Good Food Economy Digest
Atlanta: Cracking farm-to-table’s chicken-and-egg situation
People building strong places with local and regional food
Good Food: Healthy, green, fair, and affordable
By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions LLC
Susan Pavlin is in the business of building larger-scale market channels for smaller farms’ products. She directs Atlanta-based startup The Common Market Georgia, which aims to replicate the success that its parent The Common Market has had in the Mid-Atlantic region. Its operations there are self-sustaining, with more than $11 million worth of local food sold since 2008 to schools, hospitals, and corporate campuses.
How is it going in Atlanta? The metropolitan area mirrors in many ways what is happening, and not happening, in local food markets nationwide.
“We are in that chicken-and-egg place right now,” Pavlin said of The Common Market Georgia’s 2016 beginnings. “Farmers don’t want to commit to more production unless they know they have a secure market. Buyers don’t want to commit to purchasing until they know the supply is out there.”
It’s the perfect place for The Common Market Georgia to be, she said. “We have the agility and the skill set to bring that supply and demand together.”
If successful, The Common Market Georgia’s larger volume sales — projected to reach $1.6 million in 2018 — could help crack another chicken-and-egg situation. That is local food’s promise to help Atlanta build stronger urban and rural places.
This promise is at the root of strong consumer and social investor interest in the emerging local food sector. It’s also at the root of local food’s strategic importance to Atlanta and other metropolitan areas nationwide.
21st century shift
Local food shows up across the board in this shift.
Private and public investment ranges from business training for farmers at the rural fringe to urban agriculture plots now greening and feeding neglected neighborhoods. The value of fresh, healthy, and local food also features in the metro’s Choose Atlanta pitch to attract next-generation talent and business investment.
Local food economy development, however, has yet to emerge as a comprehensive regional strategy. The challenge for Atlanta and other regions that are now exploring local food’s community and economic development role lies in huge market gaps that entrepreneurs and investors face.
A globalizing food and agriculture economy has left behind great voids in locally and regionally available processing, distribution, and other essential supply chain functions. This meager market infrastructure makes it difficult for many to see how local food can make a regional dent.
A “false dichotomy” holds this chicken-and-egg situation in place, said Stacy Funderburke, assistant regional counsel with the Conservation Fund. The land protection and economic development organization is involved in Atlanta green space initiatives, including farmland connections.
“The view is it’s either 1,000-acre farms out in South Georgia or small food plots in the city that will never move the dial,” Funderburke said. “Yet the commercial space in-between offers real and compelling opportunities to move significant amounts of food straight into the city and scale up the entire system.”
The market in-between
Working at that in-between space is what the emerging local food sector’s new regional food hub intermediaries do. More than 300 food hubs have emerged nationally in recent years. In Atlanta, The Common Market Georgia’s focus on scaling up volumes with sales to larger-scale institutions adds to food hub work already underway at the Turnip Truck and Fresh Harvest.
Food hubs are social enterprises in the business of bridging infrastructure gaps in the growing local food sector. Industry analysts peg the sector at $12 billion in 2014 sales with projected 9 percent annual growth through 2018.
The work goes well beyond packing and trucking farm products. Food hubs and partners build new market connections across regions called food value chains. Participants in these values-based food supply chains are on a common mission. They’re in the market to generate social, economic and environmental returns for people and places.
Farm-to-school is the perfect example of the opportunity and why it’s valuable to have someone working the in-between value chain ground, said Jim Barham, agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
More than 5,000 school districts in all 50 states are involved in the farm-to-school movement, which has a dual purpose of improving children’s diets and supporting community businesses. Last year they stimulated more than $1 billion in local economic activity with nearly $790 million in local food purchases, according to national survey results.
“To make it work,” USDA’s Barham said, “you need some entity that will dig through all the red tape and connect growers with each other and with the school district.
“This ‘soft infrastructure’ of social capital and connections is critically important to scaling and building the local food economy,” he said. It’s what runs the “hard infrastructure” of packing lines, delivery trucks, and logistics technology.
Later this month, food hub operators, developers, and investors from across the country will gather in Atlanta for the third biennial National Food Hub Conference.
The event is like a cross between Silicon Valley and Organic Valley. Innovators put their heads together on the work of building the value chains needed to make good on the community returns that markets want from local food.
These innovators are clear they are not just selling and moving food but building a new food system, said John Fisk, executive director of the Wallace Center at Winrock International, which hosts the National Good Food Network and its upcoming conference in Atlanta.
“Getting this system moving is the key to unlocking local food’s broader potential across regions,” he said.
Regional planner Allison Duncan gets that. She works with the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission, assisting rural and urban communities with everything from farmland protection to healthy food promotion.
Putting it all together in a comprehensive local food economy strategy for the region is a logical next step. “It’s not yet clear, however, what role the commission should play and how we add value,” Duncan said.
Innovators on the ground welcome the Commission’s interest and involvement, said Bobbi de Winter. She directs the Food Well Alliance. Partnered with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Food Well Alliance convenes and supports entrepreneurs and initiatives across metropolitan Atlanta’s local food spectrum.
Rural and suburban initiatives are at the table. One is a planned 40-acre “co-farming site” in the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area just 20 minutes from Atlanta’s core. Stacy Funderburke of the Conservation Fund is working with Global Growers Network to develop it for an expanding agricultural marketing cooperative of immigrant, refugee, and beginning farmers.
Also at the table are many urban agriculture and related community health and neighborhood improvement strategies. Atlanta’s first-in-the-nation urban agriculture director Mario Cambardella is now on the job of advancing projects ranging from compost production on brownfield sites to local food distribution at the neighborhood level.
These are the kind of investments in healthy livable communities that a growing local food system can unlock for Atlanta and its economic future, said de Winter of Food Well Alliance.
“Atlanta is extremely vibrant. We’re growing economically. There are lots of jobs here. But there are lots of jobs in Austin and Nashville and other cities, too,” she said.
“We know quality of life is one of the things that influence the millennial generation’s decisions about where to live. Local healthy food, available to them and everyone in the city, plays an important role in that.”