Get caught up on this month's food safety information
- New Study: What Local Ownership Does for Food, Economy
An entire world of meaning is packed into the highly popular and hugely controversial term "local food." A new study unpacks one of the components -- local ownership -- and finds it is a key reason why people buy local and at the core of how local economies can build global prosperity.
The new report, Community Food Enterprise: Local Success in A Global Marketplace (download the full report), digs into the financial, social, and environmental performance of 24 locally owned food businesses from around the world. Profiled businesses range from Midwest innovators like Minnesota's Lorentz Meats to the regional food focus of Sri Lanka's largest chain of supermarkets Cargills. The study finds that such community food enterprises (CFEs) are becoming more competitive, scalable, and critical to global economic development strategies.
The study also finds that food is the doorway through which many people, from consumers to government leaders, discover the power of local economy building. Lead author Michael Shuman, director of research and economic development at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, explains in a Dec. 9 Civil Eats interview:
"Food turns out to be an important entry in consumers’ consciousness about the benefits of buying local. We understand the virtues of local food viscerally, emotionally and literally. We can taste the quality, meet the producer and visit the farm and indeed interact personally with every aspect of a local food supply chain, should we choose to do so. That is not necessarily true of local energy, local finance or local manufacturing. Plus, because food businesses dominate much of the landscape of both rural America as well as most developing countries, the food sector serves as the critical foundation for rethinking economic development."
The study is a joint project of analysts at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and the Wallace Center at Winrock International, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It is presented in a web-based format at CommunityFoodEnterprise.org, where project leaders intend to build an open-source worldwide database of small business models and local business innovations.
The debate in Congress over food safety is now shifting to administrative and rulemaking processes as legislation settles into its final form. The House passed its bill HR2749 earlier this year, and the Senate's bill S510 has passed in committee.
Much heat remains around the definition of "facility." The bills use a definition from 2002 bioterrorism legislation and establish a Food and Drug Administration “registry of food facilities.”
As currently defined, a wide range of farms could be considered facilities under the legislation and come under the regulatory eye of FDA. In particular, farms that do some value-added processing, from bagging lettuce to making jam, could find themselves in this situation.
Meanwhile another national activity is the review and “harmonization” of the myriad of public and private Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards in use around the country. In accepting a harmonized standard, buyers would be agreeing to stop competing over whose food is safer, stopping the current cycle of ever more “supermetrics;” that is, buyer-specific food safety metrics that are sometimes used as a marketing tool. A buyer-accepted, harmonized GAP standard would reduce the burden for producers of all scales of multiple audits.
Two harmonization projects of note are underway.
One is spearheaded by United Fresh Produce (UF) and McDonalds. Their charter indicates a desire to unify all of the different food safety guidelines the companies involved use. If that harmonization is possible, all parties will accept that new document as the GAP standard.
Participants are proving inclusive and open to the needs of small, mid-sized, and diversified farmers. More of those farm's voices on the committee could help, too. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information on how to join the process. The first UF Technical Working Group meeting was held on November 17 and 18, and the next meeting is December 16-17 at McDonald’s headquarters near Chicago.
The other major harmonization effort is by GlobalGAP, an international GAP standard setting and benchmarking organization that brings together buyers and producers in many countries. GlobalGAP is establishing a Technical Working Group in North America, which will present our hemisphere's “best practices” for incorporation into the International GAP conversation. The first meeting of the group is December 16th during the UF-sponsored Technical Working Group meeting.
One other national initiative that has been challenging for proponents of local and regional food systems is the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which I testified against in Yuma, AZ this fall. Opponents are reviewing the thousands of pages of testimony and preparing final arguments for delivery to USDA's administrative judge by January 13, 2010.
Finally, FDA has published and is accepting comment on a set of risk based production guidelines for three of the supposed “dirty dozen” produce commodities that have in the last decade been the sources of the largest numbers of food born microbial illness outbreaks. The public comment period for these rules has been extended to January 6th. To comment on one or more of these commodities, follow these links:
Melons: Guidance | Comment
Tomatoes: Guidance | Comment
Leafy Greens: Guidance | Comment
For a good overview of terms and concepts in the world of food safety, see the NGFN food safety FAQ. And let us know about terms and concepts you'd like some help understanding. We'll post a definition or explanation. You can also contact Steve Warshawer directly at email@example.com.
The increasing pace of change in markets for healthy, green, fair and affordable food is clear in the rate of growth at Food Alliance, a national organization involved in certifying, as well as building, social and environmental values in the food supply chain.
Of the 360 businesses with Food Alliance's third-party certification, 60 percent came online in the last three years, said director Scott Exo. Food Alliance focuses on sustainable and humane food production and on fair and safe working conditions. The land area covered by Food Alliance certification is now up to 6.5 million acres, with certified farms in 22 states plus some in Canada and Mexico.
"Twelve years ago when Food Alliance started it felt like we were tugging at the shirtsleeves of stakeholders in the food system, asking them to pay attention to demand from this small but increasingly important cross-section of consumers," Exo said. "I think it's fair to say we've won that battle; we're well pass the tipping point. ... Now the real work begins."
As an advisor to the National Good Food Network from its 2007 start, Food Alliance brings a broad-based market perspective to the NGFN's work to support and connect good food leaders. A growing number of Food Alliance-certified businesses are food handlers, for example; that is, packers, processors and distributors working with farms to ensure final consumers that the food they're buying is sustainable and fair all the way from field to fork.
Exo says Food Alliance added this food handler category to its producer certifications about four years ago as it became clear that these supply chain partners needed each other, and a rigorous and respected certification seal, to really tell their story. "Our clients who have been most successful are those engaged in principled value chains," he said. That is, supply chain relationships based on strong commitments to the social and environmental benefits of their work, and strong commitments to each other.
Food Alliance continues to innovate as good food markets and business relationships grow. In addition to hosting major national and regional conferences in 2010, a big focus in the coming year is a new partnership in the mid-Atlantic region with the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture.
"We're very excited to be able to partner with PASA, which has a tremendous footprint in the region's food system," Exo said. "Food Alliance certification is another service PASA can offer its grower and food company members."
It's a valuable service, according to Consumers Union, for example, which in 2008 listed Food Alliance as “a highly meaningful label” and one of a handful of labels “worth spending extra on.” Endorsements of Food Alliance certification have also come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Earthwatch Institute, the National Geographic Green Guide, the Green Guide for Healthcare, Green Seal, and others.
Supply Chain Thinkers, Doers Put Heads Together
How does a values-based food supply chain, or value chain, differ from a typical food supply chain? What kinds of relationships and behaviors do we see in value chains and how do farmers, processors, distributors, and retailers get there?
These are the questions that 21 top value chain practitioners and researchers from around the country wrestled with for three days in early December. They were part of the groundbreaking Values-Based Value Chain Writeshop held near Washington D.C. -- a literal meeting of thinking and doing minds -- put on by the Wallace Center at Winrock International and the National Good Food Network in partnership with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.
A writeshop is an intensive workshop where practitioners and researchers pound out on paper (laptops, really) what they mean by things like "values" and "relationships" in new food supply chains. The purpose is to produce, from the best material available, a collection of information and set of tools to help people and organizations on the ground start or advance their work to get more good food to more people.
The Wallace Center and USDA will publish the results of the writeshop by early summer. They intend to hold a second writeshop in June when the focus will be on practical application; participants will wrestle with the questions of what forms this information should take to be most useful to people on the ground and how to best reach them with it.
For more information, contact the leader of the Wallace Center's Value Chain Research Collaborative, Michelle Frain Muldoon, at 703-302-6587 or MFMuldoon@winrock.org.
How local your food is may have very little to do with how "good" it is, in terms of social, economic, and environmental benefits.
That's what researchers like Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, have been saying since well before the nation's media and environmental consciousness zeroed in on their "food miles" data. Food miles, or the distance a food item travels, can provide telling information for consumers concerned with far-flung, industrialized food. But the simplicity of "food miles" does not convey other valuable information.
Now, Pirog says, Americans should check out the approach Europeans are taking to understand and describe "good food."
He's just back from a trip to AgroParisTech, which is part of INRA, in Paris, France, Europe's largest agricultural research institute. He was invited to give a seminar on his work researching environmental aspects of food systems and building values-based food supply chains.
What he learned is that rather than focusing on the closeness of food production and consumption, researchers at AgroParisTech are looking at how close food market relationships are.
"In what they call 'short supply chains,' distance can be a factor, but it's not the only factor," he said. "It could be a European farmer turned cheese maker who is selling to a buying club in Japan rather than through a long series of global market intermediaries."
Incorporating this European approach could prove useful to good food proponents in the current and coming days of big global businesses, like Wal-Mart, entering the local food world.
"When large retailers and food service companies talk about local food they usually frame the message around distance," Pirog said. Generally missing from this marketing is information about who produced, processed, and distributed the food and what kind of deals they received.
To capture these important values, Team Proximité researchers at AgroTechParis use the number of intermediaries between the buyer and supplier as a proxy for the level of the relationships, or mutual benefits, between the eater and the grower, he said.
"The more intermediaries, the less likely it is that the supply chain will convey valuable information about the farmer and other intermediaries in the chain," Pirog said. Hence, the Europeans' use of the term "short supply chain" to get at the strength of relationships in the supply chain and what that might mean for the food's social, economic, and environmental integrity.
Chicago Public Schools set out nearly 10 years ago to begin serving local foods to its 400,000 students. Slowly, steadily the process has begun to take the shape of a new market channel forming for nearby farms as packers, distributors and others gravitate to the opportunity.
This year, Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, the company that operates the school district's food service, will source $1.8 million worth of produce from farms in Illinois and adjacent states, like Michigan. Still greater sales are on the horizon for area farms, to Chicago schools and beyond to supermarkets, for example, now that some important supply chain components are falling into place.
The greatest activity has been in Michigan, a state right next door to Chicago with the widest variety of farm products in the nation after California. The Chicago-based FamilyFarmed.org helped get the regional supply chain action going by connecting Chartwells to nearby growers and to companies like the Detroit-based Locavore Food Distributors, one of a growing number of entrepreneurs working to meet demand for food from nearby farms.
Locavore is now regularly pulling together semi-loads of fresh Michigan fruit for Chicago schools. Owner Eric Hahn and Todd Greiner Farms out of Oceana County share their contacts and expertise to get the right volumes and types of apples and other fruits together. "The Greiners and I round up the volume and get it in place for the shipping date," Hahn said.
What's different in this supply chain scenario is that there is no question of mixing Washington apples into the load should the Michigan sources come up short. Because 100-percent local loads are a relatively new focus for packers and distributors, it takes a focused company like Locavore to make it happen.
"I get applesauce for Chartwells from Cherry Growers cooperative up in Grawn, Michigan, for example, because I know they only use local apples," Hahn said.
Guaranteeing an all-local shipment is the trick to this emerging sector when it comes to larger volumes, said John Vanek, business development manager for the Chicago-area Harvest Food Group. The frozen foods company developed a program to flash-freeze the fresh-picked bounty of local summer and fall harvests for year-round sales to Chicago Public Schools.
"What we have to do is assure that we have the volume the customer wants when they want it," Vanek said. "The challenge is when a customer decides, after you've pulled all the local product together, that they don't want it this month. We're left taking the risk."
But that risk is one that Harvest Foods was both ready and equipped to take. "It's what we do. We're a packer," Vanek said. "We have corn and peas and beans and apples and blueberries and green beans flowing through our facility all time. That's what it takes."
It's working out so far for Harvest Food Group and farms supplying its local product line. According to School Food FOCUS (and previous coverage), a national farm-to-school initiative with large urban districts, the flavor and nutritional profile of the local fresh-frozen produce has proven far superior to typical frozen produce.
As a result, Chicago Public Schools plans to nearly double the 160,000 pounds of local, fresh-frozen produce it is serving this year. School Food FOCUS also reports that Chartwells has expanded the local fresh-frozen products beyond Chicago Public Schools to many of the K-12 schools it serves in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced Dec. 3 that USDA has signed a cooperative agreement with the Fair Food Network, a Michigan-based organization working toward improving consumers' access to healthy foods.
The agreement lays the foundation for creating a regional food system with a strong urban-rural link by conducting research and matching small and mid-size farms in rural Southeast Michigan to emerging urban markets, particularly Detroit, where there is need and unmet demand for locally produced fresh foods.
Research results will be used to develop a comprehensive communications and social marketing plan to reach out to and inform small farmers in Southeast Michigan about urban market opportunities. USDA Rural Development will provide $40,000 to complement private funding.
"The Obama Administration supports establishment of local and regional food systems, part of our 'Know your Farmer, Know your Food' initiative," Merrigan said. "Linking Michigan's agricultural community to urban markets will bring new understanding of the importance of healthy eating and provide enhanced access to fresh foods."
See the Detroit Free Press story.
Each month, the National Good Food Network hosts webinars on a range of important topics, from shifting food safety regulations to cool examples of regional food distribution and retailing.
You can now see all of the NGFN webinars and more at the Wallace Center YouTube channel. Video case studies from the new Community Food Enterprise project are also posting there. Check it out!
Are you part of a food and farm initiative that more people should know about? Are you skilled or knowledgeable in an area of this work and ready to be part of it? Do you have some research to share? Then create your profile on ngfn.org to make sure your work shows up in the National Good Food Network's database of experts, organizations, and information. The database is just starting. Help it grow into the comprehensive clearinghouse we could all use!