Family Farmed is a non-profit organization that connects farmers, supermarkets, and trade buyers to build a system of local food channels.
Chicago Public Schools, which sources apples, broccoli, cabbage, antibiotic-free chicken and other foods from local farmers, is one of the success stories of this local food movement.
Food hubs are also popping up around the US. They serve an important role as intermediaries by aggregating local food from local farmers, which is then redistributed to supermarkets, restaurants, or other wholesale buyers
A reliable source of fresh locally grown food is essential if you want to stay healthy. Jim Slama has promoted environmental sustainability for more than two decades, and his organization, Family Farmed, is a major supporter and proponent of the Good Food Movement.
For many years, he published a natural living magazine called Conscious Choice, which had a circulation of about 50,000 copies. Eventually, the media recession, followed by the Great Recession, killed the magazine.
In the midst of doing Conscious Choice, Jim reported on an incinerator in Chicago1 that was putting out 150,000 pounds of lead per year into the local environment.
Appalled, he got together with friends in the advertising industry, and created an ad campaign featuring the story of two kids who lived near the facility. “Lo and behold, we shut it down within six months,” he says. “It was very exciting.”
A foundation gave him $400,000 dollars to start an environmental communications group, and the first major campaign, “Keep Organic Organic,” was created in response to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposal to allow genetically engineered food grown in sewage sludge to be called “organic.”
The USDA got 275,000 comments in opposition as a result of these efforts and the entire massive grass-roots response. The agency then raised the white flag and agreed to keep genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and many other toxic things out of the organic standards.
Next, Jim decided he wanted to do a Buy Local campaign.
“That summer, I went out to local stores and supermarkets to see what kind of local organic food was available, and realized that other than Whole Foods and a few farmers markets, which had little bit, there was none available.
There are so many benefits with local sustainably produced food. They’re obviously healthy, because it’s fresher if it’s grown closer to home and preferably organic. If they are grown without pesticides, it will have a positive impact on the local ecosystem.
But then also you’re reducing carbon footprints, you’re helping support family farmers, and you’re helping to support local economic development in those communities.
At that point, we decided ‘Let’s figure out what it’s going to take to create local food systems.’ That’s really how we got started working in that.”
Rise of the Local Food Movement
There is important support that is needed to facilitate optimized interactions between farmers, the producers of artisanal food, supermarkets, and trade buyers.
One of the first steps was to create a trade show for the local sustainable food industry. The first such trade show took place 11 years ago. Fifty farmers and 300 people, mostly trade buyers, attended. The following year, a consumer show was added, and the event has been building ever since.
Six years ago, Jim again expanded what by then was known as the Good Food Festival & Conference, holding a financing conference to help local farmers, food hubs, and artisan food producers to get financing.
“Since then, we’ve done about eight million dollars of deals,” he says. “We’ve launched something called the Good Food Business Accelerator, which is an entrepreneur training program for food farmers as well as food artisans. Whole Food is a major partner in this project.
They’re a lead along with the USDA, the Small Business Administration, UNFI, and Food: Land: Opportunity: Relocalizing the Chicago Foodshed, a philanthropic project of the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.
In addition, we have helped link hundreds of Chicago area trade buyers with local farmers, food artisans, and large-scale buyers like schools, hospitals, and universities. Even O’Hare and Midway Airports are increasing their sustainable and local sourcing.
And McCormick Place, the largest convention center in America, announced a commitment to source 15 percent of their food from local and sustainable sources at our trade show two years ago. This year, more than 40 percent of their food will come from local or sustainable sources.”
Chicago Public School System—A Success Story for Local Food Movement
Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which serves nearly 500,000 meals a day, is one of the success stories of this local food movement.
Six years ago, FamilyFarmed pioneered a local food procurement program with CPS and introduced them to regional farmers and food hubs who sold them apples, broccoli, cabbage, corn, green beans, and other fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. Since the program was launched, CPS has purchased more than $10 million in food from local farmers.
A couple of years ago, Jim’s organization helped connect CPS officials to Miller Poultry, an Amish antibiotic-free chicken producer in Indiana. At the time, Miller was selling a lot of chicken breasts to Whole Foods and thighs to the Chipotle Mexican fast/casual chain. But they had an excess of drumsticks, and kids like drumsticks.
“The next thing you know, with the support of the Pew Charitable Trust and School Food Focus, Chicago Public Schools launched the first large-scale program in America to serve antibiotic-free chicken to public school students. CPS then helped create the Urban School Food Alliance to collaborate with other large-scale districts to embrace sustainable procurement, including antibiotic-free chicken. Now New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and other big school districts are taking CPS’ leadership and buying antibiotic-free chicken and more local fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Antibiotic-free chicken is an important issue, as some 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant disease in the US each year. Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the US are fed to farm animals, such as chickens, and this is a major driver of antibiotic resistance.
This information needs to be shared with schools because many of them are still unfamiliar with the connection between antibiotic-treated foods and antibiotic-resistant disease. Addressing this issue is a socially and medically responsible thing to do. In the US, there’s a national group called School Food Focus2 that can help school districts make these kinds of changes to their food program.
More Restaurants Are Getting in on the Action
Today, many of the top restaurants in the Chicago area attend the Good Food Trade Show, so at least regionally, there’s plenty of participation from chefs and restaurant owners. Dan Rosenthal, a Chicago restaurateur, has also co-founded a group called the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition (GCRC), which helps restaurants source all types of things—not just food—that are “green,” such as cleaning products or paper goods, for example. Many of the suppliers of such goods are people he’s met at the local food trade show.
“That’s actually been a really nice program as well because, obviously, those are going to be big buyers. They pay a little bit more to the farmers than a big supermarket chain because they’re not at a super high volume of purchasing. If the farmers ask for more, they get it. For a mid-size or smaller-size farmer it’s actually a good market because they earn a higher premium on the product,” Jim says.
Signs That Call for Transparency Is Having an Effect
Organic was the first of these certification success stories and now it’s over $40 billion in sales in the US. And the New York Times3 reports that in the last five years, the US Non-GMO food category has grown to $10 billion, much of which is certified by the Non-GMO project. According to Jim, sustainable seafood is a booming market right now, with many different supermarkets “climbing over each other” to prove that they are a better sustainable seafood supplier than the others.
“Believe it or not, they’re actually angling to get higher rankings on the Greenpeace list of sustainable seafood,” he says. “That’s a good sign that transparency is actually having an impact. It’s pushing retailers to source more Good Food. I think looking at these established opportunities for products that are certified with very defined attributes would have independent people saying, “This is what you’re going to get when you purchase that product that has been verified.” I think that’s really the key now.”
Benefits of Local Food Hubs
Food hubs4 aggregate local food from local farmers, which is then sold to supermarkets, restaurants, or other wholesale buyers. Some food hubs also or alternatively sell directly to consumers. Food hubs serve a critical role because, for a small farmer, developing sales and distribution channels can be cumbersome and difficult. FamilyFarmed has helped launch a number of food hubs and created the publication, “Building Successful Food Hubs,” to help entrepreneurs create them.
“Five years ago, nobody even heard of the term ’food hub,’” Jim says. “Now, they are everywhere. Food hubs are popping up across the country. Some are successful and some are not. It’s a tough business. You’re distributing food, which has very low margins. There’s food safety and there’s food handling; there’s a lot to learn in terms of doing it well.That being said, many of them are successful. For consumers, looking for food hubs that sell direct could be a very good way to support the local food movement. Or look for products in supermarkets or restaurants that are flowing through food hubs and support those [by buying those products there]… If a consumer knows about a local food hub, encourage the restaurants to start sourcing from them. Those are all good ways to kind of build these connections.”
Wholesale Success Training
Family Farmed’s Wholesale Success Training is an outgrowth of discussions and meetings at the Good Food Trade Show. Wholesale buyers are usually concerned about buying local foods because the quality can be less uniform. From a vendor’s perspective, you want food that has long shelf-life, so retaining freshness is a constant concern.
To address these issues, FamilyFarmed created the Wholesale Success manual to support local farmers and teach them how to improve the shelf-life of their produce. The 300+ page book is the definitive training source on selling into wholesale markets. It includes topics such as Calculating Return on Investment; Cleaning, Drying and Curing Produce; Traceability; Packing Shed Design; and Maintaining the Cold Chain.
“Wholesale Success is the leading publication and training program for small to mid-size producer farmers. We teach them post-harvest handling, food safety, selling, and all the things that small farmers need to know to be successful in building markets selling to schools, hospitals, supermarkets, or restaurants,” Jim says.
He adds, “The USDA has really come on as a big supporter of this. They’ve given us more than a million dollars now to train farmers in 35 states. It’s quite a success. A lot more farmers are selling products to all spectrums of trade buyers with the knowledge that they’re gaining, and their product is better; it’s higher quality. And they’re going to meet the food safety standards that the buyers demand.”
Mark Your Calendar: 2015 Annual Good Food Festival and Conference
Once a year, FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Festival and Conference5 is held at the UIC Forum at my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) farm, in the Near West Side. This year, it will take place on March 19-21. This event is open for growers, food businesses, and consumers alike. The Financing and Innovation conference is held on the first day. Businesses looking for financing are showcased, and successful businesses give talks and lectures.
The second day is dedicated to food policy discussions, featuring many national policy leaders; the Trade Show, and the School Food Summit. Fun breaks out on Friday night with the Localicious party, one of Chicago’s premier food and drink tasting events, which features local food, craft beverages and a bluegrass band. The third and final day brings the Good Food Festival, a celebration of the Good Food Movement that features chef demos, more than 150 vendor-exhibitors, workshops by local experts, and fun for all ages.
“You can learn about fermenting foods, gardening, sausage making, grain milling and bread baking, seed saving, and lots of other things. It’s the community, really caring about Good Food and getting together. It’s mostly regional and local people, but some national people come as well. We’re gathering the tribe, so to speak– having fun but also doing business and coming to meet, being inspired by other people, and learning from them,” Jim says.
Integrating Sweets and Desserts into a Healthy Diet
Integrating sweets and desserts into a healthy diet can be tricky. Just because something is made with organic sugar doesn’t make it healthy! When asked how the sweet treat issue is addressed in the Good Food campaign, Jim notes that the goal is really to keep the focus on lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and to continue educating people about the dangers of eating too much sugar.
“Quite honestly, if you sample locally grown fruits and vegetable, they taste amazing, especially if they’re fresh, compared to a week-old produce from California,” says Jim. “Part of the reason people don’t eat fruits and vegetables is the quality isn’t good, because it takes a while to get from when it’s picked to their table. If people have access to local fresh fruits and vegetables they will be more inspired to eat them because they taste so good.
Also I think people need a little self-control. I know for myself that I try to limit the amount of desserts that I have to maybe once a week. I encourage other people to do so and certainly avoid sodas and other things that are just mainlining sugar into their system. But it’s a big educational challenge.”
One strategy that can help you improve your metabolic function, potentially allowing you to process sweets better, is to increase your daytime activity levels. Most people spend 8-12 hours sitting down, which has very serious metabolic ramifications.
Sitting is the new smoking, raising your risk for lung cancer by more than 54 percent. It’s actually worse for you than secondhand smoke! It raises your risk for other cancers as well, not to mention obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Standing up as much as possible and moving about more during your day, can help improve your metabolic function so that you may process the sugar you do eat better. Standing more is not a carte blanche to indulge in sweets indiscriminately, but it may make the occasional indulgence less impactful.
I’m pleased to hear there are so many positive inroads being made to improve access to local and sustainable foods, and I hope you’re feeling buoyed by it too. We still have a long way to go, but organizations like Family Farmed are clearly making progress. You can help by being selective about how you spend your food dollars. Buying locally produced foods is the most direct way to support its continued growth.
I believe that building a food system that relies heavily on locally grown foods is the answer to so many of our global problems, from environmental destruction to hunger. We also need a strong local food system if we’re ever going to rein in our out-of-control disease statistics, which are rooted in an unhealthy processed food diet. To learn more about all of the programs, conferences and trade shows discussed in this article, please see the following websites:
- Family Farmed6
- Good Food Business Accelerator7
- Good Food Festivals8
- Farmers seeking post-harvest handling training, see the Wholesale Success program9
If you reside in the US, the following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods:
Weston Price Foundation10 has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter. Local Harvest — This Web site will help you find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies. Farmers’ Markets — A national listing of farmers’ markets. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms. FoodRoutes — The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.
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