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Where's the missing link in local food?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/21/11 @ 10:42am

Getting local food in the hands of Clevelanders who want it was the topic of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition talk, "Distribution: The missing link" yesterday at the verdant Dunham Tavern Museum and Botanical Garden Green Corps. market garden acreage in Midtown.

Researcher Shoshanah Inwood looked into the gap between food distributors ? whose numbers are shrinking as big box stores stock their shelves with food ? and rising consumer demand (not to mention premiums for the stores) for local food.

Inwood found that Ohioans consume 4.65 billion pounds of veggies and 3 billion pounds of fruit every year, but only 1% is grown by the state's 4,767 farmers. Farmers have the fields to satisfy 26% of vegetable and 5% of fruit demand, she adds.

Mostly, local food isn't making it into large chain grocery stores because their model of a single corporate buyer as opposed to store-level decisions are a barrier. Other barriers including expensive third-party certifications and a culture that doesn't take the time to develop personal relationships with small distributors (many have their own distributors). That said, even Wal-mart is pushing its local products these days.

The target market for local farmers of specialty crops may be the distributors for the small and mid sized independent grocery stores ? the challenge is, with consolidation, big box stores have more power and the small and medium independents are fading from the scene. Another reason you don't see a lot of local food at the grocery store is farmers are favoring direct marketing like farmer's markets and CSAs. Even mid-sized chains like Heinen's and Dave's buy at auction houses and send it all to their corporate warehouse, with one buyer making all the decisions.

Nonetheless, Inwood interviewed 57 distributors to find out where interest lies in expanding local food. She found that small distributors carry some 65% of their produce by volume in local food, where the distributors for large chains carry only 18%. When pressed to think of an example of a small or medium independent grocer in Northeast Ohio, Inwood, a Columbus native, drew a blank (those in attendance named a few suburban health and natural food stores). Nonetheless, Inwood concluded from her interviews that distributors see an upside to moving local food into markets in Northeast and Central Ohio. Distributors also told Inwood that schools and institutions are seen as a better than average bet for expansion. Again, the problem is in cracking the current distribution puzzle ? in Northeast Ohio that includes the sprawling 34-acre Northern Ohio Food Terminal.

OSU Extension's Morgan Taggart said a recent visit to the Terminal revealed that the cavernous food wholesale depot and auction house that once buzzed with hundreds of distributors is now home to five distributors because of consolidation. Despite this, the terminal has huge capacity for cooling, storing, and moving (local) food. Taggart said she met with the Terminal's president of operations and concluded, "there's no interest there in organics, but there may be a crack for local. We can try to establish better relationships and collaboration between the growers and distributors, but it is intensely competitive."

"We need a regional database of distributors and local growers," said Beth Knorr, market manager for the Countryside Conservancy's farmer's markets in Peninsula and Akron. "We get a lot of calls from schools and restaurants who want local but we don't know what to tell them. How do we get them all in the same room to make it happen?"

One of the next steps, Inwood suggests, is boosting grower education so they are ready to meet the requirements of distributors. Other conclusions that Inwood drew from her study include: Distributors are willing to collaborate with agencies and organizations to develop needed aggregation and infrastructure. And service providers, educators and agency officials can facilitate these relationships and business models upfront to defray some of the initial costs. Meanwhile, the push should be to work within the existing distribution infrastructure and grow relationships organically.

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