«CREATING ALTERNATIVES: A PARTICIPANT OBSERVER’S REFLECTIONS ON THE EMERGING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM IN KANSAS CITY* MARY HENDRICKSON UN IVERSIT Y OF M ...»
Growing Growers and Markets The Kansas City area mirrored and accelerated national food trends toward local, seasonal, and organic food. Farmers’ markets were expanding and more markets wanted farmers than there were farmers. With a thriving restaurant scene, chefs were seeking local produce and becoming frustrated with the quantity and quality of products as well as existing distribution systems. Some grocery stores were buying produce at local farmers’ markets, a haphazard method they hoped to change to take advantage of demand for local food by expanding their offerings.
The FCNP helped farmers to access markets and to figure out product variety, packaging, distribution and all the other things that go into selling locally-produced food. By the early part of this decade, there were not enough local farm products for the markets that were emerging.
To help address this problem, a partnership consisting of two land grant universities (Kansas State University and the University of Missouri), the Kansas City Food Circle and the Kansas Rural Center created the Growing Growers program in 2003 (Carey et al. 2006). This program provides workshop training in the core competencies necessary to be a market farmer (e.g., production skills such as soil management, pest control and labor management; financial skills that focus on understanding cash flows and profit and loss statements; and marketing skills 180 SOUTHERN RURAL SOCIOLOGY such as sales ability and merchandizing) as well as an apprenticeship with local market farmers to put theory into practice (for a description of the program see www.growinggrowers.org). The ideals of the Kansas City Food Circle to establish direct links between farmers and eaters relies on the idea that producers and consumers are knowledgeable about food production and consumption. However, real skills in producing, processing, handling, distributing, storing, and cooking food are necessary and often need to be learned or relearned (for a discussion on the consumer side see Jaffe and Gertler 2006).
Farmers were, and continue to be, able to take advantage of market opportunities in the Kansas City area because of limited supply. However, chefs and grocery buyers still want local and seasonal food on their own terms—at the price, with the packaging and the delivery options that work for their own businesses.
This is where “scaling up”—which may conflict with the strengths of “Alternative Food Systems” from Table 2—becomes important in maintaining the momentum of the local foods movement. Many farmers we were trying to reach in our extension program were too large or too established to change to an entirely different way of farming. Their farming systems—equipment, storage facilities, and knowledge—were oriented to different markets and were difficult to change.
However, these farmers were also being left out of the emerging global food system because they were often too small to participate in far-flung global chains. These farmers “of the middle” (see Kirshenmann et al. 2003; Lyson, Stevenson and Welsh
2008) had the potential to provide the quantity and kinds of food—differentiated for organic, sustainably produced, family-farmed raised etc.—that are represented in the lower third of Table 2. The question then became—how to help these farmers out of the increasingly consolidated global markets and into alternative food systems?
The FCNP worked with Good Natured Family Farms (GNFF), an alliance of farms in eastern Kansas and western Missouri, as they continued building a strong relationship with a local grocery chain, Ball’s Foods.5 In the early days, I and other project staff helped Ball’s management identify more local producers, recognize the potential supply they had, and shared research on consolidation in the grocery industry. We developed a close working relationship with Diana Endicott, founder of GNFF, and have provided information to help develop a new marketing 5 Good Natured Family Farms is a marketing alliance of several different farmer “pods” which produce eggs, processed chickens, vegetables, beef, pork and bison. Ball’s Foods is a local grocery chain of about 30 different stores operating under Price Chopper and Hen House banners with a long history in the grocery business in Kansas City.
THE EMERGING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM IN KANSAS CITY 181campaign as well as provided information and seminars on food safety and quality issues.6 GNFF and Ball’s work hard to keep food system relationships as personal as possible. Farmers who market to the grocery chain are required to attend at least one summer Saturday event that showcases the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” products, and to participate in training in food safety or marketing. From my work with this group and others that I will detail below, we know that expanding alternatives into the mainstream can highlight tensions between positioning Alternative Food Systems on their strengths and the demands of operating in the existing economic structures of the food system. For instance, the expansion of the grocery market described above required significant investments from both GNFF who invested in and developed infrastructures such as meat processing, distribution, and marketing, and from Ball’s Foods who decided to create a central warehouse to store and distribute local products, and developed significant employee education to thoroughly implement their Buy Fresh, Buy Local marketing plan. (See the Wallace Center’s Good Food Network at www.wallacecenter.org for a more in-depth discussion.) Many similar issues involved in creating alternative food systems were playing out with other groups we were working with, particularly a Mid-Missouri pork cooperative that now markets some pork through GNFF in Kansas City. The farmers from Osage County who initiated work on the cooperative understood the direction the global food system was moving because of involvement with Bill Heffernan, and were worried about their place in the emerging system. With the assistance of University of Missouri rural sociologists and economists, they explored marketing options for sustainably raised pork in the St. Louis area, but processing costs and distribution proved difficult (see Constance and Russell 1999;
Hendrickson 2003). In 2001, these hog farmers joined with others from Northeast Missouri who were also reeling from a consolidating and low-profit pork industry to form Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative, an entity with which we were strongly involved in helping to create marketing concepts and to access grant funds. The 6 The marketing campaign was “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” which I had discovered at national meetings and showed the materials to Diana Endicott and Lou Malaponti. Endicott pursued using the materials as a marketing strategy with Ball’s, a smart move as it has helped the store expand the sales of local products 35 percent per year from 2003 to 2006 (Endicott, Jonas, and Silva 2007) with several million dollars of local products moving through the chain. Moreover, with six-figure investments in the marketing campaign by GNNF and Ball’s, the ideas of local food have reached thousands of consumers in the Kansas City area, further raising consciousness about local, sustainable food systems.
182 SOUTHERN RURAL SOCIOLOGY group purchased a defunct state of the art packing plant in southern Missouri and began operating with the intent of marketing a family-farmed raised, naturally produced, humanely treated, no-antibiotics used pork product in the metro areas of Missouri (Anderson 2003; Hinman 2008). The group is still operating, even after encountering several bumps along the road, having combined forces with National Farmers (formerly National Farmers Organization) to become the largest farmerowned natural pork marketer in the U.S.
Scaling Up, Maintaining Integrity and the Local Food System As new opportunities for expansion of the supply of local foods opened in Kansas City, the local food movement in Kansas City started to move beyond the vision of personalized relationships between farmers and eaters originally outlined by the Kansas City Food Circle. By creating new relationships in the mainstream food system, more people were exposed to local and seasonal foods, and markets continued to expand. However, venturing into the mainstream has forced farmers and eaters to create these relationships within existing economic, political and social structures. Farmers, grocery operators, restauranteurs, and even consumers find it difficult to de-link from the existing system. Locally-based food systems require reorientation of storage, transportation, processing, and distribution systems. To reorient these systems, infusions of capital and management are necessary. Those who have the management experience necessary to navigate the existing food system often do not embrace or fully understand the vision of the alternatives, and as indicated previously securing capital for businesses that are very different from traditional agrifood businesses can be difficult.
The tensions that emerge as the local food movement enters the mainstream have provided much fodder for academic research. From my experience on the ground in Kansas City, it has required deviations from the vision the Food Circle developed and we embraced in our extension project. Alternatives across the nation have struggled with similar issues and have been critiqued by social scientists and others concerned with creating alternative food systems that are fair and sustainable (e.g., Allen and Guthman 2006; DeLind and Bingen 2008; DuPuis and Goodman 2005; Hinrichs 2003; Kloppenburg and Hassanein 2006). The issues of social justice and societal transformation raised by these critics are very real concerns. On the other hand, if alternatives have not completely abandoned their principles—and I would argue that the majority in Kansas City have not, particularly because of the continued work of the Kansas City Food Circle—then
THE EMERGING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM IN KANSAS CITY 183we should look at their work as attempts to enlarge the space for action for creating Good Food systems.
The Policy Arena Many initiatives started by eaters and farmers in the Kansas City region are now being drawn together in a coalition advocating for a Food Policy Council for the metro area. Food Policy Councils have been around for the last 20 years in some form or another in North America (Dahlberg 1994; Schiff 2008). They have been slower to emerge in the Midwest. Both Kansas and Iowa had state level food policy councils that made recommendations to create more sustainable food systems, but do not have responsibility to make sure those recommendations are implemented.
There was significant interest in food policy councils for the Kansas City metro area. I and other project staff of the FCNP discussed the idea with stakeholders several times, but there seemed to never be enough time or money. The advisory council of the Growing Growers program even applied for a grant from the Kaufman Foundation to fund food system planning, but the process was abandoned when the grant was rejected. Since the concept of food policy councils was not new and there was interest in a food policy council, why did it take until 2008 to allow for the formation of such a coalition in the Kansas City area?
The answer is the advent of a relatively new player in the food system in the Kansas City area, combined with emerging societal concerns about obesity, childhood obesity in particular. In 2005, because of my work on local foods, I was invited to present an agricultural perspective at a North Central Region extension conference on obesity. I argued that healthy foods come from healthy food systems and that food coming from farmers’ markets and CSAs often had superior taste to fruits and vegetables sold in conventional formats (supermarkets, school lunches, etc.). The presentation sparked interest from a well-placed advocate in the Kansas City area who researched the idea and decided to form KC Healthy Kids, an advocacy group dedicated to uniting Kansas City around fit and healthy kids. This advocacy group had strong connections with schools, nutritionists, and the medical community all of whom were focused on reducing childhood obesity but with little understanding of the larger food system, particularly the production arena. Despite lacking a strong background in food systems or food policy, KC Healthy Kids worked with our extension program to organize a policy forum in early 2007 on the importance of the U.S. Farm Bill to their mission of fit and healthy kids (for more information see http://kchealthykids.org/InitiativeHealthyFoodPolicy/Index.htm).
184 SOUTHERN RURAL SOCIOLOGY From this initial forum, which focused mainly on the ideas of the Farm and Food Policy Project, KC Healthy Kids secured funding to provide opportunities for conference attendees to continue to meet to work on policy changes in the Kansas City area.7 The first necessary step was dialogue between the different entities represented—farmers, urban agriculturalists, school food service directors, reducing childhood obesity advocates, local food advocates, grocery store owners, antihunger advocates, extension personnel, the faith community, and eaters—to really understand the challenges to creating a healthy, sustainable food system from production, distribution, institutional, and consumption standpoints. Over the next year, these dialogues took place over lunch at Lidia’s, one of Kansas City’s premier restaurants with a long history of supporting local food production. Common interests, challenges and opportunities were recognized, and trust between different players began to emerge.
In early 2008, KC Healthy Kids, at my recommendation, brought Mark Winne to Kansas City to discuss the formation of a food policy council, and has over the last year developed a food policy coalition involving all the stakeholders mentioned above. A Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition now exists committed to ensuring “a healthy, sustainable and affordable food system for Greater Kansas City” by promoting food policies that “positively impact the nutritional, economic, social and environmental health” of the area (see http://www.kchealthykids.org/Initiative-HealthyFoodPolicy/Index.htm for more information). Because of the diverse nature of this coalition, I believe that it will function as the strategic basis for expanding a sustainable food system in Kansas City.