How a Local Food System Builds Health and Community Wealth

Many communities in the U.S. ship food out—and ship the same food back in. What's the value of keeping it at home?
Farmers Market

Photo by Gianluca Figliola Fantin / iStock.

On farmers' market Sundays in Flagstaff, Arizona, local growers may offer you heirloom chiles and tomatoes you can't get anywhere else, apples from nearby orchards in Oak Creek Canyon, and verdolagas (purslane) from dry-farmed fields near Sunset Crater. When rains quench the thirst of drought-stricken forests, local foragers bring pinyon nuts, mushrooms, and wild horseradish. Livestock producers bring their Dominique hens, Black Spanish turkeys, pot-bellied pigs, or grass-fed beef. The air is as filled with the discussion of local political issues as it is with the aroma of family-recipe tamales, salsa, pesto, and hummus. A decade ago, none of this was readily available.

This market lies smack-dab in one of the most culturally diverse regions of North America, with more speakers of Native American languages than all the other regions of the United States combined, along with a strong Hispanic, Anglo, and Basque heritage. It also includes some of the poorest and most food-insecure counties in the West.

The Flagstaff market is now one of 10 in the region—the newest is the Navajo Nation's market in Tuba City. Those markets, and a series of multicultural discussions facilitated by the Flagstaff-based Center for Sustainable Environments, led to creation of the Canyon Country Fresh Network. That, in turn, catalyzed a number of youth gardens on the Hopi and Navajo reservations, a network of outlets for local food, and huge growth in the amount of food money that stays in the local economy.

The dramatic shift in sourcing foods in Grand Canyon country is not unique. Similar shifts are occurring in many other rural and urban food systems as well. Over the last decade, the number of farmers' markets in the United States has grown from 1,755 to over 3,700, while community-supported agriculture projects, “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaigns, and community kitchens have also proliferated. Thanks to non-profits like Community Food Security Coalition and Food Routes, more Americans than ever before are thinking about where their food comes from and how far it travels.

Yet, despite the rapid growth of local food projects throughout North America, their contributions to wealth and health at the community level still fail to register with many conventional businesspeople and economic development officials. Perhaps this is because the annual growth in food sales for a corporation such as Wal-Mart is easy to measure. It's harder to track the diffuse growth of the local foods movement—whose participating markets may collectively have a higher growth rate in the United States than Wal-Mart—where the majority of benefits do not flow back to a single, distant corporate headquarters.

Nevertheless, the generation of wealth and well-being by local and regional food initiatives is quantifiable, and directly benefits members of rural communities like those in Northern Arizona. Ironically, the other side of the coin is seldom considered by urban and rural planners: just how much is lost when farmers in a region export most of their foods into the global commodity market, while their own communities buy back many of the same foodstuffs through an international network of intermediaries. Not only is the food more costly to purchase, but it has diminished freshness, reduced nutritional quality, and a higher probability of carrying food-borne diseases.

Let's consider the cost of farmers and ranchers not selling their meats, grains and produce locally, and not using local inputs to produce them. The master detectives solving this economic mystery have been Ken Meter of the Crossroads Center and Jon Rosales at the Institute of Social, Economic and Ecological Sustainability in Minnesota. They pioneered this topic in a classic series of studies of rural areas across the U.S. called “Finding Food in Farm Country.”

Meter recently did an analysis, commissioned by our Center for Sustainable Environments, of the multi-cultural food system of northern Arizona. In particular, Ken studied how much food—especially meat—is produced in the Arizona counties of Coconino, Navajo, and Yavapai relative to what is eaten there.

Coconino County surrounds the Grand Canyon, and includes much of Western Navajo and Hopi lands. In 2002, its 213 ranches and farms sold $10.3 million in livestock and byproducts. In that year, county residents spent $37 million on meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Local consumers could absorb all the meat produced in the county if it were directly available to them. Yet, in 2002, they bought $53,000 of food directly from their farming neighbors.

The way the food economy is now structured, the direct producer-consumer connection does not exist—or is just developing. Coconino County ranchers and farmers currently lose $10 million each year selling the bulk of the food they produce into the national or globalized commodity marketplace. Eliminating the middlemen and selling locally would go a long way toward stopping those losses.

As county ranchers and farmers struggle with losses, county consumers spend $215 million a year buying food from the outside. As Ken has summarized, this is a total loss to the region of $231 million of potential wealth each year. This loss amounts to 14 times the value of all food commodities raised in the county—a giant sucking sound that drains both wealth and well-being from our communities.

On the brighter side, let's look at what's happened in Flagstaff and surrounding areas of northern Arizona since 2001, when a community farmers' market and several related local food micro-enterprises opened their gates to put a stopper in the drain.

From 2001 to 2005, annual purchases of locally and regionally produced foods went from less than $20,000 to $250,000 in Flagstaff and from $85,000 to nearly $500,000 in the surrounding Northern Arizona region. This is a six- to eight-fold increase in direct economic benefits to the community resulting from local food purchases in the first five years of these initiatives.

But this money also generates multiplier effects within Northern Arizona, or what Richard McCarthy of the Crescent City Farmers' Market calls “sticky money.” Money spent locally stays in the community rather than draining off to corporate headquarters in Phoenix or Los Angeles. In addition, McCarthy's studies in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina showed that downtown retailers near his market witnessed a 30–70 percent increase in sales on market days, gaining an additional $450,000 a year as a result of increased foot traffic.

Our informal surveys of Flagstaff's downtown retailers, all of whom are open during Sunday market hours, indicate that they benefit substantially from market-directed foot traffic. The retailers' direct benefits in Flagstaff are similar to those in New Orleans—downtown Flagstaff businesses gain approximately $54,000 annually just from the increased traffic during summer and fall when the Flagstaff Community Farmers' Market is open.

Of course, not all of the economic and nutritional benefits of local food initiatives come directly from farmers' markets. In Flagstaff, the farmers' market served as a cornerstone that supported other bricks needed to build a healthy local food system.

Soon after the farmers' market opened, chefs from restaurants such as The Turquoise Room at La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, became “early adopters” of local foods.

They were followed by a second wave of chefs, primarily caterers, who began to regularly purchase food from local farms, orchards and ranches. The Flagstaff Community Supported Agriculture Project also contracted with one of the farmers from the market, and has since added other vendors to supply weekly packages of regionally produced foods to 150-170 households.

From there, the local food initiatives grew even more diverse. The country's first community-supported wild-foraging project was started to supply 20 households, and still supplies caterers and restaurants with native and naturalized wild foods. Several ranchers began to market their locally produced meats in northern Arizona, and a new restaurant featuring grass-fed meats is set to open this winter.

More than a dozen new youth gardens in Flagstaff and on the Hopi and Navajo reservations have begun to produce food for local consumption. Their fall 2005 harvest celebrations fed between 1,800 and 2,400 people with fresh produce, and their fall 2006 Native Harvest conference at Moenave near Tuba City engaged more than 150 Navajo ranchers, gardeners, and farmers.

Over several years, the NAU Healing Gardens program, Nava-Tech, Indigenous Community Enterprises, New Dawn, and Native Youth Movement have galvanized various facets of local food work in Diné (Navajo) communities, while the Natwani Coalition has done the same in Hopi communities. Most recently, a Diné Farmers' Association has decided to incorporate at Leupp, Arizona, building on the earlier successes of a project called Navajo Family Farms. That same community formed the first Native American-led “convivium” associated with Slow Food USA, and has featured blue corn and churro lamb dinners at its events.

The Canyon Country Fresh Network began as a means of promoting more purchase of locally produced foods in the region. It includes 27 restaurants, cafes, caterers, resorts, vineyard tasting rooms, groceries and gift shops. Each must pledge to purchase foods from three or more of the many local producers on a regular basis. Network members are located in Flagstaff, Sedona, Winslow, Prescott, Dewey, Mormon Lake, Cottonwood, and Chino Valley, Arizona; Boulder, Utah; and in Zion and Petrified Forest national parks.

A community kitchen program has been in the works for two years, and several school districts are working on food policies that favor local food purchases. All of these organizations, plus several ranchers' groups such as Diablo Trust, have joined together for discussions sponsored by a new Northern Arizona Food and Agriculture Council, which Drake University's Agricultural Law Center has assisted. Their shared goal is to build more collaboration and infrastructure to access more local foods and keep our communities healthy.

All of these efforts add not only to the local economy, but to the sense of being in a cohesive, multi-cultural community in Grand Canyon country. There's value beyond mere calories in fresh, local food. Building a local food supply system makes for healthier food, fosters more economically viable farms and ranches, and provides a forum for community members to collectively imagine a more sustainable future for the region. The informal conversations that take place at marketplaces and feasts are as important as the network's more formal accomplishments.

With the dry humor characteristic of their arid region, some activists in Canyon Country now jokingly call themselves “terroir-ists,” expressing their love of the flavors and fragrances of the food native to their homeland. It is the kind of “terroir” that even advocates of homeland security might celebrate, for it has increased the food security of a homeland that had earlier found itself at risk in terms of food security, nutrition-related diseases, and poverty. Although these risks have not instantly disappeared, residents can now see “a green light” at the end of the tunnel.