Many people have dismissed the local food movement as a fad that will soon pass, saying that there are too many challenges for small and medium sized Maryland farmers to compete in the global economy. That opinion might change as more local, regional, and national institutions get involved in the local food movement.

For many local institutions, locally-sourced food matters

Students installing solar panels at the Dickinson College

Students installing solar panels at the college farm at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania

Earlier this year, I learned that locally-sourced food was a criterion in determining the “10 Coolest Schools” in the US. At #2 Dickinson College,  students had installed solar panels to power an irrigation pump at the school’s certified-organic College Farm. However, #1 University of Connecticut locally sources 25% of its food and “honey comes from UConn’s apiaries, fresh eggs from the agriculture department, and seasonal produce from student-run gardens.”  For the Millenials – the clients of Universities – sustainability issues matter. Two months ago, I was in a meeting with a director of dining services at a top East Coast University. He said that they were locally sourcing over 40% of their food, but their near-term goal was to exceed 50%.

healthy habits

Figure from USDA report highlighting the level of participation of state school systems. Maryland is in the top bracket.

It doesn’t stop there. A USDA report issued in 2013 reported that “43 percent of all public school districts have an existing farm to school program in place. Another 13 percent of school districts surveyed are committed to launching a farm to school program in the near future. With purchasing local food as a primary farm to school activity, in school year 2011-2012, schools purchased and served over $350 million in local food.” Howard County’s School System leads Maryland schools by locally sourcing 30% of their food budget.

Maryland hospitals are also involved. According to a Baltimore Sun article, “Forty hospitals in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Northern Virginia are now purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables regularly during the growing season and nine are consistently purchasing meat or poultry produced by local farmers who use sustainable agricultural practices. . .” Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment is leading this effort, and one of its focuses is on healthy, sustainable foods as a key to patient health.

National restaurant 10 trends

Figure 1: Top 10 Trends

Next, more restaurants see locally sourced food in their future. The National Restaurant Association surveyed nearly 1,300 professional chefs to find out what the hottest menu trends will be in 2014. The results in Figure 1 paint a good future for farm-to-table farmers.

In that report, Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s Research and Knowledge Group was quoted as saying,  “Today’s consumers are more interested than ever in what they eat and where their food comes from, and that is reflected in our menu trends research. True trends – as opposed to temporary fads – show the evolution of the wider shifts of our modern society over time, and focus on the provenance of various food and beverage items, unique aspects of how they are prepared and presented, as well as the dietary profiles of those meals.”

The Local Food Movement also helps serve food deserts and protect national security

Regional and national food banks have gotten into the local food movement. They are keenly aware of the benefits of fresh, local food for their consumers, many of whom suffer from diet-related illnesses. Thousands of communities across the nation lack stores with fresh fruits and vegetables. Maryland Food Bank is credited for its efforts to reach out to the farming community to provide fresh produce. This year, Maryland Food Bank received over one million pounds from Farming 4 Hunger alone. Locally-sourced food systems can help the hunger community, filling in where chain stores don’t meet the need.

Finally, by building our local capacity to feed citizens in our region, we help insulate ourselves from terrorist acts, from national disasters, and from breaks in the global food chain. Soon after the tragic events of September 11, 2oo1, U.S. government agencies raised the concern that terrorist organizations might seek to contaminate the American food supply. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began a dialogue about the current readiness against an intentional attack.

In one of its publications, the USDA stated, “Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, FSIS’ commitment to protect America’s supply of meat, poultry, and egg products from any form of intentional or unintentional contamination has never been higher. FSIS inspectors have remained on heightened alert to detect unusual or suspicious activity and seek the assistance of law enforcement agencies when needed.” Obviously, sourcing our food locally, from numerous sources, can enhance our defense from those foreign operatives intending to contaminate our food.

How does Maryland rank in the local food movement?

Last week, the Vermont-based local food advocacy group has released its second annual Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index, which ranks states’ commitment to local foods. The Index is  based on a variety of factors, including farmers markets, consumer-supported agriculture operations (CSAs) and food hubs per-capita. In 2013, Maryland was 29th.

The demand for local food continues to grow. Marylanders need to be sure that they don’t miss this economic opportunity, which also benefits the hunger community and helps protect our food security.