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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?