Regional Food Systems as Economic Opportunity

(Copyright by and reproduced with permission from Center for Rural Affairs.)
Interest in locally grown food has been escalating across the country. The recent egg recall strengthened the case for knowing where our food comes from. Enter the regional food system.

What is a regional food system? It’s a way to build a strong food system that connects people with good food from a known source and builds wealth and relationships at the same time. Put more simply, it connects farmers to consumers. Activities drive the connections, including farming and community gardening, processing, storage, distribution and transportation, and food access by way of grocery stores, institutions, restaurants, farmers markets, roadside stands and more.

Regional food systems also make economic sense. Take Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative, owned by 52 Missouri family farms that process Heritage Acres Pork. Their president, Russ Kremer, says the family farmers involved are “making a living.” He’s confident that a diversified farm of as few as five acres can support a family since he sees it every day.

In a recent conversation, Russ outlined his work in developing a successful regional food system. “It starts by building relationships with the consumer and finding out what they want and need … then giving it to them.” When Russ speaks of consumers, he’s talking about processors, distributors, institutions, grocery stores, restaurants, etc, and building key relationships with them.

Research from Iowa State University’s Leopold Center showed the possibility of significant economic impact from regional food systems. Dave Swensen, author of Investigating the Potential Economic Impacts of Local Foods for Southwest Iowa, looked at two scenarios to analyze the potential regional economic impact of increasing fresh fruit and vegetable production to meet local and regional demand.

One scenario involved a 10-county region in southwest Iowa, where enough of 22 fruits and vegetables would be grown to meet local consumption. Results showed 900 acres of new fruit and vegetable production valued at $2.4 million in sales with a potential retail value of $5.2 million. Over $900,000 would be created in labor incomes with approximately 16 more jobs for the region. The second scenario factored in metropolitan markets, which resulted in almost twice as much in direct farm-level sales and retail sales, $1.75 million in labor incomes, and 29 more jobs for the region.

It’s the right time to take another look at food as an economic driver in rural America. We can create local and regional food systems to meet our need for fresh, locally produced, healthy food that not only tastes really good but brings more dollars into our communities.

For more information, go to Center for Rural Affairs.