Fresh food frenzy: Local food systems become a city priority

Jul 22, 2008 at 9:22 pm

The appetite for locally grown food has increased in recent years, and a new study finds farmers need more resources to keep up with the demand for regional produce and meat. Publicly endorsing this “locavore” movement that’s been gaining ground in Louisville, Mayor Jerry Abramson unveiled an initiative last week aimed at doing just that.

Fresh Foods: Mayor Jerry Abramson presented the city’s new “Fresh Foods Initiative” at Miss C’s Kitchen last week.
Fresh Foods: Mayor Jerry Abramson presented the city’s new “Fresh Foods Initiative” at Miss C’s Kitchen last week.

Dubbed the Fresh Foods Initiative, the plan is to increase opportunities for farmers in the region to get their products into Kentucky’s most densely populated city.

Enhancing Louisville’s existing network of farmers markets, the city plans to create options more permanent than the produce stalls that pop up in parking lots. In addition to creating more markets throughout the city, a proposed year-round downtown market is the lynchpin of the plan, and would yield the greatest investment returns, according to the Regional Farmers Market Feasibility Study, which prompted the Fresh Foods Initiative. A group of interested investors led by filmmaker Gill Holland is already considering funding the downtown produce market.

And despite overwhelming support for the initiative, there have been some complaints.

During a private presentation detailing the initiative Friday evening, tension mounted when members of the Community Farm Alliance interrupted to contradict some of the findings of the latest study, which was conducted by Maine-based Market Ventures and Karp Resources for $150,000.

 Apparently, a number of suggestions in the recent study are identical to those found in a similar 2003 report by the Frankfort-based Community Farm Alliance, which has an office in Portland dedicated to connecting farmers with urban residents. Five years ago, CFA examined relationships between farms and cities throughout the state in its continued efforts to advocate a locally integrated food economy. And in a 2007 community food assessment, CFA identified food security problems in the West End, again calling for more farm-fresh foods as a solution.

In addition, several of the organization’s members participate in or run local farmers markets, including a group who last year opened Louisville’s only distribution center for local farm goods — a major suggestion from the new report.

Community Farm Alliance member Rae Strobel did not attend the presentation, and was surprised to learn that the grassroots group was not mentioned in the latest study or during last week’s press conference.

“I don’t know if it was intentional or just an oversight, but it’s pretty neglectful,” says Strobel, who considers the study incomplete, or at least skewed, because it lacks sufficient input from people in urban areas. She cites one example where the report suggests community kitchens that create products like condiments and baked goods are unnecessary because surrounding areas already have sufficient certified processing facilities. But that doesn’t factor in the demand among urban residents interested in capitalizing on such businesses, according to Strobel.

Despite these concerns, however, Strobel and fellow CFA members say they are optimistic about the city’s attention to local food issues.

In response to the criticism, city officials behind the Fresh Foods Initiative say they were aware of the farm alliance’s past studies, and that any exclusion was unintentional. In fact, the latest report is “meant as a complimentary piece, asking the next set of questions,” says Susan Hamilton, assistant director for economic development with Louisville Metro. The recent study puts dollar values to initiatives that CFA promotes, she says, the kind of information needed for planning and investment. When the Fresh Foods Initiative gets under way, Hamilton assumes CFA and other groups will play a major role: “It’s an inclusive process. It’s going to need to be inclusive to make it happen.” 

A joint task force of government and business leaders in Louisville and surrounding areas will spearhead the initiative, headed by Hamilton. The economic development department will serve as the base of operations, and Hamilton says the office is a good home for the plan to organize regional trade. The mayor’s Healthy Hometown Movement — a long-term plan to encourage healthy lifestyles — also will play a lead role.

Such a regional approach is best, according to the report, making it more feasible to tackle several recommendations at once. The joint effort could mean rapid and drastic changes in the way Louisvillians get their food.

During last week’s press conference inside Miss C’s Kitchen — a Louisville restaurant that cooks with locally grown food — Mayor Abramson said the initiative would reduce the city’s reliance on imported food, calling it a “a win-win for both the rural as well as the urban dwellers.”