Why don’t we grow more of our food locally right here in Nebraska? Some argue that we as consumers must first create the demand for local ingredients. This can be seen as the classic chicken or egg question: Does local production come first, or must we create local demand?
During COVID-19, our typically reliable national food supply chain is showing signs of disruption, as well the pitfalls of scale and depending on a fragile global economy.
Due to the pandemic, Lincoln-area food producers are seeing record-breaking interest in locally-produced food. Community Supported Agriculture memberships are quickly selling out, with waiting lists growing by the hundreds each week.
Local meat processors who usually have a few months advance for a reservation date are now booked until the end of 2020.
Food produced in Nebraska typically accounts for only 10% of what is available on the grocery shelf or the restaurant menu, according to a recent study by Megan McGuffey and published by the Center for Rural Affairs. As it stands today, the other 90% is imported from California, Texas and Florida, plus that from Mexico, Central and South America.
What would it take to increase the amount of local food consumed in Nebraska to 25%? Do you think we could do it by 2025? The decision making power is in the money in our pockets, with food from local farmers or the grocery store, and prepared in our kitchens. Can we all support a sustainable trajectory of new and local purchasing and eating habits?
Our food supply chain is determined by what the producer believes they can sell in a given season. Without the demand, the supply will not be planted, grown, harvested, distributed, sold and cooked.
With COVID-19 outbreaks, there is a predicted shortage of animal products. A majority of these animals are raised in confined corporate feeding operations throughout the world, many not in Nebraska.
Why are we not eating more Nebraska beef, chicken, pork or goat? This is due in part to the lack of processing plants open to small-scale ranchers. USDA-certified processing facilities that work with small scale producers are harder to find today due to a more intensive and stringent legal certification process.
Due to the surge in demand, many local meat lockers are now booking processing appointments nine months in advance, up from just a month or two prior to the pandemic. We are now scheduling the processing of local animals before they are even born. Most ranchers have never seen this extraordinary forwarding of schedules in their careers. Until we start to understand what it takes to produce our food locally, we may not be able to match our demand with the supply from the producer.
Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to having a reliable volume of locally-sourced ingredients.
Let’s consider a favorite springtime crop, such as asparagus. In the past month, local farms harvested about 100 to 500 pounds each. With the near-freezing temperatures only just behind us, many farms will have a below-average supply. This causes grocery stores to resort to suppliers in California to fill the gap. If our supply is being produced by a handful of individuals and a crop loss occurs, it can send what had become a reliable market back to our old habits of buying from distant, faceless growers.
Restaurants are typically the most reliable location where local food is purchased, accounting for up to 30% of local farm sales. Restaurants provide a service, taking on the tasks of cooking, dish cleaning and creating a space for us all to relax and socialize.
During the current age of COVID-19, restaurant dining rooms are closed or have limited seating, eaters are forced to cook at home, and producers are left without their typical wholesale restaurant buyers.
If we are going to transition into a more sustainable local food system in Nebraska we have to get to know our farmers. We will need to show up at farmers’ markets, order ahead of time and increase our skills in the kitchen.
We must invest in CSAs and find ways to make cooking at home together more exciting. We must do this all with a newfound appreciation that our food is best grown by a local, safe and reliable source.
Wally Graeber is supply coordinator at Lone Tree Foods in Lincoln.
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