The challenge of measuring local food

If you talk to people around Minnesota about what they’re doing to make their communities better, it usually doesn’t take very long before the topic of food comes up. Local food.

Community gardens, farmer co-ops, new specialty crops, food-buying clubs, restaurant purchases, fresh food rural or urban grocery stores — all form the grist of a vibrant conversation that has many facets and varies substantially from one part of the state to another.

That, of course, makes it a good topic for Ground Level. I’ve been blogging about it here occasionally and now reporter Nancy Lebens, who has been contributing to our “cities in crisis” coverage, is spending time on the topic. Check back in coming weeks as we build a topic page you can use to learn more and connect with others.

In the meantime, I wanted to pass along a comment I got last week from one of the people I’ve been talking to on the topic. I’ve been looking for numbers, ways to measure the size and growth of this “movement,” trying to get a handle on it as an economic force and what the challenges are as people try to take it up a notch.

Those numbers aren’t impossible to find and they do help explain some of the phenomenon people are seeing. But at every turn I’ve run across the intangible and unquantifiable as well.

Joan Stockinger, an analyst at Cooperative Development Services in St. Paul, expressed it well in an email:

It seems to me that one of the underlying and deepest drivers for local food, is the desire of people involved to re-envigorate a local and regional culture that connects us more deeply and more often in our daily lives. Food has always played this role in human history. And within that _ a desire to be connected across the things that divide our complex society _ class, occupation, urban/rural, ethnic groups, etc.

The challenge is that producing healthy and sustainably grown food, on a local or regional level, almost always costs more than production in our highly industrialized system, with its many externalized costs and distorting subsidies. The organic/sustainable producers are voluntarily incorporating costs that the industrial system externalizes.

So to transform the culture of food, into something that is more healthy, environmentally sustainable and provides a meaningful shared experience, we will have to pay something more for our food. We will have to get over the idea that cheap is always better.

What are the contours of this story that Ground Level should focus on, both quantifiable and intangible? I would love to hear from the people working on this either via a comment on this blog or by email.

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