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Scaling up the growing movement for local foods

MILAN -- Institutional customers in west central Minnesota have a growing appetite for local foods.

Tapping this market could elevate the production of local foods in the region in a big way, and not just because non-retail food sales represent roughly 48 percent of all food sales. Institutional markets can offer a consistent demand that local producers relying on direct to customer sales and seasonal, farmer's markets can never achieve.

And there is no time better than right now to tap into this opportunity, according to Sarah Goodspeed, who recently authored a report based on her survey of 30 mid-sized institutional customers in west central Minnesota.

"There is so much momentum behind local foods right now that I think it would just make the transition a lot easier than any other time we've been through,'' Goodspeed said in discussing the results of her survey.

Goodspeed is a master's candidate in science, technology and environmental policy with the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. She conducted the survey of institutional customers in west central Minnesota on behalf of the West Central Regional Sustainable Partnership, which is interested in promoting the economic opportunities represented by local foods.

Goodspeed's survey of institutional customers focused on public entities, such as schools and nursing homes, and did not include for-profit businesses such as restaurants.

Her survey confirmed what many had anticipated. There is a definite and growing demand for local foods by institutions in the region, or as Goodspeed described it, a ''momentum.''

The demand is to the point where Goodspeed believes it's time to make the next big step. Producers need to collaborate and develop the infrastructure to aggregate, market and distribute their goods.

There are a host of models to copy to make it work, she said, but it can be difficult. "It takes leadership and courage to get out of our safety zone and make it happen,'' she said.

She also knows that local foods producers in this region are already highly stressed with the demands that come with their ventures. Finding someone with the time and energy to organize other producers to create the infrastructure needed will be difficult.

Yet by all means, it is needed. Goodspeed points out in her study that institutional customers are unlike individual, local foods customers who shop at farmer's markets or subscribe to Community Supported Agricultural ventures. These individual customers rate freshness, quality, and supporting the local economy above price, supply and reliability concerns.

Institutional customers are much more price sensitive, and need assurances of reliability, safety and volume. They are not going to reach out to producers for their goods. Producers need to reach out to them.

Goodspeed released the results of her survey and the report to a gathering of local foods producers earlier this summer in Milan. The response was encouraging, said Goodspeed, as have been the subsequent inquiries she's received.

Many producers are well aware of the opportunities to bring local foods production to a new level by taking advantage of the region's institutional markets.

It's a market in waiting, said Goodspeed, but it's up to producers to make the first move.

The full report can be viewed at the West Central Regional Sustainable Partnership and University of Minnesota website: id=2203.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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