The Journal Gazette
 
 
Sunday, November 22, 2020 1:00 am

The secret ingredient is local

Redirecting food budgets can produce large gains for area economy

Janet Katz

We all yearn for a normal Thanksgiving filled with favorite foods and family. Sadly, this Thanksgiving isn't normal.

We can no longer take for granted our food or time with our loved ones. With hospitals, food banks and grocery stores facing unprecedented demand, our community relies on health care workers and local food farmers.

Both deserve our gratitude this holiday.

The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of our normal food supply chains. With empty store shelves and shuttered restaurants, we see the challenges faced by those who harvest, process, sell and serve our food.

These concerns and the rising food insecurity of our neighbors tell us it's time to develop a new normal for how and where we produce our food.

In 2010, Michigan State University led an initiative to create a new normal for Michigan's food system. The Michigan Good Food Charter states, “We envision a thriving economy, equity and sustainability for all of Michigan and its people through a food system rooted in local communities and centered on good food.” 

Now is the time for northeast Indiana to build a community food system that serves our needs and creates economic opportunities for our region.

This is not about what we choose to eat as individuals. It is about collectively developing a plan for the food our community needs so both our farms and our families can thrive.

The beneficial impact of local food goes beyond our wonderful farmers' markets and farm-to-table restaurants. The power of local food is realized when our schools, institutions and businesses prioritize purchasing from local farms over shipping food from across the country or the globe.

Here are a few examples of those who are leading the way to this new normal.

• Kylee Bennett from Parkview Health leads the Northeast Indiana Farm to School Team to teach students about food and agriculture and encourage local food procurement by our schools.

• Ty Simmons from Human Agricultural Cooperative and Ephraim Smiley from the Hunger Relief Farm are transforming the food system in southeast Fort Wayne.

• John Wolf and Carmen Cumberland from Community Harvest Food Bank work with local farms that harvested 360,000 pounds of local produce for the food bank in 2020.

• Jain Young from Heartland Communities established the Rose Avenue Education Farm to provide refugee farmers access to farmland and new markets for their crops.

Some critics say locally produced food is too expensive. Research shows otherwise.

In their report, “Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities,” the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shared the percentage of households willing to pay more for local food: 95% of single urban households, 78% of young couples without kids, 71% of affluent families, 68% of senior citizens, 67% of middle-income families and 57% of low-income families.

This report shows shoppers across all segments are willing to pay more for local food because they value the authenticity, transparency and reduced environmental impact of buying food from a local source they trust.

Despite the pandemic and tighter food budgets for many, the demand for local food is increasing.

Others argue northeast Indiana farms cannot supply 100% of our food. I agree. Michigan's goal is to supply 20% of the state's food from local farms. Experts at Purdue Extension calculated that if Hoosiers spent just 10% of their food budget on local food, we would generate more than $1 billion of economic activity in Indiana each year. That's just $458 per year per household.

If we each make a small shift in our food purchases, we will retain more food dollars in northeast Indiana and collectively make a substantial impact on the local economy.

I challenge each of us to spend 10% of our food budget on products from local farms, and foods made with local ingredients. Especially now, our region's local food farmers, market managers, food entrepreneurs and restaurant owners deserve our gratitude. If you're not sure where to find local food, see our region's new Local Food Guide at NEIfood.org.

One ingredient, one meal at a time, we can build a resilient community food system to strengthen the health of our families, farms and local economy. Wishing us all a safe and delicious Thanksgiving.

Janet Katz is founding director of the Northeast Indiana Local Food Network.


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