The local foods movement has become a popular trend in recent years. Local foods can be defined as “food produced, processed, and distributed within a particular geographic boundary that consumers associate with their own community.” Simply put, the local foods movements seeks to better connect farmers with local consumers and vice versa. This is done through a number of different ways, including community gardens, farmers markets, food hubs, community kitchens, cooperative grocery stores, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farm-to-school programs, farm-to-table restaurants, and many other ways. Over the last 14 years, the number of farmers markets in the country has nearly tripled and farm to school programs have grown from 6 in 2000 to over 4,000 in 2014. Some of the common motivators and benefits associated with buying local food include: supporting the local economy by keeping dollars local, environmental sustainability and the health benefits of buying and eating fresh foods. There are other less obvious motivators and benefits, such as the social connections and comradery created around growing and eating food with others based on a shared sense of community identity. Additionally, when local food activities like farmers markets, community gardens, and community kitchens are located along main streets and in downtowns - they can help support other place making goals such as improved walkability, downtown revitalization, community gathering spaces, and increased foot traffic for local retail.
Local Foods, Local Places
The Local Foods, Local Places program is a unique partnership among the EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that aims to help communities identify specific strategies and create a road map for achieving a range of placed-based, local food-oriented project goals. The community initiatives happening under this program range from building a community-owned cooperative grocery store in a small town on main street where people currently have to drive 10 miles to the nearest grocery store; to establishing a CSA in big city low income urban neighborhood that is currently a food dessert; to creating a food innovation hub seeking to foster food-based entrepreneurism in a redeveloping neighborhood, and many others.
The program is more than just about food. It is about bringing people together within these communities to devise creative ways for local food projects to enhance their neighborhoods, towns, cities and regions. The program synthesizes the goals of improved health, smart growth, economic revitalization, community development, and environmental sustainability through place-based food system projects.
Delivering the Goods
As a contractor to EPA, Renaissance is in the midst of delivering technical assistance to 26 communities across the country through the Local Foods, Local Places program. The technical assistance includes three key phases: issues identification, convening, and action planning. The focal point for the community is the on-site 1.5 day-long community and stakeholders workshop. This typically begins with a walking and windshield driving tour of the community to gather additional local insights and see first-hand some of the place-based issues and opportunities. The tour is followed by an evening meeting open to the public to talk about local community values, vision and goals. Day two usually includes interactive exercises with a focused group of stakeholders to map the local food system, discuss place-making opportunities, hear about best practices from other communities and identify pragmatic action steps to help the community start moving toward their local foods, local place goals.
I helped facilitate several of these workshops, all of them very different from one another, both in terms of the specific project the community was working on, and the geography and demographics of the place. Though these communities are different in many ways, many of them face similar inherent issues. They are losing population and suffering from a “brain drain”, their local economies are in decline or stagnant due to changes in industries (e.g. declining coal country economies), they are lacking a strong main street or thriving town center, and they are suffering from health-related issues partly due to a lack of access to healthy, fresh food.
In Itta Bena, Mississippi the small city of about 1,800 in the Mississippi Delta Region is in need of a grocery store because their only store closed about 10 years ago. Residents have to drive 12 miles to the next town over to get their groceries. For a low income community, this can be difficult when many do not own a car or are elderly and unable to drive.
Vinton, Texas is located just north of El Paso and the Mexico border. They want to start a community garden, farmers market, and small business incubator, but they lack the widespread local knowledge needed to grow their own food or start a new business. The community also lacks the funding and consensus needed to build water and sewer which is holding them back from economic development.
Idabel, OK is located in Choctaw Nation and near the borders of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana and wants to expand their existing farmers market on their main street to include more growers and create more foot traffic downtown to support local retail. They also want to connect youth with aging populations who know how to farm and create value-added food products so that they can create a new generation of farmers and local food-related traditions that have been in families for centuries.
In all of these workshops a common outcome is the creation of new connections between people in the community. The workshop often serves as a catalyst for action and helps bring people together around a common set of goals. With the additional federal interagency partners and other stakeholders involved, the workshops can also help to connect local communities with outside resources or organizations that can help them implement their local projects and action plans. This might include the identification of specific funding sources, additional technical resources, or the creation of new public private partnerships.
Williamson, WV was the recipient of technical assistance under the original Livable Communities in Appalachia program supported by EPA and ARC two years ago. At the time they were seeking help in strengthening their local food system and replicating their success in the surrounding region. We had the opportunity to go back to Williamson again this year to find them much further along in their local foods and placemaking efforts. They have a popular community garden and a farmers market that is in more demand than there is available supply. Their place-based focused efforts to concentrate activities in their traditional downtown continues to grow. Most recently they started a Federally Qualified Health Clinic, which is a free clinic located in downtown that has seen over 5,000 patients in just over a year of being open. The success of the clinic, the farmers market and community garden, and the huge number of people they now draw to downtown have sparked the opening of additional restaurants, some of which serve food grown from the community garden. Compared to our trip there two years ago, there is notably more activity in their downtown than there used to be.
This is the unique aspect of the local food programs. Co-locating these enterprises in downtowns and pairing them with other events can have a spin off effect on surrounding businesses. One community saw a 25% increase in downtown retail sales when the farmers market on their historic main street expanded to include music and art. There is a multiplier effect that happens when one of these initiatives, such as a farmers market, is successful. Momentum is generated, more initiatives are started based on the success of others and more benefits are seen.
I think we are only beginning to see how huge of an impact going local can have in helping communities to achieve their goals. Local food and local place initiatives can make a big impact not only in small, rural towns but cities of all sizes all over the country in helping to improve local economies, community cohesion, health, and positive environmental outcomes.