Louisvillians Strive to Put Local Food on Local Tables

by kespeland on May 30, 2008

(Listen to the story here.)

In a warehouse on the Ohio River’s industrial waterfront, Berea Ernst shows off what’s in stock.

“These are some of our inch and a half thick, free-range pork chops, grown in Breckinridge County. This is some of our grass-fed beef.”

Ernst manages Grasshoppers– a new business dreamed up by grassroots organizers from the Community Farm Alliance.  The basic idea is to help farmers working around Louisville get their products to bigger urban markets, more efficiently.  Grasshoppers sends out one truck to pick up what’s available from the 40 or so farmers who participate.  Then it sells those fresh produce, meat and dairy products wholesale, the next day, to institutions and restaurants.

“We find out what the producers have, put it on an availability sheet, send that to our customers.  They order from us and then we turn around and buy that amount from the farmers, so we’re not warehousing a lot of product.”

Ernst says many of the farmers who participate wouldn’t otherwise have access to these kinds of markets.  She says farming is tough enough. So is marketing your product and finding new customers. Add to that the fact that many farmers are switching from growing tobacco –a crop that had its own markets, its own equipment, its own distribution system.  Those don’t necessarily work for growing zucchini or raising sheep.

“So now not only are we switching crops, we have to develop transportation and marketing is a huge curve as well.  So it’s putting all those pieces in place. And we feel like Grasshoppers is one of the last links in that chain.”

The city of Louisville wants to strengthen that infrastructure too.  City planners have hired consultants to recommend ways to address a growing demand for locally grown food.  Consultant Karen Karp says that when it comes to supplying big urban customers, farmers face more hurdles than just getting the product to market.

“Getting the product consolidated, into the kinds of packs and boxes and pallets that can get on a truck, and where is that truck, and who’s running that truck, to get it from a to b.”

Consolidated onto pallets so that big food service operations can buy it.  And Karp says even the largest food suppliers and distributors are looking for ways to buy and sell more locally…especially given the astronomical price of diesel.   But what about smaller buyers, like you and me…why aren’t we able to walk into a supermarket and find plenty of local food?  We know that within a few hours of Louisville, you can find farmers producing everything from goat cheese to maple syrup to squash. Karen Karp says it’s because urban centers have lost touch with their rural surroundings.  In other words, our food system is broken.

“The actual communication connections, the brokering of deals, some of those have been broken, and they’re relatively simple to fix – but they’re there, they’re right there, bubbling at the surface.”

Some of the consultants’ proposals for fixing that broken system might include starting a small food distribution company, like Grasshoppers’ model.  Or they might include building a large, year-round, indoor farmer’s market.  Local food won’t replace everything we buy, but Louisvillians could soon find more opportunities to eat local.  And thanks to some other grassroots efforts, that’s including more and more lower income Louisvillians.  For them, local food is often too expensive or simply not available.

In the unlikely setting of a downtown parking lot, surrounded by barbed wire and an overflowing dumpster, Timothy Tucker describes his garden.

“We have everything from fresh sage, these are tarragon… fresh, mixed greens, like you would have in a fine dining restaurant.”

This is not a fine dining restaurant.  The rows of herbs and salad greens are for the dishes Chef Tucker and his staff prepare every night in the Salvation Army kitchen.  Yet another garden around back will produce heirloom tomatoes, beans, and more–all in the shadow of noisy I-65 in downtown Louisville.  It’s about as local as food can get.

But to feed hundreds of people a night, Tucker needs more than his gardens.  So he’s woven together a network of providers and donors – many of which offer local food.  One donor paid for a share in a community farm, which delivers a box of fresh produce once a week.  Another donor bought an acre of land, hired a farmer, and promised to send everything he produces to Tucker.  Sitting in the dining room, Tucker says that when he actually has to buy food, it’s painful.

“Sitting down with a local supplier a few weeks ago, he informed me that a lot of items went up 30% in the last year.”
Fuel and food prices are driving up costs everywhere.  And that’s even tougher on the residents of neighborhoods like West Louisville, where many of his clients come from.  But he says his clients have come to appreciate the fresh food he serves, and his bosses have come to appreciate lower food bills.  But still, Tucker’s is just one small effort.  He says he hopes all of the local food projects underway here will start to coalesce, so that everyone can have a taste.

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