Local food. Farm to table. Farm to fork. Whatever you want to call it, a growing number of people are taking an interest in where their food comes from — and for many, the closer the better. Depending on their level of commitment, there are a number of ways local shoppers can procure western Wisconsin’s finest meats and produce for their tables.
There is no single definition of “local food.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as food produced within 400 miles from where it is sold or within the same state. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a “locovore” as a person whose diet focuses on foods produced within a 100-mile radius.
Buying local food is hardly a new phenomenon. For most of human history, locally-grown food was the norm. As Christine Kuhn points out, modern grocery stores with a diverse selection of foods from around the world are a fairly new phenomenon.
“With the onset of the industrial revolution we developed chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that allowed us to grow food in much larger quantities very quickly,” said Kuhn, manager of the Wisconsin Local Food Network, an organization that works to connect producers, consumers and others. “This surplus was quickly turned into a variety of packaged convenience products. Refrigerated trucks allowed us to move produce from one area of the country to the other without spoilage.”
So why go backwards? According to Kuhn, many shoppers have become concerned about the environmental impact of mass-produced foods transported long distances, the nutrient value of their food, inhumane practices and social issues. Others simply want to support local growers.
“The biggest benefit to purchasing local food is that your money circulates in the community and helps invigorate the local economy,” Kuhn said. “All the people involved in that food, from the farmer to the processor to the market or store it is sold in, benefit from that money. They in turn provide local jobs and purchase other goods and services from the local area.”
Another benefit of buying local food products, she said, is that they are often more flavorful and nutritious. Produce varieties that are mechanically harvested and transported great distances must be selected for their durability. This eliminates hundreds of more fragile varieties from consumers’ choices.
One more benefit out of many, Kuhn said, is cutting down on the environmental impact of transporting food.
“Foods in the U.S. travel on average 1,500 miles from field to plate,” she said. “When we source our foods locally, we cut down on the use of fossil fuels used to transport them and keep them refrigerated.”
While higher price is often seen as an obstacle to buying local food, Kuhn said that can vary, depending on the product and the season. In addition, she said more people are becoming concerned about the unseen costs of cheap food: negative environmental effects, unlivable wages to farmers and producers, and government subsidies that support the long-distance food industry.
There are several ways consumers can seek out local food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers’ markets more than quadrupled between 1994-2014. One of the most popular in the Chippewa Valley is the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market.
Between 5,000-6,000 shoppers visit the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market each week during the summer, according to manager Deidra Barrickman. The market has been a regular fixture downtown since 1994, but has found increased popularity in the last decade since the creation of Phoenix Park and its large pavilion, which hosts the market three days a week throughout the summer. In the winter, the market is held indoors monthly at the L.E. Phillips Senior Center.
Up to 65 vendor/producers offer vegetables, flowers, beef, chicken, pork and many other products at the market. Most of the vendors come from within a 50-mile radius of Eau Claire. Most shoppers are local, but Barrickman some will drive more than an hour nearly every Saturday to shop at the market.
“The benefits are great. We see local small farmers and business owners having a venue and outlet to sell their products in a retail setting,” Barrickman said. “This gives a connection to the vendor and customer and they form relationships. Keeping it local also keeps the dollars local. This is good for our vendors and for our community.”
Marcia Reich, who recently moved to Altoona, is a weekly visitor to the market.
“I like to get the fresh fruits and vegetables,” Reich said while picking out squash and yams on a Saturday morning in early October. “I also like to support the people who I know work so hard. I actually was raised on a farm myself. I don’t do gardening, but I like the produce, so that’s why I come.”
In an effort to expand access to fresh food to shoppers of all income levels, the market instituted a token program in 2012, allowing FoodShare Wisconsin members to swipe their SNAP QUEST cards and receive $1 coupons. Thanks to the donor-funded Market Match program, those dollars can be doubled up to a maximum of $10.
If local food is a trend, Klinger Farm Market north of Chippewa Falls has long been a trendsetter. The Klinger family founded the farm in 1904 and opened the market in the 1970s. The business is still a family affair, with multiple generations running the farm, greenhouse and market. When the sweet corn is ready in the summer, word gets around fast.
Besides the vegetables sold directly in the market, Klinger’s also sells produce wholesale that makes its way into local grocery stores. Three years ago, the market expanded into community-supported agriculture, known as a CSA. Troy Amelse, assistant manager for Klinger’s, said he learned about CSAs in college and wanted to give the member-driven model a try.
“That’s a program (where) you pay the money up front, and then over the harvest season you get a basket of food every week for 15 weeks,” Amelse said.
Members of Klinger’s CSA pay $550 for a full share (about a bushel of food per week), or $300 for a half share.
Kristine Beuning of Eau Claire says her certified organic CSA, Sunbow Farm, was founded south of the city in 2003 and is the longest-running in the area. It currently has between 60 and 70 members. Most of them pitch in with the picking to help earn their share, which is becoming less common in CSAs.
“My goal is to connect people to their food,” Beuning said on a busy picking day in late September. “The way you do that is by getting people out here involved.”
Shannon Young of Eau Claire has been a member of Sunbow Farm for about nine years.
“We had two young sons at the time and we wanted them to know where their food came from,” she said. “They could see how things were planted, how they grew, how you fertilize, the whole process, and then they were able to see the final product.”
Members can add extras, such as eggs or lamb, to their box of produce when they want.
Members of a CSA share the risk. They pay up front for the year and then share the results of the harvest, which vary depending on weather and other factors.
For those who want to grow their own food, gardening has always been an option. Many cities offer community gardens for those who do not have a place to plant. Andrew Werthmann, who serves on the Eau Claire City Council, is one of the coordinators of Eau Claire’s community garden on Forest Street.
“Our mission is to connect people with community gardening who might otherwise not have that opportunity, and to kind of teach people to grow their own food,” he said. Gardeners can either rent a 20-by-20-foot space or take part in a shared garden, in which members share the work and the crop.
Werthmann, who grew up on a dairy farm, says community gardening helps provide more than just healthful fresh fruits and vegetables.
“The number one thing is that it builds community,” he said. “The second piece of it is people’s connection to their food … it’s deeply rooted in who we are in Wisconsin.”
Werthmann also hopes that plans for a year-round public market offering local food in downtown Eau Claire’s North Barstow area come to fruition.
Local food cooperatives have also seen a resurgence over the past decade, as a segment of the population seeks out local and/or organic food sources (a 2014 Gallup poll estimated 45 percent of Americans try to incorporate organic foods into their diets).
Whether they believe in eating organic foods, supporting the local economy, acting out social justice or protecting the environment, shoppers seem to have as many reasons for seeking out local foods as there are different ways to do it.