Ten Year Anniversary Series: eating local is easier than ever

As the population grows, the issue of food--from growing to distribution — becomes increasingly important. For an increasing minority of folks, the answer lies in getting back to basics — growing food in more traditional ways, and making sure it stays in the region for locals to enjoy. Ten years ago this month, Soapbox ran a piece about local food in Cincinnati. As part of our 10 year anniversary series, we examine how local food has changed in the past decade, and where it might be in the future.

According to Kristin Gangwer, Interim Executive Director of local sustainability nonprofit Green Umbrella, there is cause for optimism. “We’ve measured that number of outlets to purchase or consume local food has quadrupled since 2010.” The demand has increased, and the places to tap into local food now include everything from farmer’s markets to restaurants to “food hubs” to direct from farmer community supported agriculture CSA programs.

Traditional farmers markets continue to thrive, with upwards of 40 markets happening seven days a week throughout the region. The Central Ohio River Valley (CORV) Local Food Guide, an annual publication, highlights the markets and other sources for local food. According to CORV Producer Deborah Jordan, the guide was started in 2008 as a grassroots effort to connect community members with local growers and fresh, healthy local food. Jordan explains that the guide “went from 8 pages in the beginning to 24 today,” reflecting the explosion of interest and availability of local food in the past decade.

Access to local food has also been helped by advances in technology. Local Food Connection, one of two “food hubs” in the region, was started in 2015 to improve access to fresh produce for families and restaurants. “Our mission is to make it more convenient for buyers to buy locally as other foods. On the supplier end, we make it more convenient for farmers to market and distribute products,” explains founder Alice Chalmers. Produce, meat, dairy, and other local products are available for purchase online. “We’re like an Amazon.com for local food. You can buy as much or as little as you want, when you want.” After placing an online order, buyers can pick up their produce at one of eight local locations.

Local food access has also improved through innovative programs that improve affordability for people with limited incomes. Due to governmental produce subsidizes and large chain stores driving down prices through bulk buying, consumers have become accustomed to low prices on staples such as milk and produce. For many, the price of buying local can seem prohibitive. “Food can be so cheap, people still underestimate the real cost of producing food,” said Chalmers. “There can be sticker shock on pricing.” Programs such as Produce Perks are helping to address this barrier to eating local. Produce Perks is a local nutrition incentive program that allows people who are on federal assistance such as SNAP to double their dollar at participating farmers markets. “This allows people to go to a farmer’s market and buy $5 of produce with their EBT card and get $10 of food,” explained Gangwer.

Restaurants are also getting in on the local food trend. “In the last 10 years, I think it’s become an expectation for certain types of food establishments,” said Chalmers. “If they set a higher standard for themselves, they usually try to source some products locally because there are so many benefits to that. Not just that they’re giving back, but they know they can have a level of freshness and lack of perishability because it’s been harvested within 24 hours.” Local Food Connection helps link regional farmers with restaurants in search of good local produce. “We have a [restaurant] client list of 100 that are buying locally, and this is from a price point of $8 to $28 an entree. Across the board there’s a real commitment to good food.”

On the flipside, Green Umbrella is working to reduce food waste that comes out of restaurants. Their “Save the Food Cincinnati” campaign aims to keep food from landfills through advocacy and education. “We give out awards/grants to projects and organizations who do creative work to reduce food waste,” said Gangwer. “Everything from gleaning extra produce from the fields that can be donated to the food banks to supporting organizations like La Soupe, which does food rescue projects.” Green Umbrella also has a Local Food action team, which is working on a 10% Shift campaign to encourage consumers to pledge 10% of their food budget to buying local food.

Those working in the local food scene see incremental progress happening. “Having worked in the food system for a while, I feel really positively about where things are heading,” said Gangwer. Generational shifts in values are also driving demand for local food. Access to local food has become “the expectation among millennials,” according to Chalmers.

Buying local is easier than ever, and for many it is not just important because of nutrition or health, but rather it is a decision driven by personal values. “I think it’s up to everyone that goes into a restaurant or buys food to realize that they’re making a important decision,” said Chalmers. “For some it’s a matter of survival and you have to get quantity and calories, but to the extent that you can make a choice, it impacts those around you and your environment. It’s an important act.”

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Read more articles by Kamal Kimball.

Kamal Kimball is a freelance writer and co-founder of Ampersand Creative Services.