Grocers are going local, too
A growing number of bricks-and-mortar stores carry locally produced food year-round, including mainstream supermarkets like Sentry. Whole Foods, meanwhile, is touting local foods sold in the eight states that supply its Midwest Grown program.
One of the newest stores is Stoughton's Yahara River Grocery Cooperative. "We'll be mostly local and natural foods," says market general manager Mike Markin. "We'll be about 20% supermarket items - Tide, Cool Whip, Miracle Whip."
On March 15 the compact, airy store - and nearby venues - hosted grand-opening events, among them a tasting of products from Barneveld's Blue Marble Family Farm and a discussion of The Omnivore's Dilemma, the 2006 treatise by journalist Michael Pollan that is something of a bible for the sustainable-food movement.
A prominent retail outlet for local foods is the Willy Street Co-op, the east-side landmark that sells natural, local and organic fare to 17,000 members. Unlike mainstream supermarkets, which buy their produce from large distributors, Willy Street works directly with farmers.
"In December or January, we'll meet with them and say, 'This is about how much we anticipate needing throughout the year, and this seems like a good price,'" says communications manager Brendon Smith. "It's more labor intensive than working through one or two distributors, but it's completely worth it to us."
Meanwhile, grocery shoppers seeking a purely local experience can head to Paoli, where Ruegsegger Farms' Ken Ruegsegger operates Paoli Local Foods. As you might guess from its name, the store sells only local foods. It opened last year, and it is a hit.
"Bluntly, we are overwhelmed with the demand and appreciation for local, quality foods," reports Ruegsegger.
Government steps up
The local food movement is drawing governmental support. Last fall's state budget included funding for Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin, which will disburse $225,000 in grants to programs meant to get more Wisconsinites buying more Wisconsin-grown food.
"Examples might include farmers' markets looking to expand," says Amy Bruner Zimmerman of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. "Or restaurants maybe interested in working with other restaurant owners to purchase local foods from local farmers."
The state also hosts savorwisconsin.com, a website devoted to Wisconsin-produced foods, as well as the Wisconsin Farm Center, which dispenses marketing and business advice to small farmers.
On the UW campus, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Studies promotes sustainable farming throughout the state. CIAS was founded in 1989, in the wake of "a concern that there were too many university resources given to large-scale agriculture," says the center's John Hendrickson.
Closer to home, in 2005 the Dane County Food Council was established to coordinate sustainable-food initiatives. Among them is a farmer's market network to help smaller, outlying markets master the techniques that have made the Capitol Square market such a success.
Here in Madison, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz touts the city's efforts to build a public market downtown, as well as the municipal community-garden program and the CSA of Troy Gardens.
"So much of the cost of food is in transport, and if you were to turn that around, it would change our economy," says Cieslewicz. "And it would have a good impact on land use. The amount of farmland close to urban areas would go up, and that would reduce sprawl."
CSA shares grow in popularity
A novel way of procuring locally grown food was conceived in Europe and Japan about 40 years ago: community-supported agriculture. Under the CSA arrangement, consumers pay farmers a fee at the beginning of the growing season and then receive regular shares of freshly grown produce.
The phenomenon has taken firm hold in the Madison area, thanks to the efforts of the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition . On March 29, MACSAC held its annual open house at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, drawing 2,000 people.
Would-be CSA customers heard remarks from Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, then made their way past dozens of displays. Farmers distributed pamphlets and answered questions. At least one farmer prominently displayed a copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma .
Why do farmers start CSAs? "We wanted to have the opportunity to sell our produce on a more personal basis," Driftless Organic's Noah Engel said. Customers, meanwhile, "want to be part of a farm, and know where their food comes from. The only way to do that is to know the farmer."
Among those customers were two Monona couples who jointly purchased a share in Blue Mounds' Vermont Valley Community Farm . "The chief reason is that the pickup site is near our house," allowed Julia Weldon .
"If you go to any supermarket," added Greg Hall , "you don't know where that stuff came from."
One reason the local CSA movement thrives is that major health insurers like Group Health Cooperative and Physicians Plus give rebates to customers who join the programs.
"We were approached by a couple of members asking why we didn't provide support for people participating in that," says Dr. Ron Parton , vice president and chief medical officer at Physicians Plus.
The insurer began a pilot program in 2005, and in 2006, the program's first full year, 972 customers members sought the Eat Healthy rebate, which defrays up to $200 of a CSA share. "We were pleasantly surprised so many people were interested," says Parton, who notes the many benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, including reduced risk of stroke.
Eat locally, act locally
These are some of the organizations promoting locally produced food.