By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
A group of citizens banded together with the goal of localizing Berea’s food system met Aug. 1 to discuss ways to move forward with their efforts.
Those involved with collecting data for a local food system profile presented what had been learned through a community food system assessment conducted over the summer.
The forum was organized by Berea Locally Integrated Food Economy (LIFE), a subgroup of the Berea Economic Advancement Team.
Around two years ago, the city of Berea began work on an economic strategic plan and from that sprouted a group of community members interested in increasing access to local foods.
One person helping lead the effort is Martin Richards, executive director of the Community Farm Alliance. CFA is a Kentucky-wide grassroots organization committed to family-scale farming.
He began the forum by talking about ways food systems impact the economy.
“Even in America, where we spend less than any other country in the world on food, it still accounts for about 12 percent of consumer spending,” Richards said.
Agriculture also is the largest economic sector in the country, he said.
“It’s important to remember when we talk about economic development, we have to look beyond just the number of jobs, how much money is in the economy ... To have a real goal about economic development is to improve the quality of life for our people.”
He said a local food system can have a “substantial long-term impact on employment and poverty.”
Research conducted by CFA, and later the USDA, concluded that for every dollar spent on locally produced and distributed food, it contributes another 50 cents back to the local economy, Richards said.
The report generated from the economic strategic plan conducted almost two years ago talked about “plugging the leaks in our local economy,” Richards said. “What part of our economy ends up going out the door and down the road someplace else?”
One item that stood out in the report, Richards said, was the idea that increasing localized food in the community “is actually the third biggest job creator.”
“In fact, if we plug a number of leaks (listed in the report), we would create another 225 jobs in this city,” he said.
Louisville has been focused on a localized food system for nearly ten years, Richards said. CFA conducted a community food system assessment for west Louisville in 2010. Additionally, the city commissioned around six different studies on the economic impact of food.
The most recent study released this winter indicates that food makes up $3 billion of Louisville’s economy, he said.
Although the Berea assessment won’t generate those numbers, he said, it will give LIFE a much better understanding of how food impacts the local economy.
American families spend a median average of $125 a week on food, which is roughly $6,500 a year, he said. So based on census data, Berea has 340 families, which would indicate that families spend around $22 million a year on food in Berea alone.
Berea’s 51 businesses preparing ready-to-eat food (including convenience stores) report around $1 million in sales a year, he said, 60 percent of which comes from visitors and 40 percent from the local community.
One missing piece of data is how much Bereans spend outside of Berea, he said, but “Americans spend just under 50 percent of their food dollar away from home.”
He said Berea also has a high rate of poverty at 27 percent, compared to a state percentage of 18 percent.
“The other part of that is poverty and poor health go hand in hand. Poor health has it’s own economic impacts,” Richards said.
Kentucky’s obesity rates are the third highest in the country for children and sixth highest for adults.
Recent studies show that, this year alone, obesity health care will cost Kentucky $2.3 billion, he said.
Although this sort of data is not available for Berea, Richards said, a CFA-lead assessment in Floyd County shows that the economic impact of poor health is $6.5 million per generation.
“There are very few people who don’t think localizing the food system is a good idea. In fact, most consumers would and will do it” if the cost of food is not more expensive than grocery store products and it is accessible, he said.
Even with all of their efforts, Richards said, there is still a need for more farmers.
The median age of Kentucky farmers is about 57 years, and there are fewer farmers’ markets than five years ago, he said.
Berea community food system assessment data
Split into groups to assess food production and consumption, a group of volunteers including Eastern Kentucky University and Berea College students, collected surveys from 250 households in Berea.
The groups divided the city in quadrants and spent four weekends knocking on every third door to drop off a survey and pick it up the next day.
A summer class at Berea College sorted and analyzed the data.
The consumption group worked on finding out where people buy food, their concerns with food availability and to gauge respondents’ interest in participating in various food programs.
Hilary Dolstad, with the Madison Health Department, talked about some of the highlights of the consumption assessment.
Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they bought food often or always from grocery stores in Berea, while close to 40 percent go to grocery stores in other areas of Madison County. Just over 30 percent purchase food from restaurants, approximately 16 percent from home gardens and 12 percent at a farmer’s market.
Only around five percent said they buy food from grocery stores outside Madison County.
Nearly 50 percent of respondents said the price of food is a concern when purchasing locally-produced food.
Almost 40 percent of families said, over the past 12 months, it was “sometimes true” that they relied on only a few kinds of low-cost foods because they were running out of money to buy food and 26 percent were worried they would run out of money before they could buy more. Additionally, 30 percent said they do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they can’t afford them.
Around 40 percent of respondents said they would be interested in more farm-to-school programs and/or increased access to local food.
EKU student Jennifer Tauziac and Berea College student Kenny Madden presented their efforts on the production assessment.
They conducted surveys with approximately 100 backyard gardeners (Berea residents who don’t sell food they grow); 40 farmers (who sell or grow to sell within 50 miles of Berea); and eight of the 20 or so local businesses that sell food.
Close to 40 percent of backyard gardeners identified “time and money” as a barrier to growing food, while nearly 30 percent indicated that they had no barriers to growing food. Around 24 percent indicated “access to land” was the second largest barrier.
The majority of local farmers (33 percent) produce vegetables.”Fruits” came in at second with around 27 percent.
Equal amounts of growers, at around 27 percent, said they produce food to sell or for home use.
Although 15 percent of farmers surveyed said they sell their produce to local restaurants and 10 percent to grocery outlets, the majority of farmers (23 percent) sell produce at farmer’s markets, online or directly to buyers.
Two of the greatest challenges for producers are weather and transportation, as well as the food market infrastructure, the survey revealed.
Local businesses that serve food mostly purchase vegetables from local producers, but businesses also indicated that cost, access and consistency were factors that prevented them from buying more local food products.
“I just want to emphasize here that when people were talking about cost, they weren’t necessarily saying that local food in general is more expensive, what they were saying was that when you buy from a local vendor, you’re generally not getting the wholesale price,” Madden said.
The assessment group’s next step is to conduct focus groups with both consumers and producers, as well as more community members, such as parents and the elderly.
The data will be analyzed and a report with recommendations for policies and ideas on how the community can work together to localize a food system should be ready by the end of the year, Madden said.
Look in Wednesday’s Register for a story about the second half of the LIFE meeting. The story will cover a discussion with individuals who represent different aspects of the local food system, including a family-farm owner, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, a representative of Sustainable Berea and the co-chair of a committee to develop a countywide agribusiness strategy.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.