Locally grown foods can fill community needs
Just a couple or three generations ago, back when most families grew their own food, eating local was a way of life. Today, getting our hands on locally grown food is a little tougher than walking out the back door to the garden or henhouse, though fresh, locally grown products are increasingly available thanks to the expanding number of farmers who sell them direct from their farms and at roadside stands, farmers markets, local restaurants and even grocery stores.
Making it easier for farmers and consumers alike to support local food and finding ways that local food can address—maybe even solve—other food-related problems are all important ways to keep that supply coming, and that’s just what Auburn rural sociologist Michelle Worosz is hoping her research will help achieve.
Worosz, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, has been studying local food and alternative, small-scale agriculture since her days as a graduate student at Michigan State University. Through the years, she has researched such issues as identifying barriers that limit growth and profitability for small- and medium-sized farmers, assessing the effects of the Deep Horizon oil spill on local Gulf Coast seafood industries, gauging consumer perceptions of such commodities as locally raised beef and determining the prevalence of hunger and food insecurity in our state.
Results of Worosz’s studies help identify not only the challenges faced by those who produce and consume fresh foods, but also the myriad possibilities that this renaissance of local eating, which began in earnest in the 1990s and shows no signs of abating, offers to society. She firmly believes that, while local food will never replace large-scale food production, it is an important part of our food system that can fill niches of consumer demand and societal needs.
FEEDING THE HUNGRY
Among those niches is making communities more food secure by providing residents access to fresh, safe, healthy and affordable food—a need that is great in Alabama, not just in poorer rural parts of the state but even in more affluent communities such as the Auburn-Opelika area.
It is a need that Martha Henk, director of the Food Bank of East Alabama, sees every day as her organization works to provide fresh, healthful foods to the hungry. Though the food bank distributes a wide range of foodstuffs—processed and pre-packaged as well as fresh—having access to fresh produce is vital to its clients, especially in light of such health issues as obesity and diabetes, which are so prevalent in the state.
“Our clients are expressing more and more interest in having fresh produce,” Henk says. To meet that demand, the food bank relies heavily on donations from local grocery stores and food distributors, but those products aren’t necessarily locally produced. Access to truly local products is available on a smaller scale, however, from sources such as the Auburn University Community Garden and the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences’ Food Bank Garden and through the generosity of local gardeners.
“Quite often during the summer, we find a bag of produce on the doorknob of the food bank,” Henk says, noting how deeply her clients appreciate those treasures.
“While locally grown foods are still a relatively small part of what we distribute, they represent a significant part,” she says. “Yes, it’s small-scale, but if more people become involved, it can add up and have a big impact.”
SUPPORTING LOCAL COMMUNITIES
Another issue that Worosz believes local foods can address is the strengthening of rural communities and economies.
“If you can help to support local growers, that means more people are employed and more dollars stay at home in local communities,” she says.
Beth Hornsby, who along with her husband, Josh, an Auburn horticulture alumnus, established Hornsby Farms in Macon County three years ago, says their customer base is growing for a number of reasons, including an increasing desire among consumers to know where they food comes from. “People are seeking out more local foods,” she says.
But knowing their purchases support local farmers is also important to many of the Hornsbys’ customers. “It will continue to be one of the most important purchasing decisions a consumer makes and one that benefits everyone in our community,” she adds.
That customer base for local foods —people who are often referred to as “locavores”—has also expanded to a new generation of consumers: college students. That young demographic is increasingly requesting more local food and, in the process, is driving innovations in campus food service programs nationwide and at Auburn.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Glenn Loughridge, Auburn University’s campus dining director, has personally seen the interest in local foods blossom in his four years of working at Auburn, and he’s working hard to meet that demand by offering more and more local foods at campus dining venues. Loughridge, who is a passionate supporter of local foods himself, says students can now find local food options at several campus eateries including Plains2Plate, a restaurant that offers a menu chock full of healthful, fresh, local foods.
“Students love the local food options,” says Loughridge, who believes that, while many students are drawn to these foods because they want to eat sustainably, they also simply like the taste of local food. “The higher quality of local foods really shines through,” he says.
That drives him to always be on the lookout for more local food sources. Currently, Loughridge buys local products from growers and producers across the state, including the Hornsbys, and from one source very close to home—Auburn’s College of Agriculture.
Among those Auburn-produced products are tilapia—used in the ever-popular Plains2Plate fish tacos—and cucumbers, both of which are grown through a School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences aquaponics project; eggs and chicken from the Department of Poultry Science; and pork from Auburn University’s Lambert-Powell Meats Laboratory.
“We love doing it because we feel like it is a chance to highlight what we are doing at Auburn University as an agricultural college,” Loughridge says. But he also loves the fact that the Auburn-procured food items are the freshest of the fresh.
“We call it ‘hyper-local,’” he says. “For example, we have Auburn pork that has traveled maybe two miles in its entire lifespan.
“We can’t run the entire campus on local food,” he says, “but we try to partner wherever we can, and we are excited to have this opportunity.”
Loughridge also notes that, while some of the locally grown options are more expensive to procure, others aren’t, and that allows him to balance out the costs and keep prices affordable.
THE SCIENCE OF LOCAL FOOD
It is that interest in local foods on campuses that led Worosz to become involved in a new local food study looking at the barriers that local growers may face in selling their products to institutional food service providers.
As part of the study, she and Auburn agricultural economist and professor Norbert Wilson, a colleague in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, will survey students at Auburn and at other colleges and universities across the state to learn more about students’ perceptions of local food, their willingness to buy it and other factors that influence the feasibility of small producers tapping into this emerging market.
“We hope the results of this survey will help identify potential opportunities for local producers to develop new markets, such as colleges and schools, where they can sell their products,” Worosz says.
She is also part of another study that is looking at the hurdles affecting Alabama-raised beef. For her part in that study, Worosz and post-doctoral research fellow Amy Telligman are assessing consumer perceptions about locally raised beef, including its safety, an issue that concerns many consumers and that Worosz sees as yet another food-related problem that local foods may be able to address.
According to Worosz, little is known about the possibility of foodborne illnesses associated with locally sourced meat, but should contamination occur, it may be easier to trace a problem back to its source because it is not distributed and sold nationally.
In addition, local producers have extra incentive to make sure the food they sell is safe: “Local farmers have a more personal connection with consumers than large-scale industrial food companies,” Worosz says. “They live in the same communities as their customers. They go to church together. Their kids go to the same schools.”
The results of the beef study not only may help identify ways that producers can better market their products, but also increase awareness of the benefits of local food among consumers.
In truth, this and other studies are really just a beginning.
“This is a complicated issue,” Worosz says. “In the long run, we want everyone to have access to food that is culturally appropriate, nutritionally adequate and safe, but first we have to understand what the landscape of ‘local’ is in Alabama.”
Through her studies, Worosz hopes that local foods can become an increasingly important part of that larger food landscape, and though she realizes that local foods are not a fix for all things and all people, she does want to make it easier for farmers and consumers alike to have local foods as an option.
“I want there to be an avenue for those who want to be involved,” she says.