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Inside the 25% shift - Cleveland local food study

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/22/10 @ 10:04am

If Northeast Ohio wants to get serious about local food, we need to create a food authority, supported by a local stock exchange, investing in business start ups, Michael Shuman, a co-author of a $70,000 study looking at Northeast Ohio's capacity to support local food economies said at the City Club yesterday.

Schuman admitted it would be hard but very valuable to create the country's first such local food authority, which he described as a quasi-official body that can issue tax exempt bonds to finance clusters of agriculture businesses. He estimates the agency would need $1 to 5 million to start, most of it financed through individual investors who would buy and sell shares of locally operated businesses.

A local stock exchange has been tested in places like Oklahoma City where a firm, Cutting Edge Capital, has simplified the legal set up from a $150,000 to a $5,000 transaction, Shuman said. They're investing in businesses like the Oklahoma Food Cooperative which is using online, social media to make distribution of local food more competitive with the supermarket.

"Think of this more like eBay than eTrade," he said. "Transactions would happen in a matter of a week not seconds."

Why is it needed? Because the food system that we know pays $.73 for every dollar to the distributors instead of to farmers and local economies, Schuman says. In Oklahoma City, the local food coop has been able to alter the equation, paying $.18 on the dollar for distribution.

Terrence Ryan, superintendent of the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, pledged $25,000 from his department, and to raise an additional $75,000 from his board to support the creation of a local food authority. "The CCBDD is interested in being a leader on urban agriculture," he said. The agency currently rents some acreage on the 10-acre Stanard Farm in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood where adults living with disabilities are learning to grow food to sell at a farmer's market.

The local food assessment includes many recommendations on how Northeast Ohio could reach a lofty goal of shifting our food purchasing patterns from serving 2% to 25% local food on its plate.

"While that sounds like a big shift, we have lots of examples of how to do it," Shuman, who's nonprofit Business Alliance for Local Living Economies has supported the creation of 80 local business alliances in the U.S.

Shuman recommends looking at successes like the Oregon Marketplace which is a local business-to-business connector. Business-to-consumer programs may include local gift cards or brokers who consolidate local growers to bid on bigger contracts. To bring the cost of local food in line with large-farm food, programs like Detroit's Double Up Food Bucks make in dollar-for-dollar matches ($115,000 in Detroit last year) to families on assistance who purchase food at a farmer's markets.

The local food assessment, which is due out in its entirety by the end of November, also recommends bolstering the work that made Cleveland a top-ranked local food location. The Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center is looking to develop a network that connects producers and consumers, said assessment co-author Brad Masi. The Center also conducted a land study and found most farmland in the region is being used to produce animal feed.

Creating special urban agriculture districts, reclaiming land next to highways and on rooftops and reintroducing programs in schools for food gardens will only shift local food production so far, Shuman warned. (Urban agriculture districts were recently approved by Cleveland City Council, allowing for big urban farms and market stands on residential properties). Shuman also suggested that the city and county land banks allow long-term land leases for market gardens, a brokering service that connects local business, and establishing a culture for local food like Boulder, CO and Vermont.

Like Cleveland native Drew Carey who recently lost 100 pounds, Shuman said Cleveland is ready to shed its unhealthy image. He recognized the progress made here in building a local food system, as evidenced by the packed room at the City Club.

I saw Kari Moore owner of FreshFork, which connects groups of farmers with city dwellers who want local food. I sat with staffers from the North Union Farmer's Market, which is operating seven farmer's markets in the region. I spoke to Doug Katz owner of fire restaurant, which regularly features local food on its menu, and to organizers of community supported agriculture venture CityFresh. I met Don Gaddis who launched the Central Community Co-op after taking a course at Tri-C. His co-op will connect residents in public housing with food grown in their neighborhood in fun interactive ways including clubs that compete for weight loss and nutrition. Gaddis and his business partner recently won an award from Bioneers which includes a year of free incubator space at the Shaker Launchhouse.

Masi, director of the New Agrarian Center, says Northeast Ohio's local foods movement is growing slowly at the grassroots, but it's starting to show signs of next stage capital investment. Like tech companies back in the 90's, young entrepreneurs are tapping their personal lines of credit but also networks of family and friends for seed funding for their ventures (some who are leaving the corporate rat race). Abbe Turner and her start up Lucky Penny Farm in Ann Arbor and a small group of friends and family who launched Local Roots, a co-op and café in Wooster are two new businesses to emulate based on local foods, Masi said.

"Local Roots had space donated for the coop and a $60,000 grant from the state," Masi said. "It's like a barn raising-it works because of a diverse, sometimes complex system. It doesn't take a lot of money; it's going to take incubating a bunch of ideas. I don't think there will be a Rockefeller of local food."

Read the summary of the Northeast Ohio local food assessment.

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