Written by Amanda Maher
In the United States, food insecurity remains a major problem. In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households. Inner cities are often particularly affected, not only because they are home to a disproportionately high number of poor residents, but also because they are often food deserts, with limited access to affordable fresh food.
Urban farming, local farmers’ markets and commercial kitchen incubators are popping up in cities across the U.S. in an effort to strengthen local food systems. Traverse City, Oklahoma City and Toronto have piloted particularly unique initiatives.
In northwest Michigan, there has been interest in small-scale farming. Most of these farmers rely on community supported agriculture (CSAs) and farmers markets to distribute their goods. But many of these companies have the ability to service the wholesale market, if given the opportunity. Regional food distributor Cherry Capital Foods and nonprofit Grand Traverse Foodshed Alliance have teamed up to aggregate the farmers’ production. The goal is to help these small- and mid-sized producers through value-added processing (such as washing and bagging lettuce before sale).
The resulting Grand Traverse Food Innovation Hub is a 12,000 square foot facility that provides space for eight to 10 companies. The Hub is co-located alongside Cherry Capital Foods’ distribution facility, and it provides the infrastructure (such as equipment that washes and sorts vegetables) to allow businesses to expand market opportunities. By aggregating food in this manner, the Hub can then sell members’ products at a larger scale to restaurants, schools and grocery stores—something that the individual farmers would have trouble doing otherwise. Michigan grows a large and diverse amount of food crops; the Food Innovation Hub serves to foster entrepreneurship and innovation among agri-food businesses while strengthening the local food system.
The Oklahoma Food Cooperative (OKFC) is a member-owned organization that connects Oklahoma farmers and producers with customers. The co-op sells only food and non-food products that are grown or made in Oklahoma; on any given month the OKFC has nearly 5,000 different items sourced from 90+ different Oklahoma producers. For a small fee, anyone can purchase goods from the co-op; those who are interested in becoming a member-owner can do so at an affordable price.
All producers must register through the OKFC, which strictly vets the company for quality control purposes and to ensure the entity is indeed an Oklahoma-based business. Producers then set their own prices. They pay a commission to sell through the co-op, as customers pay an equal commission to buy through the co-op. Products are all sold online. Producers have a week to harvest and fill orders; they bring all goods to the main OKFC Oklahoma City location. Volunteers then assemble orders, which are then available for pickup at any one of 52 sites statewide.
The OKFC method of aggregating locally-sourced products helps put money back into producers’ pockets: according to the OKFC, their producers receive an average $0.775 on the dollar, much higher than the national average. The dispersal of sites provides food access to residents who may not have a grocery store in their neighborhood.
In Toronto, there are more than 300 agencies that provide food to people who face challenges to food access. More than six and a half million meals are delivered annually through food banks, shelters, churches, community health centers and other venues. In total, these organizations spend nearly $30 million annually on food purchases. Combined with student nutrition programs, these organizations have significant collective purchasing power. Despite ongoing need (one in 10 Toronto residents is food insecure), community service agencies are overly reliant on donations—many of which are foods that have been highly proceeded, with high levels of salt, sugar and other additives. Access to healthy, fresh food remains limited.
Toronto Food Strategy, a stakeholder group focused on building a healthier and more sustainable food system for Toronto residents, has launched an Aggregated Food Procurement initiative to leverage these organizations’ collective purchasing power. An aggregated online ordering system is being developed to allow chefs, food coordinators, volunteers and other staff to place food orders online and receive food directly at their respective agencies on an as-needed basis. By coordinating purchases, the Aggregated Food Procurement program hopes to increase access to healthy, diverse food at a lower cost than if the agencies were to purchase individually.
Innovative strategies such as the ones being put in place in Grand Traverse, Oklahoma City and Toronto help to ensure that the cities’ poorest residents have more reliable access to food. They may also help to create more secure jobs for farmers and food producers, increasing their revenue and connecting them with new markets for their produce.