Think Food, Invest Local

Vicki Pozzebon Head ShotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Jessica Haynie and Vicki Pozzebon

Funders who are considering lending their support to the local food movement often ask, “Where do I start? What can be done, and who’s doing it effectively?” Before biting off more than you can chew, let’s consider what local food is all about – and how to get the biggest bang for your investment buck.

What is local food, and why is it important?

In the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, the U.S. Congress limits to 400 miles the distance a product can be transported and still be considered “locally or regionally produced.” According to the USDA’s Cooperative Extension System, a local food system is “a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic and social health of a particular place.”

Such collaborative networks include nonprofits and businesses seeking to source locally, educate consumers, and effect change – without a lot of tools or common language for the movement. Too few organizations are communicating with one another, or sharing best practices and know-how. Half of the average family’s meals are prepared outside the home: from fast food restaurants, takeaway counters, and cafeterias. Rather than using local, healthy ingredients, much of this food is full of sodium, fat, and preservatives. Too many schools feed kids over-processed, chemical-laden foods that contribute to behavioral issues, diabetes, and obesity, further straining our health care system. Beyond immediate effects on diet, local food systems can also make a big impact in other ways including the environment, social capital, culture and diversity, economics, and health of a community – essentially creating a multiplier effect on investment.

What does investing in the local food system look like?

Funders need to expand beyond food banks and emergency food access. The emphasis must be on: long-term support for nonprofits and social enterprises that are teaching entrepreneurial and technical skills; training a new generation of farmers; advocating for consumers to buy and eat local; and changing procurement and zoning laws to increase access to local food and the ability to grow food in urban neighborhoods.

Delicious New Mexico event
Delicious New Mexico event

Organizations like Delicious New Mexico are helping people start independent food businesses in underutilized kitchens where family recipes can be turned into profitable bottled or packaged food for sale on grocery shelves. Funders like the USDA and CitiBank have helped get this organization off the ground. Their philanthropic investment in Delicious New Mexico has helped bring stakeholders from the private and public sectors and all across the food system – from growers to distributors and healthy food advocates – to convene around multiple issues. These include developing a sustainable delivery network for the public schools, and creating a shared-use, cooperatively-owned kitchen facility with retail incubator space in downtown Albuquerque.

FoodLab Detroit has helped over 150 businesses – mostly owned by women and people of color – create jobs through business training, improved access to capital, technical skills on food certification, and networking that gets entrepreneurs working together. The W.K Kellogg Foundation and the Surdna Foundation are among this organization’s funders that see the need to create strong networks for businesses to learn best practices from each other and assist one another through mentorship and business growth.

Both Delicious New Mexico and FoodLab Detroit are engaged in local sourcing strategic work with anchor institutions (larger companies with hundreds of employees and customers) that are joining the local food movement to invest in their employees’ health as well as community health. In New Mexico, for instance, Presbyterian Healthcare Services, the state’s largest health care provider with $20 million in purchasing power, has contracted with Delicious New Mexico and other partners to ensure a successful pilot local sourcing program that engages regional farmers and food manufacturers, with a goal to shift at least 10% of its purchasing to local sources. In Detroit, FoodLab is convening a group of partners to assist the city’s largest sports stadium in shifting its food concessions to local businesses. A commitment from anchor institutions like these can enable small farmers and food manufacturers to hire more workers, pay higher wages, invest in equipment, and spend profits in their own communities; again, the multiplier effect in action.

We need more support that helps local food stakeholders collaborate to effect change throughout their regions, and link regional groups. The more funders, farmers, producers, buyers, and consumers who are at the table, the stronger the local food movement will become. This is especially the case because transitioning from a food system dominated for decades by corporations and government subsidies to a more local model will require a lot from everybody. Long-term mutual support is crucial. Restaurants, food service agencies, and school districts that become anchor institutions will need to understand that their high demand can strain farmers and small producers/manufacturers as they scale up and increased planning, equipment, and staff. Consumers demanding more local products will need to speak out in support of the economic and health benefits of local food. Philanthropic organizations will need to recognize that redesigning a broken system takes time, and must be ready to invest with an expectation of long-term returns.

Shifting to a local food system is a big project, but investment, collaboration, and strategic networks can all help the local food movement generate long-term, positive effects that improve health and the environment, strengthen community, generate social capital, and make economic sense. Local food is about more than just a farm-to-table menu at a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths. Eating local is not a luxury for those who can afford it, but a sustainable and wise option for everybody.

Jessica Haynie is the CEO of Three Stones Consulting, a fundraising and strategy firm for the social sector based in Santa Fe, NM. Her strong commitment to the sector is reflected in a decade of experience working for organizations in a variety of fields, ranging from higher education to the performing arts to grassroots environmental conservation. She holds an MBA from Syracuse University and is currently considering PhD programs in Public Administration and Policy. Vicki Pozzebon is a localist, writer, and cultivator. She is the owner and driving catalyst of Prospera Partners, a local economy and business consulting firm. She is a BALLE Fellow, and the author of the forthcoming book For the Love of Local: Confessions from the Heart of Community. Read Vicki’s blog The Local Voice at and follow her on Twitter:

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