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Making Local Food Affordable

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Everyone should be able to eat fresh and healthy food. And at a time of economic uncertainty and global unrest, supporting local economies by buying local products and goods makes sense on many levels. Unfortunately, fresh local produce is often more expensive than the alternatives and cannot be readily afforded by the whole community.

Some of us face a combination of barriers to buying fresh, local food, including cultural identity[i], social norms, geographical location, access to transportation, limited time and more. However, the biggest barrier is the amount of money in our wallets or household coffers compared to the cost[ii]. On rare occasions, local products cost as much or less than their “imported” counterparts. Unfortunately, in most cases, buying from local producers is much more expensive than buying groceries from the grocery chain or worse, the chain’s fast food restaurants.

As the buy local and locavore movements expand, we are seeing an increase in farmer/tailgate markets in cities across the US. Unfortunately, they are predominantly attended by “predominantly wealthy, educated individuals of European-American background.” (Smirl, 2011) To encourage greater participation by low-income individuals, many markets have now adopted SNAP benefit acceptance (see USDA website for more information). Additionally, recent changes in the federal EBT program allow for the purchase of vegetable and fruit seeds to encourage people to grow their own food. And while these are commendable steps in the right direction, more creative local solutions need to be found.

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Another way local farmers are working to make produce more accessible is through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where consumers buy “shares” of produce at the start of a growing season and receive weekly veg and fruit delivery for the coming months. A significant downside for the low-income family is the stock’s high upfront cost. At least one CSA has developed a “subsidy model” that uses a portion of full price stock to underwrite low-income stocks, although a very limited number of these low-income stocks are available each season.

One answer to making local produce more affordable is the food market, but not just any food market – a new model for sustainable, inclusive and equitable local business. In order to remove the various barriers outlined previously, the market must be culturally inclusive, both through the products it sells and the aesthetics of the market, and locate itself within the communities it seeks to serve. To keep costs down, the market would take advantage of local farmers’ “seconds” (less aesthetically pleasing but viable fruits and vegetables) as well as surplus produce from backyards and community gardens in surrounding neighborhoods. The market will also grow its own produce with very little overhead by contracting with owners of vacant lots in the surrounding community to grow food on their land. And similar to Pilot Mount Pride, the market will act as a clearinghouse for local (particularly urban) farms, allowing farmers to eliminate the costs of direct marketing and advertising while focusing their time and energy on growing more produce. While federal subsidies are not the ultimate answer, there is an opportunity to increase the value of SNAP/EBT benefits by counting each EBT dollar as $1.5. Since labor is often the highest cost of doing business, the market would offer a work trade system that counts hours volunteered as market dollars.

The creative answers to the problem of access and affordability of local products are limited only by our imagination and will. As we continue to live in uncertain global economies, more and more people are facing tough economic times and are now classified as low-income. As more people are able to keep their dollars circulating in their own communities by shopping locally, those communities become more economical and social.

[i] Jacob D Factors influencing food choices, dietary intake, and diet-related attitudes among African Americans: Application of a culturally sensitive model.Ethnicity & Health [serial online]. 2004 Nov;9(4):349-367. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA

[ii] Availability and cost of healthier food alternatives Original research article American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 30, Issue 1, January 2006, pages 38-44. Karen M. Jetter, Diana L. Cassady

Thanks to Safi Mahaba

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