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GreenBiz: Buying local foods helps farmers, schools and the environment

By Gregg Hoffman

Article from

A vast majority of people in the world live within 10 miles of their food sources, but in the United States much of our food travels as far as 2,000 miles from the farm to the table.

While that system allows us to eat relatively fresh fruits and vegetables in winter in Wisconsin, it adds costs, has adverse environmental effects through transportation, raises questions about health and "food security" and takes money out of the local economy.

As transportation costs increase, and other factors change, such a system looks unsustainable over the long run. So, groups around the state are in various stages of organizing and running Community Food Systems.

From Vernon County in the southwest part of the state to Madison, Milwaukee and elsewhere, a variety of CFS projects can be found. A CFS is defined as: "a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic and social health of a particular place."

Ken Meter, CEO of Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, recently reported on an economic analysis for the food and farm system in southwest Wisconsin, including Monroe, Vernon, Richland and Crawford counties. The research has been backed, in part, by the Valley Stewardship Network, in cooperation with the Vernon County Economic Development Association and the Crawford County UW-Extension office.

One of the major findings of the analysis is that consumers in southwest Wisconsin spend $208 million buying food from outside the region. If consumers purchased 25 percent of their food directly from local farmers, it would produce $33 million of new farm income every year. That would offset current farm losses.

"Local food systems may be the best path toward economic recovery in this country," Meter told a recent gathering of about 100 people in Viroqua. "A farm and food economic system should build health, wealth, connections and capacity.

"Our current food system fails on those goals. It separates people from those who produce the food. It creates wealth for some and not for others."

The current system -- based on large farming domestically and imports from China, Mexico, Chile and other countries -- treats farm products and food as commodities and doesn't look at the impact on those who produce the food and eat it, Meter maintains.

Meter's statistics present a rather sobering picture of the food system in America overall and Wisconsin. State farmers as a whole make about $1.9 billion less than they did in 1969, when figures are adjusted for inflation, Meter claims. Wisconsin farmers have suffered the fourth worst loss of income of any state in America, he said.

In the country, farm income in 2008 was less than it was in 1929, when adjusted for inflation, Meter said. "And 2008 was considered one of the best for farm incomes in recent history," he said.

The current farm and food system encourages farmers to borrow beyond their means and become as big as possible. Arizona and New Mexico, where huge feed lots have been established, are two states that have shown increases in farm income.

But large operations raise concerns about environmental impact and health, Meter maintains. Plus, there's evidence the large operations aren't sustainable over the long run, he adds.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the United States could be close to becoming a net food importer. "This is in a country where we have prided ourselves in farm country for years on being able to feed the world," Meter said.

Because of these flaws in the system, Meter claims momentum is building for local farm and food systems. If you survey Wisconsin, there's evidence backing him up.

The Farm Fresh Atlas has become a go-to directory for those seeking to link farmers and consumers in direct buying arrangements. It is published by the REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food) Group, the Dane County Farmers' Market, the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Friends of the Dane County Farmers' Market.

You can find producers and markets for cheese and dairy, vegetables, fruit, eggs and many other goods. Farmers' markets around the state are listed. So are CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) groups through which consumers can receive weekly fresh produce and other foods for a membership fee. See more:

Madison is a hotbed for CSAs and other innovative farmer-to-consumer programs. Of course, the market on the Capitol Square has become a tradition.

The Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition is active in maintaining a list of participating farmers, publishing guidelines on how to cook farm-fresh produce and with the Partners Share Program, a program that helps lower income people afford organic produce.

One of the concerns about organic farm produce is that people with more expendable income have been the traditional buyers, Meter admitted. However, programs like Partners Share are very helpful, he said.

By no means are CFS and CSA programs only found in small towns, rural areas and the state capital. Milwaukee has its share of programs, too. The Milwaukee CSA Initiative links urban dwellers with farmers around southeastern Wisconsin for transactions at share fees that range from $20 to $25 per week. The Initiative also maintains a directory of area farmers, drop off sites and markets.

Perhaps the best known program in Milwaukee is Will Allen's Growing Powers Inc. Allen was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work in the urban center. Using low-cost farming technologies, such as raised beds, aquaculture, and heating greenhouses through composting, Growing Power grows a vast amount of food year-round at a two-acre farm site within the Milwaukee city limits.

The organization has grown to other farm sites in and around the Milwaukee and Chicago areas. "We started locally and now do work internationally," Allen said in MacArthur Foundation video when he received his fellowship in 2008. "More than a million people die annually because of poor food. It's happening here in the inner cities. I believe no matter what their income, people deserve access to safe, affordable food, grown naturally."

Growing Power provides training on how to grow food and puts on workshops all over the country for children and adults.

Of course, in rural areas, CSAs are looked at as potential boosts to the local economy as well as a way of feeding people. Meter said the loss of farms hurts merchants and service businesses in the small towns in rural areas.

"It can have devastating effects on many areas of the local economy," Meter said of farm failures.

Schools often also are hurt. In some rural areas of Wisconsin, almost 50 percent of the students qualify for federally subsidized meals programs. Farm-to-school programs around the state have helped local farmers and school meal budgets.

Americorps and other organizations provide grants for schools that participate in farm-to-school programs.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection also has become more active in recent years in maintaining a statewide local food guide and providing grants. This past year, 94 applicants sought more than $3 million in grant money, but DATCP had only $225,000 to distribute.

Meter believes the demand for grants and other funding will continue to grow because momentum is building rapidly for a better farm and food system.

"More and more people want very healthy food that we know the source of," Meter said. "It's especially important in low income areas, inner cities and in farm country. The momentum is amazing. People are saying we need to change the system.

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for and over the years. He will write the GreenBiz column monthly.


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