Many of us were surprised that the growth in the number of farmers markets was appearing to flatten out in the U.S. And in its report to Congress, the USDA reported that between 2007 and 2012 the number of farms with direct-to-consumer sales increased 5.5 percent, but with no increase in direct-to-consumer sales. However, the report speculated that local food might be moving through other marketing channels, like grocery stores or institutions, the value of which is not measured by the Census of Agriculture. I believe that this is the case.
At the MOFFA Winter Meeting on February 21st, I had the opportunity to learn about some of those new marketing opportunities in a session entitled Connecting with Chefs & Distributors.
Terrance Murphy discussed opportunities with Whole Foods Market and his own great experiences working with local farmers as a chef. Chris Miller discussed MOM’s Organic Market’s commitment to organically produced food and opportunities for local farmers to supply their stores locally. Several local farmers are already selling directly to MOMs. Four Seasons Food Distributor, out of Houston, Texas, is also a major supplier.
Jonas Singer is co-founder of Union Kitchen, a food incubator. It opened in 2012, out of a 7,300 sq. ft. warehouse in NE Washington, D.C. and its goal is “to build a platform and a megaphone for small businesses by providing a low-cost, low-risk, full-service kitchen for local businesses to grow and establish their operations.” One way they are doing it is by eliminating the need for start-ups to take on debt, purchase expensive equipment, sign a long-term lease, or some of the other risks entrepreneurs usually have to face.
Jonas noted that this allows new businesses to spend their time focusing on growing their businesses. That approach has worked amazingly well. In a little over two years, they have helped to start over 60 businesses and create over 300 jobs. For its success, Union Kitchen was one of the 10 finalists for USA TODAY’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2014.
Of course, most of these emerging food enterprises are interested in local food as a way to make them unique and more connected to their communities. There is also more interest from regional and national food distributors to use locally sourced food. Jonas commented that Coastal Produce has been great at helping them supply locally sourced food. However, Union Kitchen is interested in doing more to work with local farmers.
Food incubators like Union Kitchen help to level the playing field for local business. And local, sustainability produced food can help them produce a niche. It is working. Fourteen of their members are nominated in a total of nine categories for Best of DC, 2015!
We grow better when we grow together.