrup and maple sugar to test out…stay tuned)
  • Market Opportunities: following items might be ripe for Vermont food entrepreneurs – localvore breads (know Red Hen has some, but were sold out; couldn’t find any at Hunger Mt. Co-op in Montpelier), localvore dry pastas, raisins (my daughter will be your best customer), kid-tested peanut butter substitute
Related Posts:

Stocked Up for Local Eating Challenge

Day 1 of Eat Local Challenge Series

Following the Mad River Valley Localvore Project’s lead, my family is following the Marco Polo Rule (i.e., salt, pepper, spices) and taking five wildcards (i.e., coffee, olive oil, baking powder, baking soda, TBD) in our 2009 Eat Local Challenge.

Thank goodness for these exceptions, since I can’t imagine either my wife or me starting out the day without a hot cup of coffee. By the way, our Organic, Fair Traded certified coffee of choice this week is a French Roast from Burlington-based Fresh Coffee Now.

When we are unable to find something locally grown or raised, e.g., coffee beans, something that became readily apparent during our “stocking up” food shop on Sunday, it is important to have a succession of next best alternatives, e.g., organic, locally processed or locally-owned retail. Which raises an important question related to eating local which I covered in a recent blog post: Is it more important to buy from locally-owned retailers than it is to eat local food?

While I won’t revisit that post again, I will suggest that if there were more locally-owned food retailers (see Mad River listing as example) that would likely be smaller and more intimate than today’s average supermarket (>45,000 square feet), then regional consumers would have increased, everyday access to locally grown, raised and processed foods. The term “everyday” is key, since currently many people have to use exceptional channels to purchase such foods, e.g., once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs.

This symbiotic relationship between local food producers and retailers should allow both to grow and prosper, and, most important, begin taking back market share in a market dominated by industrial-sized food companies.

Today’s Localvore Meals

  • Lunch:  Vermont Soy Maple Ginger Tofu (not sure about ginger), Shelburne Farms Maple Cheddar Cheese, and cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans from our garden (13-year-old exception: U-32 cafeteria’s salad bar – not sure how local)
  • Dinner:  see Day 2 post
  • Wild Cards: Coffee
Related Posts:

Is Buying Food Locally More Important than Eating Local Food?

One of my favorite times of the year is upon us – The Harvest Season.

This weekend, my family will trek out to the Wellspring Harvest Fest – A good ol’ hoe down and celebration of the season!  Wellspring Farm is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program we have supported for the last four years, and the Fest is an incredible celebration of the season’s bounty, where the Wellspring CSA community gathers to eat incredible food, avoid rotten tomato on our faces in the infamous tomato toss (might need to renamed the “late blight” toss this year), tour the farm on a hay ride and add our own painted touches to the farm’s annual Harvest Fest sign.

In a couple more weeks, we will be joining many people throughout Vermont and I believe the country in an “Eat Local” challenge, where for one week my family will commit to eating as much locally grown or raised food as possible.

These celebrations, while wonderful opportunities to connect with our local/regional food community, also make me think about what we will do over the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Will conventional food thinking settle back in? It seems likely for most people, making the challenge of building up regional food economies all the more difficult.

Does it have to be that way? Are there things we can do to support regional food throughout the year, especially in regions where the growing season is short and/or the breadth of products grown and raised are narrow?

There is one thing that immediately jumps to mind. Raise the importance of “Buy Local” to the same level afforded “Eat Local,” since without a thriving farm-gate-to-your-plate regional food infrastructure, progress toward more sustainable food systems will be slow going. Seems easy enough…on the surface, but rebuilding and strengthen regional food economies will be the farthest thing from “easy.”

Over the last 50 years, America’s food landscape has changed considerably, especially in terms of how power and control over the food we eat has concentrated in the hands of large-scale, and often global corporate interests. Here’s a snap shot that I’m betting most people haven’t seen before:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. And while most of Monsanto’s press is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the company has quietly bought up a large number of seed companies to gain access to a rapidly expanding seed patent portfolio. Dupont is following suit.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67 percent. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.” What is especially problematic with this trend is that farms in the middle have all but disappeared, which are the types of farms that will be needed to support regional food systems.
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of over 80% of the country’s beef and three of these same four companies (along with an additional fourth) process over 60% of the country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide over half of the country’s chicken supply. Same for turkey meat. Large scale meat packing operations don’t do regional well (prefer CAFOs) or local at all.
  • Food Processors: Euromonitor International reports that the packaged food industry is worth almost $1.6 trillion. While there’s some debate about how accurate that number is, consider that the Top 50 U.S. processors alone accounted for $326 billion or nearly 25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs (which Kraft is attempting to gain control of in a $16.7 billion takeover), Danone and others, and you fast approach a majority of the market. Leaves little room on food retailers’ shelves for local or regional processed foods.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at the top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On a global scale, the USDA reports that “The top 15 global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales.” Serious concentration that is buying up or crushing regional food chains and killing off mom-and-pop stores left and right.

With this in mind, take a couple minutes to consider your local food retail landscape.

How many locally or regionally-owned food stores or member-owned food cooperatives are there? If any, how much impact do you think they have on your region’s food economy? In other words, do they represent enough demand to support regional farmers, distribution, processing, etc.? Check out their shelves next time you shop there (or make a special trip if you haven’t shopped there before). Where do you think that food is coming from?

As each of gets a clearer picture, which may seem bleak at first, you should also see tremendous opportunities to change how consumers interface with the food they eat.

For example, imaging developing innovative, regional food retail formats open every day (v. once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs) that provide consumers with real choices in the food they buy. Such choices, financed by our three votes per day (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner), will empower every one of us to buy more of the food we eat from local sources. This increasing demand for regionally grown, raised and processed food, as well as other sustainable foods, will justify increased investments in the infrastructure needed to provide more regional foods to consumers every day. Instead of spiraling down, as is the case with the industrialized food system, we will be spiraling up.

Ultimately, the choice of how we spend our food dollars is up to us. But until we have more convenient (e.g., open seven days a week), transparent (e.g., origin labeling) food retail options to choose from, do we really have a choice? Not as much choice as we deserve, so let’s get started in changing that.

Your first task – after finishing your successful “Eat Local” challenge this harvest season, assuming you participated – is to increase your financial support (i.e., spending our food dollars) of local and regional food retailers.

And if you can’t find one, then maybe you or someone you know should consider opening one yourself.

Happy Harvest!