By Peter Henry, founder and board chair of Farm Table Foundation
From taprooms to farmers markets, CSA boxes to restaurant menus, local wineries to pastured meats, everything that is “local” is hot and continues to grow, flourish, and outflank every other retailing and restaurant trend in the United States.
According to Business Insider Magazine: “Local food sales in the U.S. grew from $5 billion to $12 billion between 2008 and 2014. The same study predicted local food sales would jump to $20 billion in 2019, outpacing the growth of the country’s total food and beverage sales.”Twenty billion dollars equates to a lot more than browsing a farmers market and filling a cloth bag with salad fixings. In fact, local food processing facilities, distributer operations and breweries are highly complex, capital intensive businesses that are not anything like the “Mom and Pop” food outlets of decades past.
Here in western Wisconsin, a quick visit to a local winery like Dancing Dragonfly near St. Croix Falls, or a brew facility like Barley Johns in New Richmond, or even a local-food restaurant like Farm Table in Amery, reveals that the local food industry is “not in Kansas anymore.” It’s in western Wisconsin, it’s big league, and it’s attracting visitors and residents alike.
But why is “local” food booming?
American consumers have become much more savvy about food origins, overall food quality and their ability to identify what makes eating and drinking wholesome and authentic. And, crucially, we want food experiences that support our most cherished values. Personal health concerns, previously relegated to making sure to get out for a walk or a bike ride, have expanded to include eating right. Simple but smart choices, like buying grass-fed beef for its balance of Omega 6’s and 3’s and its full-helping of conjugated linoleic acids, are becoming more common.
Americans are beginning to understand that paying more on the front end for local “pastured” meats will pay-off big-time in terms of health over the course of many years. Red meat, once seen as a potential health problem, can actually become a health asset when intelligently and locally sourced. However, sourcing quality meat, as much as consumers want it, is an extreme challenge given industrial production practices, including antibiotics, overcrowded feedlots and grouping animals in cages, pens and barns. This notion also applies to fruits and vegetables. Unlawful labor practices, toxic sprays and foreign-sourcing have raised a host of concerns: fair wages, food-borne illness, potential carcinogens and a general lack of nutrition. More and more, consumers are asking questions.
Building relationships with local food providers, particularly farmers, but also restaurants and retailers like food coops, allows consumers to ask these questions as well as verify practices and make purchases with confidence. People want to know, and want their children to understand, where food comes from, how to ensure it isn’t tainted or overly industrialized, and that, behind it all, there are human beings who care about quality. Buying local and direct from a farm allows relationships to take root and grow.
The environment is another driver around eating local. America’s “salad bowl,” California, produces 60% of this country’s fruits and vegetables.1But, in the process, it is pumping watersheds dry, contaminating surrounding habitat and depleting soil-health valley by valley in what used to be an American paradise. When shoppers understand the negative impacts of particular products on the environment, they are very likely to look for alternativesto verify that their grocery cart is full of good outcomes for land and people alike.
The local economy is another key player. Ever since John Maynard Keynes developed the economic “multiplier effect” based on government spending (in short: buying local begets buying local begets buying local), there has been keen academic interest in how to make this work in the private sector. The last several decades, many communities started “buy local” or “shop downtown” initiatives to stimulate economic activity at Christmas. It turns out, there is no better way to build the local economy than by purchasing local food every day, year around. Dollars spent at the local farm boomerang back to town, creating sales, revenues, and hiring.
Local food is invariably fresher, tastes delicious and is loaded with minerals, enzymes and vitamins that food from distant parts just can’t match. When consumers reduce the “food miles” on their plates, they not only reduce energy expense and transportation pollution, they simultaneously increase the taste and health impact as well. That’s a win-win-win that makes it worth sourcing three times a day.
If someone said to an American shopper in a grocery store, “I can show you how to achieve better health outcomes, invest in quality habitat and cleaner water, grow local jobs, strengthen area farms, build important relationships that last for decades and, at the same time, improve the taste and experience of sitting down to eat” —what do you think that shopper would say?
They would ask, skeptically and incredulously, “How can I do all that?”
And the answer is: spend time finding great places to buy local food, whether at farms or markets or restaurants. Buying local is reshaping America’s landscape, literally, from farms to industrial parks, beer to pizza, food trucks to farmers markets—and it is happening in the most delicious way imaginable.