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Washtenaw County’s First Meet-the-Buyers Event: The next step in strengthening our local food economy

Economy, Event, Find Local Food, Food Policy, Get Involved, Guest Post, Jae Gerhart

Did you know that Washtenaw County has a food policy council? You may be asking yourself, what is food policy and why is it important to our community? According to Anthony Flaccavento, a food systems consultant and commercial organic farmer, policy is best understood as a framework that influences behavior. Thus, a food policy council is a group of community members gathered together to influence and steer issues related to food in a given region.

Established in 2012, the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council developed a set of agenda items, divided into categories of Farmers and Institutional Purchasing, Planning and Zoning, Food Waste and Packaging, Food Access and Nutrition, and Pollinators. These groups, better known as Policy Action Teams (PATs), meet regularly to move forward initiatives related to the policy agenda items. Attendees for these meetings are often comprised of strategic community partners and stakeholders who care about the strength and vitality of our local food system.

In September, the Farmers and Institutional Purchasing PAT came together at Argus Farm Stop to hear from our local farmers their perspective on farm-to-institution transactions as well as to discuss the broad goals and issues around farm-to-institution work. The group, made up of small farmers, medium-sized farmers, food processors, and people who work in institutions participated in a dynamic conversation that made light of the fact that many of our small, beginning farmers (10 years of farming or less) don’t have the scale for which to sell to institutions. Institutional purchasers, and wholesale buyers in general, often require large volumes, USDA-quality standards and sizing, and food safety certification, all for a lower price-point than they can get at market. Most of our small farmers don’t have the scale for which to do sales on this level.

For context, farmer’s markets and other direct-to-consumer markets are often weather dependent, seasonal, and limited in the population who can access them. The policy council sees institutional purchasing as a carrot – a goal – for which if that avenue can be opened as a potential route for local food transactions, then the community of growers in our region will be more economically viable in the long-run and additionally, more people will have access to quality, nutritious, local food.

What was realized through this discussion, is that the best way to assist our farmers where they are right now, is to expand the community of all purchasers (chefs, food service directors, retailers, distributors) who want to work with local food. If we have a stronger and larger group of potential buyers willing to work with our local farmers, more transactions will lead to greater profits for the farms and greater vitality of their businesses.

The first step for those buyer-farmer relationships to get established is with a meeting. This group, and anyone else who would like to participate, will be planning a Meet-the-Buyer Event, slated for the winter of 2016-2017 for which to bring together farmers and all potential buyers in the region to meet each other. It will be an opportunity for the farmers to share product lists, growing practices, delivery schedules, etc., and for the general networking and enthusiasm around local food to increase and grow.

The next meeting for which to plan this Meet-the-Buyers Event will be on October 12th from 6pm-8pm at Argus Farm Stop. For more information, email Jae Gerhart at gerhart1@anr.msu.edu.

For more information on the Washtenaw Food Policy Council, visit https://washtenawfoodpolicycouncil.wordpress.com/

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