2/6/2013 - The push for local food continues to gain steam
by Asheville Citizen Times
The benefits of local food are self-evident. Farmland remains in production, and farmers remain employed. Shipping costs are reduced, along with the pollution from long-haul transportation. Food sold close to the farm is generally more nutritious and less likely to be contaminated.
But that evidently isn't enough. Most people still buy food shipped across the nation at chain grocery stores. So, what can local farmers do to encourage business?
The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project is providing the information people need. Its 1-year-old Local Food Research Center already has produced five reports on subjects ranging from farm and food assessment to meat processing. The most recent report looks at local-food marketing.
Asheville is doing its part with a Food Action Plan that focuses on access to markets.
An obvious problem is price. Local food usually costs more because local farmers cannot use economies of scale. But that is not an insurmountable problem, ASAP says.
Local markets can use coupons and weekly promotions, much as do the grocery chains. They can encourage participation by larger-scale growers who may have lower prices. They can use schools and social service agencies to get the word out. They can involve the community. And they can accept federal nutritional benefits.
Beyond that, ASAP says, they can tailor their offerings to their customers. They can post multilingual signs, encourage vendors from different backgrounds and learn which staples are popular in different cultures.
But what about the problems people, especially low-income people, face in getting to a market? That is a major focus of the Asheville plan.
Under conventional zoning, markets are excluded from residential areas. This makes access difficult for people without cars. Asheville now allows markets in residential areas, and the first one is in operation in Oakley.
"Even though (Oakley) is within proximity to retail outlets that provide food, it's not walkable in terms of getting to those outlets," said Josh O'Conner, a director of the new market.
"The closest grocery store is separated from the community by an interstate intersection, and the remainder are essentially inaccessible by foot. There aren't really adequate pedestrian facilities."
The ASAP report stresses the importance of public transportation in helping people get to market. The Asheville plan also makes that point, along with the need for more sidewalks.
Another option in the ASAP plan is mobile markets, though they would require subsidies. That means organizers had better do a lot of planning, ASAP says.
Those who operate services by which people sign up for weekly boxes of fresh produce could expand their reach by accepting federal nutrition benefits, ASAP says.
The Oakley facility is evolving toward becoming a community meeting place. "In addition to addressing food security issues, we're also trying to enliven the community in other ways," said market coordinator Carly Esslinger. Organizers are seeking to make the market a cooperative so it can use federal nutrition benefits.
One more thing Asheville can do, according to O'Connor, is make the permitting process easier and cheaper. "It's hard to find resources when you're starting a community group and you don't have money to pay an attorney or an accountant," he said. Fees represent at least 20 percent of the projected revenue stream, he told the city.
If City Councilman Gordon Smith has his way, a lot of food might be grown within walking distance of the markets. He wants residents to start using their yards for gardens. "It's time for people to stop mowing and start growing" is the way he puts it.
There are a lot of ideas out there. That's good, because there is a lot of need out there.