THE LANE COUNTY FOOD DISTRIBUTION PROJECT: Part II
One year ago, the Eugene Water & Electric Board, in partnership with the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and Ecotrust of Portland, made use of the Governor's Oregon Solutions process to initiate the Lane County Food Distribution Project, with the goal of increasing the amount of locally grown food purchased by Lane County institutions, particularly our public schools and institutions of higher education.
The project brought local farmers and area food distributors together with food buyers from Lane County institutions during the winter and spring of 2009 in order to facilitate the purchase of locally grown products. The process involved surmounting a variety of well-documented barriers–food cost, quantity requirements, seasonality, kitchen facility limitations, efficient delivery, and liability issues–that have caused local institutions to rely on national food distribution systems more than local sources.
This work is part of a larger effort to reinvigorate our local food system and increase the economic viability of farming in the Willamette Valley. This is beneficial to the community is variety of ways. It helps protect farmland from development. It promotes sustainable agricultural practices and leads to the reduction of chemicals, particularly synthetics, that enter our ground water and, in the case of the McKenzie watershed, our drinking water. It also puts fresher more nutritious food in our school cafeterias and teaches children and parents where our food comes from.
Lane County Food Distribution Project manager Peter Bloome gathered the group together in December of 2009 to access what had been accomplished during the year. While most of the early work focused on the networking of growers, distributors, and buyers, Megan Kemple of the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition did the detail work by acting as a broker and facilitator for our local K-12 schools during the school year. The comments made by the buyers and sellers at the meeting in December, plus Megan's actual sales numbers, serve as a yardstick for the project's success and limitations.
On one hand, the project opened the door to local food buying in a way that simply did not exist before. The U of O, LCC, Sacred Heart Hospital, Jasper Mountain Center, the school districts of Bethel, Creswell, Crow-Applegate-Lorane, McKenzie, Springfield, and 4J all participated in the program, combining for nearly $650,000 in total purchases from Lane County farms, dairies, and processors between March and December 2009. This amounted to an eleven percent increase in processed foods purchases and a doubling in produce purchases (for a total of 43,000 pounds of produce–imagine a full tractor-trailer truck) over the same period in 2008. The Bethel School District, under the guidance of Jenny Henchion, led the way with a remarkable eighteen percent of their purchases coming from Lane County sources.
On the other hand, by actually going through the transactions and creating real business relationships over a period of ten months, the barriers to local buying, especially in the instance of produce, became increasingly evident. Distributors noted that there was a problem with the uniformity of quality and packaging, and buyers voiced concerns about seasonality and the time required to communicate with a wide variety of sources as opposed to a single supplier. The first two issues can surely be improved upon as buyers, distributors, and sellers compare notes and make adjustments. The third issue, for the time being, can be facilitated by non-profit brokers like the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition.
Price, however, stood out as the biggest obstacle. Several buyers said the price for certain products was simply too high compared to other sources, while several growers said the prices were too low for production costs. Although some of the costs can be reduced through efficiency of delivery and standardization of contracts, the real problem is the same one faced by all buyers of local food. Because of the smaller scale of local production and higher labor costs, local produce often costs more. It can be argued that with time and increasing fuel prices local will make price differential gains. But that is not the case in the market today, and it may be that federal grants or local food subsidies will be needed to help advance local food purchases by Lane County institutions.
All this said, staff with the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, who work closely with buyers and sellers in the area, believe the numbers of 2009 can be doubled in 2010. This is extremely encouraging and will involve further commitment on the part of buyers and sellers. In the end, networking, communication, long-term relationships, and emphasizing that there is community value–above and beyond dollars and cents–in buying local are all critical elements to attaining the project's ultimate goal–further invigoration of our local food system.