Study suggests ways to improve local food economyWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
A study released this October showed that $3.6 billion has crept out of the Northwest Ohio economy because the local food system isn’t being fully utilized.
“The region has much to gain by doing so: our analysis of the region’s farm and food economy shows that $3.6 billion leaks out of Northwest Ohio each year as residents farm and eat, since farmers farm at narrow margins to produce commodities for export, while consumers eat food imported from far away,” according to “Finding Food in Northwest Ohio,” a study conducted by Ken Meter. Meter is president of the Crossroads Resource Center, a nonprofit in Minneapolis.
“It isn’t surprising. This is happening all over the United States. Obviously in Northwest Ohio, some of that is tied to the decline of cucumber, tomato greenhouses,” he said. With foreign competition from countries such as Mexico, the number of acres for tomato production in Lucas County fell 90 percent from 1992 to 2007.
Paula Ross, a research associate at the University of Toledo Urban Affairs Center, served as Meter’s “ground person,” connecting him with locals for the study. Ross is also the facilitator of the Northwest Ohio Food Council.
She had worked with Meter in the past on a study about Ohio food systems. This time, she wanted to better understand a more local economy.
“I believe whenever you want to change something as complex as a food system you have to understand it first,” she said.
“I had gotten to know [Meter] and very much respect his work and the way he combines vignettes and stories … but he also has the quantitative information,” Ross said. The study is funded by an existing grant that also supports other work being done by the Urban Affairs Center.
Meter’s study features examples of local individuals or groups exemplifying the groundwork that leads to improving the local food economy. This includes Elizabeth Bergman, who runs the Westgate and Job & Family Services locations of the Toledo Farmers’ Market two days a week.
Meter’s study includes eight recommendations toward improving the local food system.
Bergman, 28, embodies one of those steps — creating a farm system that grows new farmers. She has had three interns work at her small farm.
She operates Sage Produce in Genoa, where she grows year-round in addition to her work with the farmers market.
Bergman nearly went into a career in history before deciding to pursue culinary training.
“I wanted to do something that wasn’t so theoretical and get my hands dirty,” she said. Bergman studied at Culinary Arts Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York.
However, at 23 she was diagnosed with cancer and returned to Ohio for treatment. Bergman said she became interested in nutrition and learning what “good stuff” to put in her body.
When she asked local farmers if their produce was organic, “I never got a straight answer,” she said. So in 2009, she and her brother started Sage, a farm of their own.
Although Bergman does not use chemical sprays on her produce, “I don’t think organic is the most important thing. I think local is the most important thing.”
Money is an important factor in creating young farmers like Bergman, according to Ross.
“Bottom line is nobody is going to be a farmer unless they can make money being a farmer,” Ross said.
“It’s kind of surprising in a country that says, ‘We feed the world that what we’re finding is the number of younger farmers is rapidly declining’,” Meter said, adding that average age of a farmer is 57. He also suggested creating places for children to learn about food and agriculture.
Policy and zoning changes could make farming easier and more attractive, Ross said. In 2007, there were 372 farms in Lucas County, 8 percent less than in 2002, according to the study.
To further improve the local economy, Ross suggested talking to businesses about where they get their produce.
“We need to be asking restaurants and grocery stores if they’re not sourcing from local growers, well, why not?” she said. “That’s the power of the consumer.”
There is a misconception that eating locally costs more, Bergman said. It’s just that “vegetables cost more than Doritos.”
“The stuff in season at the farmers’ market is cheaper than the grocery store by far,” Bergman said. “You can get cabbage the size of two heads for a dollar right now.”
According to Meter’s study, 80 percent of Toledo residents reported in 2009 that they do not eat five or more servings of fruit or vegetables each day.
Ross emphasized that small changes could have a big impact on the local food scene.
“This is not absolutism. Small changes here can make a big difference,” she said. Bergman noted that she still buys some items at Meijer or The Andersons.
She also suggested eating foods that are in season locally.
“We can eat seasonally. You can have squash soup instead of tomato bisque soup,” she said.
The economy could improve by $345 million for local farmers if area residents bought $5 worth of food from them each week, Meter said.
“That’s a pretty substantial slice of money. Small changes by local customers could make a big difference,” he said.
Coordinating citizen efforts through the Northwest Ohio Food Council was another step Meter recommended.
Ross sees the council, which meets quarterly and has specific topic-based subgroups, as a way to connect the community. The council has representatives from about 10 local groups and is open to individuals, too.
“The disappointing news (from the study) has to turn into, ‘We can do something about it,’ and I think the folks in Toledo are coming together to do that,” Meter said.
Meter became interested in food systems because of his father, who grew up on a farm. Despite feeling most at home on a farm, his father spent his life distancing himself from that life, Meter said.
“It created a mystery for me,” Meter said. “Part of my passion for me is how bad economics for farming has affected my family and to ask why can’t we create a system that rewards farmers better for what they do.” Meter was set to speak at 1:15 p.m. Oct. 26 at the GreenTown event at SeaGate Convention Centre.
To read the study, visit www.crcworks.org/ohnwfood.pdf.
Visit the web site foodcouncil419.org to learn more.