Friday, December 10, 2010

The Economics of Local Food

Note: Earlier this year, I completed my master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. For our capstone project, we were required to write a magazine-style non-fiction narrative story of about 3000 words. Mine somehow got out of the science realm and into the food/economics realm. After putting months of work into this story, I'd been planning on trying to get it published somewhere, but I felt like the topic was a bit overdone, so I never got around to submitting it anywhere. Anyway, it seems like a shame to just let it sit on my hard drive after all the time I spent on it (and all the time my wonderful interviewees spent teaching me about the history and economics of local food). It's on the long side for a blog post, but I hope you'll find it enjoyable and maybe educational. I'm going to embed some more photos into it soon, but for now, here's the text in full. Thanks for reading.

At 4:30 on a gray November afternoon, I stood alone in a parking lot near Central Square in Cambridge, warily waiting for a van. When it arrived, the driver swung open the back doors to reveal a refrigeration unit filled with coolers. Inside, I saw pork butt, lamb chops, liverwurst, pigs' legs - meat of all kinds, neatly packaged in airtight plastic with printed labels. My apprehension lessened as others arrived and began to purchase meat. This was a "Meat Meet," a sporadic, unofficial version of a Community-Supported Agriculture program (CSA) organized by JJ Gonson, a private chef and “locavore,” and Katie Stillman, owner of Stillman's at the Turkey Farm in Hardwick, a tiny town 20 miles west of Worcester. Several times a month throughout the winter, a Stillman’s van arrives at a pre-determined drop-off spot, and anyone can come and buy meat. Word spreads mainly by mouth; I learned of the Meat Meet that very morning thanks to a vague message posted by Gonson on Twitter. It was the first Meat Meet of the season, and only five people, including me, showed up. The others stocked up on several meals’ worth of meat, but I just bought four lamb chops and prepared them for dinner that night. They were probably the most delicious lamb chops I had ever eaten.

This is what eating local food is all about - sometimes it takes a little bit of foraging to find it. From farmers markets to Meat Meets to CSAs (programs where you buy shares of a farm in exchange for produce), it can take a lot of time and effort to find, purchase, and cook exclusively local products.  Cost is a big issue as well: local food has earned the reputation of being an elitist movement, only available to those who can afford it. But when we stop looking at the prices solely from the consumer's standpoint, it's clear there's a bigger picture. Production costs, labor costs, and many other factors go into that number on the price tag, and though we're used to seeing the artificially low prices that come out of the industrial food system, we can come to accept the "high" prices of food coming out of our local small farms as we examine the intangible benefits that those prices include. As Boston's local food movement grows, the issues of affordability and accessibility will become more complex. However, a mix of policy changes, education, and cooperation between producers and consumers can lead to a better food system that benefits everyone.

Eating locally is certainly not a new idea. At the time of the United States’ birth, 90% of the labor force was made up of farmers. Since nearly everyone lived and worked on farms, everyone ate local food. There was no technology, need, or desire to get produce from another part of the country. New England was largely food self-sufficient, although a larger Atlantic trade economy did exist: sugar, rum, coffee, and tea were major imports, and salt cod and other fish were important exports.  Then, the end of the Civil War brought about a radical shift as the Midwest - full of vast, rich farmland - opened up.  New England still had its own booming dairy industry, but more grain and other products were coming in from across the country.  Grain was needed not only for the people but also for the growing populations of cattle, hens, and other farm animals.  (The pigs, however, were fed on dairy waste products - whey - and garbage from the cities.) The total number of farms in the United States skyrocketed from the 1880s until the 1930s. By the '30s, the United States population exceeded 100 million, and there were over 6 million farms. But in the '40s, the number of farms began to decrease, although farm size increased. World War II took farmers away from the land, sending them off to war or into the cities to work industrial jobs. By the end of the war, new technology facilitated long-distance shipping of foods. Refrigeration units had already been around for awhile, but they were first installed in trucks in the middle of the century. Fruit and vegetables could now be shipped from one side of the country to the other. Cheap oil and transportation coupled with increasingly expensive land in New England led to a sharp decline in farming in the Northeast; it was easier and cheaper to import food from other parts of the country. Local food became a thing of the past.

Pioneers like Alice Waters, founder of the famed Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse, brought local food back into the spotlight in the 1970s, and slowly, some consumers started to seek out local, seasonal produce instead of mass-produced food from across the country. It has emerged as even more of a dedicated movement in recent years, due in part to books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Michael Pollan, 2006) and Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser, 2001). Pollan, Schlosser, and others have brought to our attention the negative effects of the corporatization of food. Large-scale health scares in the last few years – tainted milk in China, salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in the United States, a listeriosis outbreak in Canada – have scared consumers into wanting to know exactly where their food is produced.  Even First Lady Michelle Obama is a vocal supporter of local food, and the White House chef uses ingredients grown right on the White House lawn.  Journalists, restaurateurs, and policy makers are returning us to a focus on food as "something other than what you eat to stay alive," as I was told by Dr. Tim Griffin, Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Massachusetts is an ideal spot for an active local food movement: with nearly 200 farmers markets, four distinct seasons, and a wide variety of native crops like corn and cranberries, the conditions are ripe for consumers to build nutritional and fulfilling diets.  Griffin points to Boston's food culture, much like that of the Bay Area of San Francisco, as a driving factor.  Dr. Brian Donahue, Associate Professor of American Environmental Studies at Brandeis University and a farmer at Land's Sake Farm in Weston, thinks it's because Boston's a "liberal hippie kind of place going back to the 70s."  (Many of those hippies are now running the state of Vermont, he noted, having recently attended a seminar in Vermont where lawmakers and activists discussed making the state entirely food self-sufficient.)

Although living off the land has been connected with an earth-loving hippie type of movement in the past, eating healthy, fresh food is universally enjoyable.  Pollan and Schlosser and safety scares aside, there are simple reasons that many consumers desire local food. At the most basic but perhaps most important level, it just tastes good.  "Something tastes better when it's most recently taken from the plant," said Jim Ward, farmer and co-owner of Ward's Berry Farm in my hometown of Sharon.  "A tomato is something that's completely different once it's been harvested green and ripened somewhere along the way."

While taste is a priority for nearly all consumers, most are also concerned about health. Although not much research has been done yet in this field, local food is likely healthier than mass-produced food as it is free of the preservatives that are required to keep foods on supermarket shelves for weeks or longer. Even with preservatives added, vegetables do lose important nutrients such as ascorbic acid and folic acid while in storage. Local produce is more likely to make it to your table before much nutritional loss or spoilage has occurred.  In terms of food preparation, the fresher the ingredients, the more flavorful they are, so you don't have to add as many potentially unhealthy flavor enhancers like oil and salt, noted Gonson.

Some consumers eat local food out of a desire to put their money back into their own communities, buying directly from their farmers and cutting out the middlemen. A growing number of smaller farms are actually beginning to use middlemen in an effort to distribute their products more widely, but this is usually just a supplement to their direct sale model.  Red Tomato, a non-profit organization based in Canton, is one such company - they aggregate products from local farms and distribute them to a wide range of supermarkets, coops, and other places.

Eating locally may have its environmental advantages, too - a big sell in today's "going green"-concerned society. Since local food doesn’t need to travel far, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, although some scientists argue that “food miles” are not a good measure of the impact of local versus non-local food production.  For one thing, Griffin explained to me, food miles don't take into account mode of transport: a boat is likely more efficient than a train, which is more efficient than a truck, when you consider efficiency per pound of food per mile.  Secondly, food miles don't take into account the consumers' miles traveled.  Perhaps food from a small farm in western Massachusetts travels just 100 miles to a downtown Boston farmers market, but hundreds of consumers travel from all over Massachusetts by car and train to go to that farmers market instead of driving a couple miles down the street to their local supermarket. Griffin also noted that the food mile metric is based on research from 15-20 years ago; not much recent data is available to prove food miles' usefulness.  A better metric, according to a 2008 review in Trends in Food Science and Technology, is carbon labeling, where produce would bear labels, much like a nutritional label, detailing the carbon footprint.  Greenhouse gases are caused by more than just the miles traveled by the food and by the consumer: on-farm processes before transport and retailing and consumption activities after transport of the produce also add to the carbon footprint.

Although there are many reasons to eat locally, none of them matter much if the average consumer can't afford it. There are several reasons that local food tends to be so expensive, according to Dr. Charlie French, a Community and Economic Development Specialist at the University of New Hampshire who has done extensive research on local food systems and local economic development. A big part of the problem is that large corporate farms have received much more support from government subsidies than the small local farms, at least until the most recent farm bill, so the smaller farms have to keep prices high just to stay afloat. It's also due to an economy of scale: large farms are able to save money on supplies and transportation due to their bulk production, whereas small farms don’t get the advantage of wholesale discounts. Small farms are also unlikely to have the manpower to take care of all of the needs of a business: marketing the food is just as important as producing and shipping it. “I hate to use a Darwinian term, but in a way it's survival of the fittest,” said French. “The best managed, the best run enterprises, the people with the most skill in both marketing and production are going to be the ones that are going to survive.”

The subsidy problem runs deep, and it’s out of consumers’ hands to fix it, but the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill is at least a first step. “It's scratching the surface,” said French. “It's starting to address some of the inequities between small farm versus large farm, but we're still not there yet, and that's something that really needs to change if the economics of local foods are going to have a fair advantage.” The 2008 bill includes money set aside specifically to expand aid for local, organic, and small farms, and a new program called Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) is beginning to reform the subsidy system. Under the previous bill, farmers’ prices were protected, but loss in crop yield was not. The new bill protects revenue, which is the yield multiplied by the price, rather than just price. ACRE is meant to be a safety net: farmers receive help only when they need it, whereas older subsidy systems wasted money by paying out regardless of profit loss.

On a consumer level, for prices to come down, demand needs to go up. “Growing the market share for local foods is critical,” said French. “Right now there are estimates out there that somewhere around 5% of food purchases are local purchases.” Even increasing that amount to 10% over the next 10 years or so could help local food prices decrease, according to French. “Building awareness in local food, building interest in local food, is the critical element to making it viable.”

Maybe the prices shouldn't come down, though.  From a consumer standpoint, sure, we want to buy good food without spending all our money.  But what about the producers?  "As we've put in place effort after effort after effort to make the system more efficient, one of the direct results of that is that it keeps driving the cost of the food down and down and down, which is great for you if you're buying it.  It's not so great for the person that's growing it," said Griffin. "So where's the balance point there?"  A good deal of consumers buy local food with the stated intention of wanting to support their communities, all the while complaining that the price is too high - the very price that directly supports the community farmers they claim to want to support.  Perhaps it's our mindset that needs to change, not the price.

From the farmers' point of view, prices are determined by a wide range of factors including labor, transport of materials such as fertilizer and packaging, and more. "Price-wise, I don't think there's any going back. I really don't," Ward told me as he put away a tray of lettuce seeds and began to distribute onion seeds in a planting tray. "I won't say my ears are deaf to it, 'cause I hear it, but I don't think it's a justified complaint. I just look at the cost of production. We have to pay real wages and provide health benefits and have all the costs of production of a developed world and we'd like to also make a living."

Of course, whether or not the price is justified, there are still people who just can't afford it.  "We need to be addressing the problem of why that is, not necessarily trying to lower the cost of food," said Donahue, who guesses that the majority of Americans could afford to pay more for food by shifting some of their disposable income in that direction. "What's really important about farming isn't just producing the commodity in the cheapest way, but all the benefits we might get from it," said Donahue. "We ought to reorganize it around those benefits as much as we can: an attractive landscape, not soiling the environment, engaging people with it in a whole variety of ways...Those things are at least as important as the price of the food itself." But for those who can't afford to take the other benefits into account, there's still hope.  Many farms set aside a few CSAs, paid for by donations from shareholders, to be shipped to food banks in the area.  A Concord farm, Gaining Ground, operates as a non-profit and donates 100% of its produce to food banks and meal programs within the Boston area. Food stamps are now accepted at many farmers markets. The Boston Bounty Bucks program gives a 50% discount on farmers market purchases up to $20 to consumers utilizing their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

While the affordability issues may take years to address through government initiatives and the work of non-profits, the accessibility of local food can change virtually overnight. Committing to eating locally takes a lot of effort and may be difficult for people working full-time jobs or for others who just don’t know where to look or how to cook, but thanks to the efforts of local food enthusiasts like Gonson, events and programs are sprouting up throughout the Boston area providing would-be locavores more opportunities to eat locally. As word spreads about Meat Meets, “underground” dinner parties that bring strangers together to eat local foods, and other unconventional dining options, the movement will continue to grow, at least for those who can afford it. Over time, the extra attention will hopefully trickle down in donations of time and money to programs that will help everyone enjoy local food. Increased press coverage is already converting new locavores. When I attended a second Meat Meet in November, there were two student journalists there reporting local food stories, and this time, there were more than twenty people in line waiting to buy meat. “At any given moment, there are a lot of causes that are vying for the attention of the media," Gonson told me. “When it's your group that's having that moment, you ride it. You grab it and hold onto it tight and use it, because work gets done when there's attention being paid by the media. And the exciting thing is that there is work being done.”


  1. Great article! I really enjoyed reading it. And congratulations on completing your masters!

  2. Eating local is so important... in some ways, it's more important than eating organic (though I don't like purchasing meats/dairy products that aren't).

    A very thoughtful piece!

  3. Ahhh Brian Donahue!!! Haha, he was my advisor at Brandeis. My primary extracurricular activity there was promoting local food. I don't eat meat so it's not an issue specifically for me, but it is disappointing that there are so few resources in Boston for sustainably raised local meat throughout the year. In NY at least, the farmers' markets are open year round and many of the vendors who are there in the dead of winter are those selling meat and other animal products. I think one of the first steps to increasing the availability of locally grown/raised food is to have farmers' markets that operate year round. Even now, there are still dozens of vegetables that are still available in Mass., but without markets, there is no way for urban residents to procure it. I find it appalling that with all of the popularity and support for local food in recent years, Boston still has not managed to institute a market that operates through the winter.

  4. Thank you for this. I will send it on to explain the whole tangled problem!

  5. Love this Rachel, such a thoughtful and well written piece. We don't buy everything local/organic due to cost, but it's something always on our mind.


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