When a customer walks into one of our Weaver Street Market stores this time of year it’s pretty obvious that we work with a lot of local farms. Big displays of local tomatoes, peppers, peaches and more spill off our produce department shelves. The produce is vibrant and fresh, the displays beautiful. But what’s behind them is something even more important: a thriving local food system.
We are lucky in Orange County to be in the center of a vibrant local food system. But what does that actually mean, besides buying food that was grown by a local farmer?
The website CommunityHealth.org defines a local food system as: “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 area.”
You might be surprised to find out that the local food system goes far beyond just shopping at the farmers market or co-op (which is important, don’t get me wrong!). It comprises the processers who mill our flour, process grains into chicken feed, cut our meat, or freeze local produce for use all year round. It includes the distribution company that delivers the produce to our stores and restaurants. It even includes the waste management company that collects food scraps from the community for composting.
Weaver Street Market goes the extra mile to help support all of the elements of our local food system, starting with one of our board of directors’ goals for 2020:
Driving the growth of local and sustainable foods
We will develop new suppliers, produce more local food ourselves, and provide co-op owners with tools to track their purchasing patterns. We will mobilize community resources to achieve ambitious goals for local and sustainable food sales.
We recognized that there was more to realizing that goal than just buying local produce. It includes crop planning with our local farms to grow the items that our customers really want and need, and encouraging new farm businesses to produce items that we didn’t have a local source for, like a year-round salad greens producer or a grass-fed dairy that makes yogurt.
A thriving local food system needs more than just farmers and food to hold it together. It requires government and elected officials, citizen input, and business leadership to commit to developing tools and systems to support the network of local farmers, processors, and consumers. In 2004 Weaver Street Market, Whole Foods, and Orange County partnered to fund a feasibility study which concluded that opening the Piedmont Food Processing Center (PFAP) would be instrumental in creating a stronger local food system. Since opening in 2009 PFAP has assisted dozens of new food businesses that otherwise would never have been created, by training new food entrepreneurs and providing them with a well-appointed commercial workspace. Having access to infrastructure that would otherwise require a huge investment allows new business owners to learn in a low risk environment. Weaver Street Market has supported PFAP since the beginning by purchasing raw materials for their members, purchasing finished products from their businesses, and serving on the board of directors.
Weaver Street Market’s next step in encouraging the growth of local food businesses is by partnering with the Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF) to provide loan funding for new and existing vendors. Banks are often hesitant to fund small businesses and NCIF provides a vital source of capital to get new entrepreneurs the credit they need to grow.
Undertaking the growth of a local food system can be a full-time job, and for some folks it is! What are some easy things consumers can do to help? First and foremost, spend more of your food dollars locally. Even if you can’t live on an entirely local diet, purchasing your groceries at a locally owned store or restaurant keeps more money in the community, supporting jobs and community services. If you are really interested in participating, try serving on the board of the Orange County Food Council .