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Buying local food reduces food insecurity

By Phil Alonso
Special to The Union


Food insecurity has captured more and more headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Food insecurity, or the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life can be discussed and addressed in terms of family households and our regional economy. Interfaith Food Ministry (IFM) and other nonprofit agencies are focused on directly serving family households. All residents should be concerned about our region’s economy and the impacts on food security.

COVID-19 has revealed the many and varied threats to food security: supply chain disruptions, climbing unemployment and other economic challenges for families, and barriers to access to food assistance for those with health issues and those in rural areas, just to name a few. There are lots of great ways that individual family households, businesses, institutions, restaurants and nonprofits can contribute to mitigating these threats to our food security. Malaika Bishop’s article in the March 9 edition of The Union concisely summarizes the various components and many benefits of the ambitious goal of 20% Whole-sum food by 2025, launched by the Nevada County Food Policy Council. One way to consume more Whole-sum food is buying food items grown/produced locally (within 20 miles) or regionally (within 120 miles).

Buying locally/regionally has an economic multiplier effect that will contribute to reducing food insecurity. A recent study from Central Oregon (Rahe 2017) found “for every dollar spent on a local food product, $0.76 stays in the community. Comparatively, each dollar spent on food from outside the region resulted in only $0.28 remaining in the local economy. That means for every dollar you spend buying from your local farmer or rancher, an additional $0.48 is circulated through your local economy not only fueling jobs but also helping to make your community more resilient to external economic forces. Additionally, for every 5 new farm jobs created, an additional 2 off-farm jobs are created within the community.”

If every Nevada County resident spent $13 per week on local/regional food products, the county would reach the 20% local/regional food consumption component of the goal. We spend $340 million dollars a year on food in Nevada County. If we bought 20% of this from local farmers and ranchers, we would be keeping an additional $26.2 million a year recirculating in our community.

Just like other businesses that purchase food, such as grocery stores and restaurants, nonprofit agencies can also work towards increasing local purchasing. IFM started tracking local/regional purchases in 2019. That year IFM reached 7% and then increased to 10% in 2020. For 2021, IFM has set the goal of reaching 15%, or about $60,000, of food purchases being spent on products produced within 120 miles of Grass Valley. Recently, IFM has distributed carrots, lettuce, kale, chard, cilantro, tortillas, salsa, flour and cheese that were grown or produced locally/regionally, and client feedback has been incredibly positive. Client feedback surveys consistently reveal that fresh produce is one of the top three items folks want to receive from IFM, along with protein and dairy items.

Just over 80% of IFM’s revenue comes from donations from Nevada County residents and businesses. Initially, there was some concern and even hesitation from the IFM Board regarding committing more of their budget to purchasing local/regional food. The fear was that donors would take issue with IFM choosing to buy more expensive, local food items versus a less expensive option. However, IFM leadership was pleasantly surprised by the community’s response once they were given a creative new opportunity to participate in.

A key partner in making this transition successful was Alan Haight, founder of Riverhill Farm, and his brilliant idea of establishing the “Good Food for All” fundraising program. He approached IFM with the idea that local farmers could solicit their customer base for donations to IFM and the funds would be earmarked for local/regional purchases only. IFM took it a step further and committed to matching these donations dollar for dollar from other funding sources, such as from grants and other fundraising efforts. From November 2020 to April 2021, about $18,000 was raised from “Good Food for All” donors. IFM’s match brings the total up to $36,000.

There are so many benefits to this approach, in addition to the economic multiplier effect. IFM can place orders with farmers early in the year so they can plan and plant for a guaranteed customer come harvest time. Most of these orders will arrive at IFM’s doors on the same day they were harvested, or perhaps the very next day, maintaining maximum freshness and nutrition content. Sometimes the farmer has product that has small, cosmetic blemishes on it and can offer it at a discounted price to IFM. Indeed, there have even been instances when product would have normally been left in the field since it was not deemed “Market quality” and therefore not worth it to the farmer to harvest it. However, IFM negotiated with the farmer and they found a discounted price that was fair to both parties, creating a new market for food product that otherwise would have gone to waste and helping to increase the farmer’s sales.

Furthermore, the “Good Food for All” program and IFM services promote food equality. As the name suggests, all Nevada County residents should have opportunities to access the same nutritious, locally produced food as anyone else, and nonprofits like IFM are helping to increase that access.

When an individual or a business or a nonprofit commits to purchasing more items produced locally and regionally, they are contributing to the health of our regional economy and ultimately helping to reduce food insecurity both of family households and of our entire region. Nevada County will become more resilient to supply disruptions, create jobs, and recipients of IFM and other nonprofit’s services will have access to nutritious locally sourced food.

Learn more about Nevada County Food Policy Council’s goal of 20% Whole-sum food by 2025 here: http://www.sierraharvest.org/connect/food-policy-council/

Learn more about Interfaith Food Ministry here: http://www.interfaithfoodministry.org

Phil Alonso is the Executive Director of Interfaith Food Ministry.

Briah Forse and her sons were happy to receive multiple bags of fresh produce during a recent visit to IFM.
Photo courtesy of Venus Paxton, IFM Program Manager
Examples of fresh veggies offered at a recent IFM food distribution event.
Photo Courtesy of Naomi Cabral, IFM Development Director

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