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Filling in the local food gap

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/11/10 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Local food system

Local food is all the rage, but how can Northeast Ohio build that into a sustainable economy? A coalition has formed to look at gaps in what they call the "food value chain"-a new business model where buyers and producers intentionally work together to make local food widely available at affordable prices.

The Northeast Ohio Local Food Assessment, funded by the ReImagine a Greater Cleveland initiative, is looking at the economic impact of shifting 25% to local, sustainably grown food. Brad Masi, director of the New Agrarian Center; Leslie Schaller, director of Athens, Ohio based nonprofit ACE-Net, which formed a local food business incubator; and Michael Shuman, co-founder and director for research and public policy for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) were hired to do the study.

Shuman, an economist, used the Minnesota Input-Out Multiplier Model (IMPLAN) to show that a 25% shift to local food would create 27,000 jobs, $723 million in earnings and $126 million in state and local taxes a year. The breakdown of jobs includes:

  • 10,000 farmers
  • 4,000 food processors
  • 5,000 in the retail sector, such as restaurant workers.
  • "Indirect" jobs including finance and real estate (1,726), distribution and wholesale (1,564), personal services (911) and other (636).

"Mainstream economists poo-pooh local food as not high-wage economic development," Shuman said. "It is true that farm jobs are low wage, but processing is higher wage and distribution, wholesale and business services are the next level after farmers – it underscores the economic development potential."

Demand for local food is currently outstripping supply in Northeast Ohio by double digit figures, Shuman added, which means wages should also come up.

The jobs impact numbers were presented to a coalition of health, agriculture and sustainability professionals last week. Today, Northeast Ohioans buys roughly 1% of their food from local sources. The coalition is considering what policies and investments are needed to raise that 24%.

Small farm advocates called for policies that would bring more equity between producers and the rest of the local food value chain. In a small group discussion, ideas like tax breaks for specialty crop growers and a statewide initiative to build a cooperative food prep kitchen in each county – similar to Governor Rhodes building the county airport system in the 1970s – for farmers to process their own food were floated.

ACE-Net has managed to keep a community food processing kitchen operating in Athens, says Schaller of ACE-Net, because it attracts small and mid-sized artisans and farmers while offering programs in food science (i.e. how to flash-freeze produce) and workforce training.

"We've served a diverse mix of tenants," she said, "from the mom who wants to add $10,000 to her annual income to the $2 million operation." Their kitchen incubator broke even in year three, Schaller said, which she defines as hiring one full-time employee and paying the mortgage. Fifty percent of the operating budget comes from grants.

Schaller is also working with the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation on a business plan for a community prep kitchen/incubator near the West Side Market and the new Ohio City Farm. The assessment consultants started collecting opinions in a survey on its web site, NEO Food Web last week. So far, 100 have signed up; early results have identified infrastructure barriers to ramping up supply, including:

  • Gaining title to land in the city for urban farming
  • Access to reliable water sources when farming vacant land
  • A micro-lending operation for small, specialty crop start ups
  • Many parts of the region lack any distributor willing to work with smaller local farmers
  • Mixed use business incubators and industrial parks in metro areas are needed

On the policy front, Cleveland City Council is considering a new urban agriculture zoning designation and is interested in exploring how to save and reuse water pipes when a house is slated for demolition. On the private market side, Masi mentioned working with the newly forming deconstruction industry in Cleveland to cull materials for structures like hoop houses and cold frames that would extend the season for urban farmers.

To comment on what's needed to fill in the gaps for local food production, distribution and retail, click here.

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