There are times when I fear that the “local food movement” is just an abstraction, not much more than a set of ideals that don’t pan out in real life practice.
This week’s Boston Local Food Show went a long way towards putting some of my fears to rest. Sponsored by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, the show welcomed more than 120 attendees representing New England farms, fisheries, restaurants, distributors and food system non-profits. The event made it clear that there are people out there who are deeply committed to supporting and diversifying local food systems and who are bringing food to families and schoolchildren, not just to high-end restaurants and urban foodies.
I met Kate Petcosky of New Entry Sustainable Farming and Sarah Bostick of Cultivating Community. These organizations support beginning, immigrant and refugee farmers in the development of viable farm businesses, with the goal of creating community through food systems. I learned that the Franklin County Community Development Corporation’s “Extend the Season” project processes local produce for freezing/canning in order to make it accessible to institutions like schools and hospitals year-round – a viable solution to the challenges presented by New England’s limited growing season.
I was encouraged to hear Tom Barton, Northeastern University’s Executive Chef, talk about the fact that as much as 25-30% of Northeastern’s food comes from local, sustainable sources. That’s an impressive number, and it’s not necessarily an easy one to sustain. Barton clearly has to invest a significant amount of time and effort to seek out those sources. Gary Weiss of Northampton, MA’s Cooley Dickinson Hospital outlined some of the work he does with farmers in Western Massachusetts to bring local produce and meats into the hospital’s dining program. There were at least 15 representatives from schools, health care institutions and hotels at the show, there to make connections with farmers and distributors, and it’s that kind of institutional focus that will go a long way towards supporting regional agriculture. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources presented information about its work to promote regional agritourism, which helps educate consumers, sustain local farms, and keep people entertained and well-fed.
But all this local food enthusiasm isn’t just about specialty foods, preserving New England’s beautiful farmland or feeling good about adorable baby animals (though photos of those things do a lovely job of attracting attention to the cause). Small farms are critical to maintaining biodiversity and supporting regional economies worldwide (a new report by the Food Tank, using UN research, shows just how significant the numbers are). Institutional support for those small farms will bring significant economic and educational resources to the effort.
I’m usually on the consumer side of food issues, and I tend to focus on enjoying artisan products and farm environments. The trade show gave me a different – and deeply encouraging – perspective on New England’s food systems. And the food samples, of course, didn’t hurt.