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Investing in Infrastructure

Local food economy calls for new equipment and services

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Current food systems can't deliver an orchard's apples to a school right across the street

When most people hear the word “infrastructure,” they think of roads and bridges or water systems and communications towers. Infrastructure is all those pieces that make a system work efficiently and effectively as a whole; the power grid, for example, carries energy from many different sources to the many different places it’s needed.

In food, infrastructure is important, too. Barns, refrigeration, warehouses, loading docks, retail locations, distribution companies—all are part of the food system’s infrastructure.

As our food system became global in scale over the last 50 years, however, the reach of its infrastructure began to exceed the grasp of smaller-scale farms and their great diversity of products.

Now, as more schools look for fresh local foods, for instance, we find a very large gap in market infrastructure. Even though apples might be hanging on trees at a farm across the road from a school, the current industrial food infrastructure cannot deliver them those few hundred yards. Schools might buy the apples directly from the farm, but they can’t get them through the mainline food distributors they use daily.

Building a “regional food system” is all about filling that gap. It’s about reinventing and building food system infrastructure that allows for smaller farms and their wider array of products, from heritage-breed poultry to tree ripened, locally raised fruit.

The biggest needs are equipment and facilities that fit small and mid-scale producers, and building the capacity of smaller farms to meet bigger orders.

The Starting Block
Willie Brown and his family produce and package their frozen cornbread dressing, Southern Stuffing, at The Starting Block food business incubator in Hart.

The Starting Block business incubator in the west Michigan community of Hart offers one way of solving such problems. It gives food entrepreneurs access to commercial equipment without making them buy it all themselves. At The Starting Block, entrepreneurs rent office space, store ingredients, and products; use a wide range of available equipment; and get expert help developing their products. There’s more at http://www.startingblock.biz/.

A major redevelopment plan for Detroit’s Eastern Market offers another example. It shows how building a hub for local food retailing and processing can benefit both the local food economy and surrounding neighborhoods.

The plan aims to make the Eastern Market and nearby areas more successful by providing new local food retailing, processing, and distribution options. As a hub for a complete local food system, the market will even include an urban agriculture center with a model market garden and classes in urban food production. There’s more at http://www.detroiteasternmarket.com/.

Distribution is always a challenge. Farmers interested in going wholesale need to get up to speed quickly in order to serve local markets; distributors themselves must re-think systems that have shut out smaller farms for years.

Companies large and small, from Sysco to Michigan-based distributors like the new Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, or Heeren Brothers Produce, are looking for more local farmers to help them meet demand for local and specialty products. Even the natural food chain Whole Foods Market is redoubling efforts to buy from local farms after customers complained the company didn’t do enough.

“We’re putting a lot more energy into outreach and seeking farmers and other food producers through channels we may not have really focused on before,” said Adam Mitchel, a Midwest division produce coordinator.

Joe Colyn, a Michigan-based consultant for companies that are trying to diversify their supply chains and include more food from more local farms, says there is a growing appreciation among mainline buyers for the benefits that consumers find in local foods, from freshness to community connection.

“There’s also some awareness that our growers can provide unique flavors in fruits and vegetables, deliver them fresh and in good shape, and really satisfy consumers with stuff they used to eat, like great-tasting produce and fresh Michigan peaches,” Mr. Colyn said.

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