Armed with Data, City of Louisville Builds Thriving Local Food Economy
December 26, 2016 | Charli Engelhorn
At the root of Louisville, Kentucky’s ongoing and successful local food system implementation, which has generated considerable community and economic capital, is data.
A principal objective of Mayor Greg Fischer’s Six-Year Strategic Plan outlined in 2012-2013 to create new jobs and stimulate the economic development, is to develop ways to promote the city’s local food economy. Toward this end, three studies were conducted by the Local Food Economy Work Group, made up of elected officials from six counties and two cities, to gauge the needs of farmers and consumers pertaining to demand for local foods.
One of the studies showed that of Louisville’s $2 billion in food purchases a year, only $300,000 was going toward local food, and consumers and commercial buyers wanted to at least double that amount if opportunities were available. Another study highlighted the desire of local farmers to reach larger markets.
“We really got a clear sense that farmers did not want to do their own marketing or market development, but really wanted to promote the opportunity for consumers to see their farms,” says Theresa Zawacki, senior policy advisor to Louisville Forward, a government sponsored initiative that was created in 2014 to develop integrated economic development, real estate, and quality of place solutions that result in new jobs and businesses in the city. “They said if there was somebody who could help them in the public interest to find different market opportunities for the food they are growing, they would love to have that resource available to them.”
Thus, armed with the supporting data, Louisville Forward launched the ‘Louisville Farm to Table’ program to foster local food-related urban/rural connections and economic development in the city.
“We have a set of programs and initiatives that focus on everything from urban agriculture and farmer’s markets to value-chain coordination, or building more physical and conceptual infrastructure for moving Kentucky-raised foods into Kentucky market opportunities,” says Zawacki.
She credits the work of Sarah Fritschner, the head of ‘Louisville Farm to Table,’ for the growth and success of the program over the past several years.
“Sarah has made great progress in creating demand among, particularly, institutional and large volume processers and other buyers in the city and around the state interested in finding more locally raised foods,” says Zawacki. “She does a lot to promote consumer awareness of the importance of buying local, which has, alone, led to expectations to find local foods on restaurant menus and increased interest in farmers’ market development and coordination efforts.”
Fritschner started small by connecting local farmers to restaurants where they could sell cheese, ground beef, or vegetables, and by introducing them to direct-to-consumer opportunities available at farmers’ markets and through implementation of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. She even coordinated a sale of a half cow each to two homemakers from a local cattle farmer. These actions generated $150,000 worth of direct farm impact during the first two years of the program. However, realizing the potential for connections to larger markets, Fritschner began forming relationships with institutional buyers, specifically the University of Louisville and the Jefferson County Public Schools system, to encourage their efforts to buy more locally sourced food. Today, the direct farm impact from sales from farmers to buyers is $1.2 to $1.5 million annually.
Along with the relationships made with the University of Louisville and the Jefferson County school district, the ‘Louisville Farm to Table’ initiative has helped develop a large network of community gardens, created amendments to local zoning laws to make it easier for urban farming operations to exist, educated the city’s land bank and urban renewal commission about the importance of supporting urban farming through land distribution, helped farmers in transitioning their conventional farms to organic farms, and supported the development of small and large business ventures that are interested in working within the local food distribution niche.
One such business is Custom Foods Solutions, an Indianapolis-based company Fritschner recruited to Louisville to be part of this niche. The company produces ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat food products on a large scale using locally sourced foods, such as pork loins, grain products, chili, and prepared dishes. An example of the success of this partnership is seen in a cheesy chicken dish Custom Foods creates for the school district, which uses the inexpensive commodity chicken from the schools and mixes it with a cheesy base made from local butternut squash and sweet potatoes. This product non only satisfies the federal school lunch guidelines for servings of dark orange vegetables a week, but it also provides a delicious alternative to cooked carrots or vegetable puree most children will not eat, according to Zawacki.
The focus on the local food economy can partially be attributed to the area’s deep agriculture history. Zawacki says there is a connectedness to the rural communities surrounding the city not seen too often in other parts of the country, because of an appreciation for past economic benefits felt from the once burgeoning tobacco industry and the proximity of the city to local farms.
Despite this inherent connection, other cities can experience similar successes as Louisville Forward if time is taken to investigate farming and local food distribution in their region.
“It’s important to know your environment. Data collection and analysis is painful at first, but once in the habit of understanding and collecting the data, it becomes second nature and does wonders for organization and messaging around the work you are doing,” Zawacki says, “and that provides the opportunity to be more successful and engage with more partners because you have a story to tell and a message to send.”
On the horizon for the organization is more innovation aimed at creating different market channels for local farmers and continuing to work to make Kentucky-grown food a priority for consumers. The organization is currently in conversation regarding the development of 100% Kentucky-raised beef that can be sold to institutions. This product can help meet the price, volume, and quality needs of all interested parties while having an immense direct farm impact, which, in turn, keeps local money in the local economy.