Missouri Council Finds Strengths, Weaknesses in Ozarks Local Food System
March 17, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
What makes a local food system?
That’s what the Ozarks Regional Food Policy Council set out to discover through their food system assessment for the 20 counties surrounding Springfield, Missouri.
Their findings show the strengths and weaknesses of the local food economy. The process also, brought together stakeholders from across the state to move the local food system forward. They determined a need to build more food hub facilities, while giving small growers the business resources to move their company forward.
“It really takes a community to solve the issues; you can’t take something that’s been done anywhere else and stamp it down here. Every community is different and the Ozarks are certainly unique,” says Dr. Pam Duitsman, a nutrition and health specialist for the University of Missouri Extension and member of the Ozarks Regional Food Policy Council.
During the process, Duitsman found the dialog enlightening.
“It was a really safe time for farmers to hear from buyers about why they’re not sourcing from local,” says Duitsman. “It was also a really good time for those buyers to hear from the farmers and all the things they were frustrated about.”
The conversations led Duitsman to an informal survey of local buyers, grocers and large institutions to discover what they were looking for in a local food system, including what expectations buyers had of producers and what barriers stood in the way of creating a stronger local food economy.
“All of these grocers and hospitals and bigger systems have these non-negotiable standards such as proof of food safety, good agricultural practices training, liability insurance and source verification. They need aggregation, possibly processing, really reliable distribution,” says Duitsman. “The thing they said over and over was that the producers and farmers lacked a set of business practices that they could work with to have a safe and reliable source for their venues.”
As dialog continued over the weeks and months, Duitsman recognized a strong desire from institutions to use local sources for their food
“We saw right away that we had this supply with a lot of small producers wanting to input into the larger markets and ramp up production, but they have to have a guaranteed outlet for that,” says Duitsman. “There’s a middle ground where these connections need to take place.”
The assessment and research took six months to complete, producing an executive summary and a 12 policy recommendations, including working closer with local schools to incorporate food and agriculture curriculums and buying from local producers, the creation of a local farm financing collaborative, business and marketing resources for farmers, the marketing of local food, awareness of food deserts and the creation of food hub facilities to connect local buyers and producers in a concrete and consistent manner.
“We need a middle network that connects all these dots,” says Duitsman.
With the recent addition of food hub expert Patty Cantrell to the team, Duitsman is confident that food hub infrastructure will move from a nice idea to a permanent part of Missouri’s economic development planning, and bridge the gap in the conversation between those who want to grow and those who want to buy.
For Duitsman and the stakeholders of Southwest Missouri, next steps include completing their current work on a food hub feasibility study, reinforcing local relationships, helping local buyers source 20 percent of their food locally, initiating and facility infrastructure projects and continuing to provide education to everyone involved in Missouri’s food future.
“I definitely believe we can build this market, strengthen this food system, put community food systems in place. When you strengthen one single part of that food system, it drives the entire food system,” says Duitsman. “If I didn’t think this was permanent, if I didn’t think this was sustainable I wouldn’t be in it. It has to be sustainable. That is the key to this. We’re working towards sustainable change.”