Tag Archives: Burlington

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
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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
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How Eating Local for One Week Might Just Revolutionize Our Food System

This post is the first in a series supporting the Eat Local Challenge 2009 from City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vermont. The Challenge is the week of September 21, 2009.

Local food. 100-mile radius. Seasonal eating. All great ideas, but why would anyone commit to abide by such rules for an entire week in a place like Vermont? That’s what City Market is asking its customers to do as part of the Eat Local Challenge 2009 the week of September 21. My family has enthusiastically agreed to take their challenge, as well as write about our experience. This initial post should give you a flavor of what to expect.

According to the Mad River Valley Locavore Project, an organization with an outstanding local food track record, 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.

By challenging ourselves in such ways, we will increase our awareness of the food we eat, where it comes from, how it was grown, who grew it and more. Regardless of how far any of us has already come, there is always room to learn more, but given the complexity of today’s industrial food system and large-scale conventional supermarkets, increasing our understanding of food can be very challenging. Thankfully, in Burlington and communities throughout Vermont we have food cooperatives, farmers markets and community-support agriculture (CSA) farms that allow us to get much closer to local foods.

The fact is most Americans take their food for granted. Cheap, convenient food is everywhere, and is often treated as an accessory in today’s fast-paced lifestyles. The problem is much of what we consume today isn’t really food; it is highly processed calories made to resemble food. Sophisticated marketers wrap those calories up in slick packaging and push them into the marketplace with large marketing budgets. And what appears cheap at the register is made so through taxpayer-funded crop subsidies, industry-friendly regulations and deferred costs related to our health, the environment and regional economies.

As you might imagine, tracing ingredients in such processed foods back to their sources is nearly impossible, since doing so would expose the inner workings of industrial food’s “black box”, which brings me back to the importance of locally grown and/or processed foods.

Over the next several weeks leading up to the challenge, I will be sharing more on why supporting local foods is important. Being 100% local in a place like Vermont for one week will be tough. Doing so year round nearly impossible, except for the most committed. But making such efforts is exactly what consumers – who have grown accustom to having whatever foods they want, whenever they want them – must do in order to reclaim control over the food we eat.

10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers

There is plenty of talk, especially online, about all the problems associated with our conventional, industrialized food system, me included.  And while there are significant challenges ahead in migrating toward more sustainable approaches to feeding people real food, I want to highlight a number of innovative retail solutions that are blazing trails for the rest to follow.

Here are 10 retail concepts I find intriguing (presented in alphabetical order).  In addition to a brief description, I am highlighting key strengths in supporting a more sustainable approach to food.

  1. Farm Fresh To You (Capay Valley, CA) – customer friendly, flexible and convenient certified organic CSA program serving 800 members from over 240 acres; home or office delivery options; no formal commitment required (cancel or suspend deliveries at any time); some customization of weekly delivery (eliminate items or add additional servings); mid-size farm CSA program with member numbers significantly greater than typical CSA farms
  2. FamilyFarmed.org (Oak Park, IL) – Mission is to expand production, marketing and distribution of locally grown and responsibly produced food and goods, in order to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of our communities; offers directory of CSA farms with delivery information; manages FamilyFarmed EXPO (three-day fall harvest festival and celebration of local foods and goods); developing product label program; large scale implementation of local, sustainable food
  3. FarmsReach (Bay Area, CA) – “the web hub for local grub” is building a web-based platform that offers a simple way for buyers to order food from local producers through delivery or local markets; pushing into new, easier to implement farmer-to-wholesale pathways
  4. Intervale Center (Burlington, VT) – manage 350 acres of farmland, nursery, compost production, trails, and wildlife corridors; developed Food Hub (connecting farmers to profitable market opportunities) and Food Basket (multi-farm CSA serving 125 members via 7 workplace drop off points); since 1980s, the Intervale has played a critical role in developing the Burlington community’s interest and support of local foods
  5. Know Your Farms (Davidson, NC) – multi-farm, year-round CSA program with limited customization of weekly box; introducing new “meal-in-a-box” pilot program that provides entire 4-person meal with local ingredients and cooking instructions; experimenting with new ways to deliver food that will be more valuable than random boxes
  6. Pete’s Greens (Craftsbury, VT) – year-round CSA program integrating farm and local products; utilizes wholesale delivery routes to drop off shares to 250 members; sales have been steadily migrating toward retail; reaching well beyond his farms location, Pete Johnson is pushing toward regional CSA programs (beyond local)
  7. Recipease (London, UK) – what list would be complete without a celebrity project, in this case “The Naked Chef” – Jamie Oliver; his first food and kitchen shop is designed to help anyone learn to cook and make great food; customers will be able to “assemble a brilliant meal in around 10 minutes”; bottom line: Mr. Oliver is helping get more people into their kitchens
  8. Sunflower Farmers Market (Boulder, CO) – “Serious Food…Silly Prices” is behind this growing chain of full-service grocery stores with emphasis on high quality natural and organic produce; founded and led by Wild Oats founder Mike Gilliland; also see Sprouts Farmers Market (AZ); both of these mini Whole Foods are part of trend toward smaller stores (10-20,000 square feet)
  9. The Organic Dish (Boulder, CO) – offering healthy, simple to make, and delicious ready-to-cook (frozen) organic meals and dinner kits utilizing local products; online or in-store order/deliver options; offers on-site do-it-yourself meal preparation parties for small groups (see Recipease)
  10. Three Stone Hearth (Berkeley, CA) – TSH is a worker-owned cooperative, offering nutrient dense foods to homes and families around the San Francisco Bay Area through what it calls a community supported kitchen (CSK); foods offered include soups, stews, cultured vegetables and coolers, sauces, prepared whole grain dishes; seems like a great model that could be customized to adapt to other regions

There are clearly a lot of really smart, energetic, and (in some cases) well-funded people attacking the challenges in our food system from multiple angles.  Over time, it is these efforts and those to follow that will make a real difference in getting more people to eat real food.

And if I missed companies or organizations that you feel should have made “the list”, please add them in the comments section so that we can raise our collective awareness even further.

 

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Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough

What isn’t to like about community supported agriculture (CSA)?

Farmers receive significant upfront cash flow before the growing season to help cover expenses.  And 3-6 months later they get to sell their food at near-retail prices, giving them considerably better chances of surviving.  Consumer “members” feel good about helping typically regional farmers, who in return help members learn about where their food comes from and how to eat better with farm-fresh food.  I doubt any one would argue that its a mutually-beneficial relationship.

But what about the long-term potential of CSA programs in helping solve the large-scale sustainable food challenges we face?

With 12,549 CSA farms in 2007 (0.6% of all farms), these programs represent a tiny fraction of U.S. food sales, which totaled over $1.1 trillion that year, according to the USDA.  Drill down further and you find that food sales from “farmers, processors, wholesalers, and other” were less than 0.6% of the 2007 total (with CSA sales being a fraction of that percentage).  Try as I might, I can’t see CSA farms ever taking a noticeable share of the U.S. food market.

That doesn’t mean I am advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water.  In fact, I fully expect CSA sales to continue their rapid growth, while shining a spotlight on the increasingly important American farmer. It is also my hope that such attention will encourage more people, especially younger generations, to consider sustainable farming as a career.  But for now, we need to broaden our thinking about solutions that can scale, while still satisfying the needs of farmers and consumers alike.

Building on CSA Lessons Learned

First, we should learn from the over two decades of experience gained since the first CSA program launched in the U.S.  Marcia Ruth Ostrom of Washington State University has done an effective job doing that in a study she conducted to investigate the “strengths and weaknesses of the organizational configurations, tactics, and outcomes of CSA as a social movement.”  Her 10-year study of 24 CSA farms serving major metropolitan areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin collected data on (1) farmer participation, (2) member participation, (3) member-farmer relationships, and (4) farm-to-farm interactions.

What Ms. Ostrom found was an eye-opener for me personally, especially her discussion of the burdens CSA programs put on the farmers themselves. Here are some key highlights of her findings (I encourage you to read the study for yourself):

  • CSA farms produce >40 crops for CSA shares v. conventional farms growing 1-2 commodity crops; “logistics…turned out to be more challenging than most had initially realized”;
  • Farms don’t receive hands-on consumer support originally envisioned; shifts burden of starting, administering and sustaining CSA to farmer;
  • Many CSA farms struggle with high member turnover and apathy;
  • Farmers setting prices in line with conventional food system, not on real costs of production (CSA vision);
  • Many CSA programs fold after 1-2 years, primarily due to economic, health and quality of life issues (in that order);
  • Most CSA members are middle-class, urban, white, and highly educated (limited socio-economic reach)

When you consider Ms. Ostrom’s findings regarding member experiences, things get more interesting, and even a little concerning.

People join CSA programs for a diverse set of reasons: wanting fresh, nutritious produce; buying local; supporting small-scale farmers; and caring for the environment.  All great reasons, but notice that “helping farmers out using my own two hands” didn’t make the cut.  It’s why members leave that makes me seriously question how far CSA programs can reach beyond their current demographic.

According to the study, 36 percent of members cited supermarket withdrawal as their reason for leaving their CSA program, characterized as “the wrong vegetables in the wrong quantities at the wrong time.”  In other words, consumers wanted more control over the food they purchase.  Perhaps this wouldn’t big such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that these people self-selected into CSA programs in the first place.  Apparently, those reasons couldn’t overcome the inconveniences of the CSA format.

Where does that leave us?

Envisioning New Retail Experiences

We need to find innovative, new ways to bring local and/or sustainably grown food to broader segments of the population, in place of the highly processed food that dominate today’s supermarket aisles, which makes it very hard to imagine the conventional food system embracing such ideas.  We need to offer farmers financial benefits similar to those offered by CSA programs (e.g., predictable revenues, cash flow support, near-retail margins), but without the major headaches associated with managing a CSA program.  We need to continue helping consumers migrate toward eating more “real food” at home, something CSA programs have done quite well.

The good news is that there are lots of smart, energized, talented people working on such solutions all around us. What we ultimately need are new retail experiences capable of significantly growing sales of sustainably grown food, which requires that they be able to effectively compete over time with the dominate players in our conventional food system.  What I see when I close my eyes is an alternative food infrastructure taking increasingly large chunks of market share away from those player, while building strong regional economies built on regional food systems.

Blur your eyes and I bet you see it too…

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