|By SUSAN MYKRANTZ
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Most of the U.S. population is not sophisticated about where their food comes from, according to Howard Sacks.
Sacks, who is the senior advisor to the president and director of the Rural Life Center at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, told a group of about 160 producers, industry, extension and university representatives attending The Case For Local Food Systems, a conference sponsored by The Social Responsibility Initiative of the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State University, the Department of Human and Community Resource Development, the OSU Local/Regional Food System Network and OSU Extension’s Sustainable Agriculture Team that this is not surprising considering that we have a safe abundant food supply. But at the same time, for better or worse food continues to make the headlines with concerns about health, food safety and security.
“I would suggest that we place the subject of food broadly within the area of food, farming and community life,” he said. “There is a broad coalition of all areas of the food system.”
As part of his role at Kenyon College, Sacks works with a program called Food For Thought, a local food initiative designed to build a sustainable market for food produced in the Knox County area.
Sacks explained that in 1993, the Rural Life Center began their Family Farm Project, a community study that looked at the family farm in relation to community life.
The study showed that agriculture is essential to the community.
Many of the students at the college do not have a direct link with where their food comes from, so part of the project was to develop a broad-spectrum program with the goal of getting the community to think about itself.
“We were at a pivotal point in the county,” Sacks said. “This project looked at what the county valued about the changes taking place in the county and how that change could be guided.”
As a result of that study, the county designed their comprehensive plan to maintain its rural character and sustain their family farms. As part of the project a publication titled “Home Grown: A Guide to Local Food Products in Knox County” was produced in 2000 and a farmer’s market on the square in Mt Vernon, the county seat was started in 2001.
Sacks added that with residents in the county making food purchases totaling $120 million dollars a year and very little of that money staying in the local area, it made sense to look at building a sustainable local food system.
The Food For Thought project is the latest addition to the county’s plan. Sacks explained that this is a countywide program that enables farmers to sell their products to schools, hospitals, restaurants, caterers and grocery stores. A local food council made up of farmers, food distributors, institutional buyers and agricultural experts oversees the program.
Sacks said programs such as this are beneficial to both farmers and consumers.
“Farmers benefit because it provides them with a steady, dependable market for their products,” he explained. “They know who is going to buy their products and they are getting a larger portion of the food dollar. Consumers benefit because they have access to fresher tasting, more nutritious food and they have the opportunity to contribute to the local community.”
The community benefits as this is also a way to preserve green space in the community and maintain the farming and agricultural tradition in the county and enhances the quality of life in the area.
“We have tried to bring culture back to agriculture,” he said. “Simply put, this project touches people where they are at, where they are thinking. Seasonality and availability are reasons to buy locally. But also, it is important to remember the history of farming in Knox County.”
Sacks added that they looked at several critical issues as part of the county’s plan to focus on local food systems. Land use and personal property rights were key concerns to those involved.
“We felt that if we could take the money that people were spending on food and develop a dependable local food supply and make it economically viable, it would be beneficial,” he said.
Logistic details are critical in developing a local food supply, according to Sacks. They have worked on reconstructing the infrastructure for the local food system, including working with a local wholesaler to develop an adequate food supply. They are also developing a community kitchen and remodeling an older building in the area for use as a warehouse.
Last year, about 15 percent of the food came from local sources and he projects that amount will increase to 30 percent this year.
“Farmers have been farming for a global market,” he said. “They are not going to make the shift unless we can prove that there is a demand and we can’t go to a distributor unless we can prove the supply is there. We have to keep these things in balance.”
Sacks added that Kenyon College has constructed a new dining facility, one of the first in the country to be geared towards using local foods for the students.
The facility has larger freezers to store the food and additional prep areas as well as educational features to educate students about where their food comes from.
The college has also established a food waste recycling system and 20 faculty members throughout the college are using food, farming or rural issues in their curriculum.
They also plan to have a display at the county fair to educate the public on how everything comes together. They are working on a plan to get other major institutions across the state involved in the process of buying food from local growers.
“This is an expensive evolution process,” he said. “It works product by product, consumer by consumer. The goal is to make a match that works. We try to approach it by diversity, what works for one might not for another. But we hope that local foods are part of the fabric of life. We hope that it is a source of community pride. Education is the key, both farmers and consumers need to do things a little bit differently.”
Published in the January 25, 2006 issue of Farm World.