WisBusiness: Wisconsin local food movement looks to expand with institutional support

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

MADISON – In the beginning, the local food movement was mostly about farmers’ markets where shoppers buy directly from growers. From there, it branched to restaurants and specialty food stores.

Now, day care centers, supermarkets, public schools, prisons, nursing homes, office parks, hotels, universities are becoming buyers of locally grown foods.

The movement, advocates say, is being driven by consumer demand as well as public policy efforts aimed at boosting local and regional economies.

“The sky is the limit,” said Mary Metcalfe, whose family runs the Metcalfe grocery stores in Madison and Wauwatosa. She was one of 100-plus producers, distributors and buyers who attended the fourth annual Institutional Food Market Coalition today at the Alliant Energy Center.

The coalition was formed in 2006 to expand market opportunities for Dane County and regional growers and connect them with large-volume buyers.

“My full-time job is to buy and promote local products because that’s what customers want and it’s also what’s in our hearts. We bring in 10 to 15 farmers a month for events to talk about the food they produce. It’s Madison, but our shoppers love knowing about where their food came from and meeting the folks who produced it.”

Olivia Parry, director of the coalition, said boosting local food sales all over Wisconsin means more dollars will stay home instead of being spent on produce, meat and products from outside the region.

“This is a supply-chain meeting and we are focusing on the distributors and aggregators,” she said. “We need to connect the producers with the people who can get what farmers grow to the back doors of restaurants, schools and other institutions.”

And in her introductory remarks, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, lauded Act 293, which was passed by the Legislature this session and promotes the “Farm to School” program and provide grants for state school districts.

Gerald Heimerl, a cheesemaker who owns Saxon Homestead Creamery north of Sheboygan, said he came to the conference because he wants to find better links to potential end customers.

“I want to connect with distributors and restaurants mainly while I’m here,” he said. “But I also had a good conversation with someone in food service at UW-Madison about supplying cheese for some of their special events.”

Jesse Gillet, vice president of Indianhead Foodservice in Eau Claire, said he has seen the local food movement expand in recent years for his company, which started in the late 1930s.

“It’s not a grass-roots movement anymore,” he said. “People are voting with their pocketbooks. Local foods may not always be the lowest price, but it’s fresher, better for you and good for the farmers.”

Eric Hahn, who runs the successful Michigan company dubbed Locavore Food Distributors, also spoke to the conference and told how he’d built his firm up and now supplies Chicago and Detroit schools with locally grown foods.

“It started out because one chef wanted Michigan cherries and all I could get him were cherries from Washington State,” said Hahn, who started working in the restaurant business at age 11.

“There is demand out there,” he said. “But a lot of this has to do with education. There is a big disconnect between agriculture and food service. Chefs don’t understand what a bushel or a peck is.”

So sometimes getting restaurants or stores to buy produce is as simple as getting growers to use market standards.

“In the case of an asparagus grower, all he had to do was invest in rubber bands so he could supply one-pound bunches,” said Hahn. “That was it.”

“I believe the pieces of the puzzle are all here in Wisconsin,” he said. “All you have to do is connect the dots. It’s all about understand your capacities and abilities and then marketing effectively.”