THE LANE COUNTY FOOD DISTRIBUTION PROJECT: Part I
The rally cry to buy "locally grown" has been a part of the Eugene community for many years now. But rather than becoming stale from repetition, the movement behind the slogan is gathering steam, evidenced by small farmers' markets popping up like mushrooms all over the area–in Springfield, Cottage Grove, Creswell, Veneta, Sweet Home, and most recently in Bethel.
More than just a fad or a desire for fresh produce, there is a solid measure of common sense in prompting consumers to buy local. Though the south Willamette Valley possesses much fertile farmland with a history of diverse food production and large canneries, Lane County residents currently import more than ninety percent of what they eat, food production in the valley is not what it used to be, and much of the related food system infrastructure is gone or out of use. Rebuilding this infrastructure, building market share, and increasing food production are excellent ways to stimulate the regional economy, increase food security, and make use of one of our most valuable and, if managed properly, sustainable natural resources–our farmland.
While the recent appearance of small farmers' markets is a sure sign of progress in this endeavor, a critical part of rebuilding of our local food system is the inclusion of institutional buyers in the movement. For quite some time, local hospitals, schools, and universities have relied on large national buyers to provide their cafeterias with food. Little by little this has been changing, but in general, despite much effort by local food organizations, the progress has been slow due to some very real challenges, including cost, quantity requirements, seasonality, kitchen facility limitations, efficient delivery, and liability issues. And yet, should these obstacles be surmounted, institutional buying could provide a huge boost to the locally grown movement and a significant stimulus to the agricultural economy.
Recognizing the importance of this challenge, the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) and Ecotrust, both strong advocates of the push to buy local, asked Governor Kulongoski in 2008 for the opportunity to use the Oregon Solutions Project to assist in their effort to bring larger buyers into the mix. (The Governor's Oregon Solutions Project is a state sponsored consensus process used to support and enable economic, environmental, and community objectives through partnerships between government, business, and non-profit organizations.)
The Governor responded positively to this request and appointed Senator Floyd Prozanski and Rick Wright, CEO of Market of Choice, as co-conveners of the Lane County Food Distribution Project. The project began in the winter of 2009 and brought together six local farms, four distributors, three school districts, the University of Oregon, LCC, Sacred Heart Medical Center, EWEB, the OSU Extension Service, and several non-profit organizations to work out a local food buying program for county institutions.
Most of the discussion took place during two all-day meetings–one in January and one in March. Talk focused on barriers and opportunities–both of which were many, but possibly the most important aspect of the gathering was the universal good will of the stakeholders. Each had his or her individual orientation to the situation, but all agreed on the premise–increasing local food purchases by county institutions was a positive regional economic strategy.
The active players and organizers, Peter Bloome the project manager, Karl Morgenstern from EWEB, Megan Kemple and Lynne Fessenden from the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, and Kelly Hoell from Good Company did the real work of guiding the Oregon Solutions’ process. But the result was the product of all that participated–a document outlining specific commitments made by twenty-six of the participating organizations and the creation of a network of like-minded food businesses, organizations, and institutional food buyers pledged to link local farm production with the county’s larger food providers.
Making use of this network, the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition's Farm to School program spent the spring working closely with nutrition service administrators in the Bethel, Springfield, and 4J school districts and Emerald Fruit and Produce to create a plan to offer local produce in school lunches this fall. They developed a calendar for each district identifying a fruit or vegetable and which local farm it will come from, for each month of the school year for all three districts.
While this is just the beginning, it represents a critical first step toward creating lasting relationships between Lane County institutions and local growers and a surmounting of what many felt were impassable barriers. By January 2010, the results of the program will be quantified and the net increase of locally grown product used in county institutions will be published. For now, the message remains the same; buying locally grown is good for our agricultural economy and builds regional food self-reliance–all positives for the community at large.
Signers of the Oregon Solutions' Declaration of Cooperation: Bethel School District, Eugene 4J School District, Lane County Community College, the University of Oregon, Project Tomato, River Bend Farm, Wintergreen Farm, Groundwork Organics, Cattail Creek Lamb, Thistledown Farm, Detering Orchards, Food for Lane County Youth Farm, Emerald Fruit and Produce Company, Hummingbird Wholesale, Eugene Local Foods, Organically Grown Company, Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Program, Oregon Department of Agriculture, Sacred Heart Medical Center, Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development, Oregon State University Extension Service in Lane County, Cascadia Longboards, Mud City Press, Ecotrust, Willamette Farm and Food Coaliton, Eugene Water and Electric Board.