John Marsh and Bryn Bird

What Is Needed to Meet Demand for Local Food?

Demand is booming in Ohio for local food. There’s just one problem—Ohio doesn’t have enough infrastructure or food processing to meet the growing demand. That’s according to Brian Williams of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) who moderated a panel about local food councils during the 2nd Annual Ohio Farm and Food Leadership Forum. 

The Forum brought together members of farm and food organizations, civic groups, businesses, government and other sectors for a discussion on how Ohioans can effectively engage and improve their local communities. Ohio Farm Bureau helped host the event.

“If everybody wanted to grow local and buy local, we wouldn’t be able to do it, to make all those farm-to-table connections work. We need to work on that infrastructure,” he said. “We need to get people up and down the food chain to come together on how to address (infrastructure challenges).”

MORPC has been helping organize local food councils ever since 2010 when it released a study that identified the needs, benefits and challenges for local food systems in central Ohio. Local food systems help preserve farmland, strengthen local economies and promote healthy foods.

“A ragtag volunteer group” is how Bryn Bird, described her group, the Licking County Local Food Council. Just three years in existence, the group has made a lot of progress even though it has no support from government or Ohio State University Extension.

“Not having rules and government at the table is the best thing ever,” Bird laughed, who says the group just now got around to working up a mission statement. “We do more programming and less talking.”

The group recently started a 30 Mile Meal project and is supporting a permanent food market in downtown Newark. The Thomas J. Evans Foundation has given $3.8 million to build the structure.

Her advice for those looking to start up a local food council? “Grassroots, zero budget and include food producers early.”

Sourcing local food has been going on for a dozen years at Kenyon College. A survey of students found they wanted local food, and the college has worked hard at doing that.

“I tell people I go shopping for a village every day,” said John Marsh, pictured above left, the college’s sustainability director. He described how one full-time dedicated farmer grows produce for them.

“He does this on 8 acres. That’s all it takes to feed 1,600 people. It’s amazing what we can do,” he said.

Williams of MORPC had perhaps the most unusual advice for those looking to start a local food council.

“You want a wet blanket at the table, somebody who is going to ask the questions you don’t want to answer but need to ask,” he said. “You need somebody who will hold your feet to the fire.”