I like to think of myself as a fairly progressive consumer of food.
True, I don't follow a strict diet of foods I know for a fact were sustainably produced by farmers who practice careful stewardship of the land. I don't monitor the size of the farms that provide the organic eggs I buy by the dozen, or the organic milk I pick up each week at the local market.
But I've read enough of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and other critics of our corn-dominated food system to know that it's probably best to check for the presence of high-fructose corn syrup in packaged foods, and to avoid the cellophane-wrapped plastic trays of fat-flecked Black Angus hamburger in the supermarket's meat section. During growing season, I forage for appealing produce at the Dane County Farmers' Market on the Capitol Square, making a point of skipping over booths that don't advertise that the produce on offer has been grown without the aid of pesticides.
After all, during growing season up here in the North Country, why buy a bland, industrially cosseted tomato trucked in from Florida or California or South America when you can get something better from a local farmer?
I'm not a purist, though. The more extreme form of local foodism that requires virtuous consumers to eat only sustainably produced foods that come from sources within a 50-, 100- or 150-mile radius of their domiciles fills me with anxiety. No oranges? No chocolate? No seafood? Limited access to fresh vegetables during the winter because the petroleum-fueled "food miles" that, say, a head of lettuce has traveled contribute to global warming? It all sounds a bit like the days before the Iron Horse.
Still, caught up in the spirit of the recent Wisconsin Eat Local Challenge, I attempted to include 10% local foods in my diet for four weeks late this summer. The exercise was not strictly academic. I wanted to get a sense of where the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin legislation included in the new state budget might take us, and where we are now.
Among other things, that initiative calls for developing local markets to help Wisconsin farmers sell the fruits of their labors to their fellow citizens. One of the goals is to keep up to $3.8 billion dollars in the state economy by having sustainably produced local foods make up 10% of the average Wisconsinite's diet by the year 2010.
Maybe that doesn't sound like much -- just a few more roasted chickens here and a few more sides of pickled beets and steamed cauliflower there. But it is. According to the authors of the proposal explaining the benefits of Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin, at present Wisconsin-grown food amounts to less than one percent of the $19.2 billion annually spent on food in the state.
We have a ways to go.
Madison is, of course, more blessed than many cities when it comes to local, farm-fresh food options. The Capitol Square farmers' market is the crown jewel, but we have nearly a dozen other weekly farmers' markets in the area. Plus, an increasing number of area farms have embraced community-supported agriculture, commonly called CSA, which allows consumers to purchase a share of the farmers' bounty prior to the growing season.
Co-ops and natural food stores also try to stock local products throughout much of the year. Jason Kreutzer, co-owner of Artamos Meats Inc. on the city's west side, reports that "60%-70% of our fresh meat is raised in Wisconsin." Brendon Smith, communications manager of the Willy Street Co-op, notes that between 20% and 25% of its produce comes from farms within a 150-mile radius of the Williamson Street store.
And more and more restaurants are getting into the act. Nearly 20 are involved with the Buy Local, Buy Fresh program, which seeks to get restaurateurs to incorporate local ingredients. "We're looking at restaurants at every price level, from Ian's Pizza to L'Etoile," says Miriam Grunes, spokeswoman of Madison-based Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP), which organizes the program.
All of this activity on the local food front is great for consumers who worry about industrial agricultural practices that increase erosion, pollute groundwater, abuse livestock, consume large amounts of fossil fuels and, perhaps worst of all, turn out products that compromise taste and nutritional value.
Thanks to all the local bounty, when my wife and I were trying to follow the 10% diet, we didn't have to rely on big feeds of cheddar and Swiss to reach our daily quota of local ingredients.
We enjoyed fresh beets and brussels sprouts, chicken soup and turkey meatloaf made from local ingredients flavored with particularly good organic garlic and shallots. We ate hamburgers topped with award-winning Carr Valley cheese, heirloom tomatoes and apples. Save for some salt, bread crumbs and a few spices, everything was locally produced and purchased within 10 miles of our home. Furthermore, much of what we ate could also have been frozen, canned or preserved in some other way for use during the far less bountiful winter months.
So with so much local food available, why is the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program even necessary? In large part, it comes down to problems with distribution and marketing. Buying small amounts of food in specialty stores or directly from farmers isn't difficult. But purchasing larger quantities is a problem. Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin devotes $606,800 in grant money to setting up new markets for local farm-grown, -raised and -processed goods for a reason: local, sustainably produced food doesn't fit well with the mainstream food distribution system.
The hallmarks of that system are volume, consistency, convenient packaging and aggressive marketing. Conventional supermarkets and large institutional kitchens aren't set up to receive a bushel of potatoes or 100 pounds of hamburger from individual farmers whenever their goods happen to be ready for market.
"You can't say, 'Okay, we're gonna clear off a little two-foot-wide spot on the produce shelf because we're going to put local carrots in there,'" says Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, explaining his membership's dilemma. "If your carrots don't show up, you can't leave it empty. We care about when it comes and how it comes and how it gets to us. Is it ready for the shelf? Do we have to do something for it when you deliver? When do you replenish? How long is your harvest going to last?"
Scholz is sympathetic to the local food movement. Indeed, he endorsed the development of Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin and worked with its sponsor, state Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), and others to make sure it addressed grocers' concerns. He also says customers are asking to see more local products on the shelves.
Still, if major changes are to take place in major supermarkets, making grant money available to streamline distribution and marketing of local farm products is key. The Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program should help grocers work with local producers, says Scholz. "We'll have to bring in buyers and retailers to help them understand what it is we need from them to help sell that product to our customers."
Big institutional kitchens also demand a consistent farm product that's available in large volumes. And sometimes that's not a problem. Robert Fessenden, director of University Housing Food Services at UW-Madison, is responsible for a food preparation operation that provides as many as 13,000 individual meals a day when school is in session. He says these days students who've grown up with food co-ops and Whole Foods come to Madison wanting -- even expecting -- a choice of sustainably grown, chemical-free fare in university dining rooms.
In some cases, he can fill those needs with Wisconsin products. Potatoes grown in Antigo are delivered directly to his kitchens. Many of the cage-free organic eggs UW housing uses come from Wisconsin sources. Spinach comes year-round from another local grower.
But there's a limit to what he can take. For example, labor costs prohibit spending much time prepping raw fruits and vegetables. "Our problem with our produce is that we want it washed, we want it sliced and diced," he admits.
It also can be difficult to locate a consistent volume of products UW housing needs to feed 10,000-plus customers a day. Fessenden notes that his kitchens now make their pasta sauce in house, but up to this point, he's been unable to find enough local tomatoes with which to prepare it.
He had to shelve a plan to have one organic entree available every day. "We just couldn't find anyone who had the volume that we wanted," he explains. Even tracking down a one-time order of 300 pounds of organic beef tenderloin for a catered event proved impossible, he says.
(Even if Fessenden had found the tenderloin locally, he might not have been able to cook it properly "Our beef is too lean for their grills," says Rebecca Goodman, who along with her husband, James, raises organic beef on their Northwood Farm in Wonewoc.)
Local food advocates working to expose elementary school children to fresh, local produce have faced similar hurdles. Heat-and-serve school lunch rooms also want to receive fruits and vegetables washed, peeled and prepped. They also need to deal with one distributor that comes to the loading dock on a regular schedule.
"We're running into it all the time," says REAP's Miriam Grunes of the group's school-oriented "Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch" program. "When we're working with a large school district, they need large quantities, and they say, 'We'd want to deal with one farm rather than 15 farms.' And we're just not there yet."
Thankfully, these aren't insoluble problems, according to Jeanne Merrill of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, an East Troy nonprofit that works on issues related to sustainable farming and food systems. She says that initiatives like Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin will provide tools that will help change the way local food is processed, distributed and even marketed in the state.
Support from the federal government is important, too, including a USDA program that helps farmers develop "value-added" businesses like turning milk into artisan cheese and yogurt. Merrill's group has pushed to get more Wisconsin farmers involved in the program. "Wisconsin this year ranked number one in terms of total value-added producer grants received," she says. "That's the first time that's ever happened."
In essence, Merrill says, the food system needs to be reinvented if a larger percentage of Wisconsinites' diets is to come from sustainable, local sources. Of course, that won't happen as the result of a single program put forth by the state, or REAP, or the federal government, or the Michael Fields Institute. It will take a combination of efforts.
It also may take the creativity of farmers like Spring Green-based Mark Olson, who never stops thinking about the local food system.
Years ago, he helped form an organic dairy with a handful of other farmers. Today it's a multimillion-dollar business. Currently, Olson tends several acres of basil by hand at his Renaissance Farm, but he sells very little of it fresh. Instead, he processes it into pesto and also employs it in his lines of vinaigrettes, infused oils and infused sea salt.
True, all of the ingredients in these products aren't local, and local food purists might criticize him for it. But that doesn't bother Olson. He's added value to a crop grown here in Wisconsin, sustainably, and in the process, he is pleasing a growing customer base.
"What I've noticed is that regardless of what the subject is, there's always a very vocal minority pushing the extreme," Olson says brightly. "And that's good. But I'm a pragmatist."
He takes that pragmatism a step further by actively marketing his own products and the products of other area producers by holding regular public tastings for retailers and consumers. "We've found that it's very powerful," says Olson, whose next project will involve helping fellow farmers turn locally grown tomatoes into a line of tomato sauce and paste.
"What you're doing is, you're creating an emotional bond with your end customer," says Olson. "And that end customer becomes an advocate for you."
Ultimately, of course, that's what all producers of healthy, local food need to get their products to the broader market: more and more customer advocates. Right now, grocers, distributors, chain restaurants and big institutional kitchens may have difficulty sourcing local products day-to-day. But if their customers are vocal enough, you can bet they'll figure out how to provide more than enough local options to fulfill the goal of a 10% local diet promoted by the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin initiative.
Of course, how rapidly these changes come about is anybody's guess. I'd like to say that a few weeks of paying attention to the local content of my diet has made me search out granola made with only sustainably raised Wisconsin ingredients. Or that I've made a point of contacting the farm couple who grow peanuts in the area so I could grind my own peanut butter and enjoy my daily nosh without guilt.
I haven't. Granted, I make more Wisconsin-grown choices. However, I really don't know if my wife and I reach that 10% threshold week after week.
But maybe that's not the point. I am more aware than ever of how apples from Australia and Washington state crowd out local orchards' harvests in the supermarket every fall, and I avoid them. The same holds for organic beef from faraway places, maple syrup from Canada and New England and those pale pink tomatoes from five states away that taste more like slightly acidic water than anything else.
I'm not exactly that turned-on customer-advocate Mark Olson likes to talk about. At least not yet. But my guess is that if and when he starts producing tomato sauce and tomato paste from sustainably grown local tomatoes, I'll be picking some up.
LOCAL FOODS ON THE WEB
Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP)
Learn about the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign, the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program and the 2007 edition of the Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas, a guide to local farms, farmers' markets & food-related businesses.
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
Information on sustainable farming workshops, grant-writing assistance for farmers and much more.
UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems
This agriculture research center provides information on a variety of issues related to sustainable local farming and food.
Information about the history and products of this artisanal producer