What are you giving up when you shop at a typical grocery store? What do you miss out on when you’re rushing through the aisles, one earbud in and a list in hand? “That’s not connection; that’s just a chore,” described Colleen Stewart, communications coordinator for the NH Food Alliance.
In her mind, eating local isn’t just about fancy radishes at the farmer’s market (although those are crazy delicious!). “It’s really about community, about knowing your farmer not just as your farmer but as your neighbor,” she described.
Cultivating Creative Initiatives
Across the country, American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) members have launched annual Eat Indie Local campaigns to support various aspects of their local food systems. It’s just one of AMIBA’s nine signature Choose Indie Local campaigns that take place throughout the year.
From CSA sign-ups to dining out farm-to-table style, Eat Indie Local promotes innovative ways to cultivate resilient, local food systems that make communities healthier and stronger. Though this work continues year-round, celebrating a concentrated Eat Local Month is one strategy many AMIBA members have seen success with over the last decade.
Eat Local App
For example, the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts (SBN) began their Eat Indie Local efforts about seven years ago, and it has become a core piece of their educational marketing. In 2022, their Eat Local Month included a food-themed trivia night at a brewery, a community bike ride through Cambridge (just outside Boston), and a manufacturer-led workshop on how to grow microgreens at home.
SBN has also been working to spread the word about their inventive EatLocalMA app, which helps foodies find places to choose locally. In the past, dinner pop-ups with well-known chefs and farmer’s market showcases have also been part of their Eat Local Month repertoire. However, the intensive, month-long campaign can sometimes feel like a heavy lift because the organization’s signature Boston Local Food Festival happens shortly after, going into its 13th year.
With close to 100 booths and head counts of up to 40,000 attendees pre-pandemic, it’s an enormous investment in local food culture. Right now, SBN focuses on attracting more visitors who intend to shop versus simply passersby. They’re working toward enabling festival-goers to use SNAP benefits, EBT, WIC, and additional state assistance. As the event continues to grow, SBN is looking closely at how to make it sustainable for the next ten years.
Growing the Movement
The opportunity to examine priorities was something afforded to both local organizations and consumers during the pandemic. Buyers took advantage of local foods in unprecedented numbers. “Out of necessity, some experienced local food in ways they never have before,” described Lisa Vaughn, who works with Eat Local First Olympic Peninsula (EatLocalFirstOlyPen) in Washington State.
She also noted the rise of agritourism during the pandemic, with many people choosing farms as safe, outdoor destinations for entertainment. Her organization sees this as a great area to build upon, helping local families engage more deeply with their local food system and especially getting to know their local farmers face-to-face.
“As supply chain issues and pandemic restrictions disappear, it could be easy for consumers to fall back into old patterns of eating and purchasing,” Vaughn said. So it’s an essential time at both a local and policy level to reinforce the importance of a secure, resilient local food system.
EatLocalFirstOlyPen currently runs three campaigns a year toward that end, with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) theme in late winter/early spring, Eat Local Month in September, and a Holiday Campaign to close the year. Each provides an opportunity to highlight how and why farmers need financial support throughout the year, not just during harvest season.
“The Holiday campaign has helped consumers understand that ‘shop local’ for the holidays should include food for their holiday festivities and also gifts and decorations,” Vaughn described. From preserved foods and lavender gifts to homegrown holiday trees and wreaths, there are lots of opportunities to support locals in her area. In fact, EatLocalFirstOlyPen even educates people about how to recycle their festive greens by turning them into compost for farms in the region.
Ideally, Vaughn would like to see every family incorporate more locally grown products into their budget. That might mean growing their own food, supporting a farmer, or buying from local food businesses. “Each purchase adds up to create a vibrant and resilient local food economy that we each can bring into reality with each dollar we spend,” she said.
In West Michigan, Kathleen Roark, director of engagement for People First Economy, works with her team on fresh ways to engage people in this Choose Indie Local thinking. The pandemic deeply impacted many of the food businesses in her region. But it also led to interesting shifts in the local food ecosystem, from a surge of zero-proof beverages to experimentation in frozen, prebake concepts.
Another strong example is the rise in ghost kitchens, which have popped up rapidly in West Michigan over the last couple of years. These kitchens operate online, fulfilling orders for delivery instead of being served in a traditional restaurant setting.
While People First Economy focuses on eating locally all year long, their Nourish our Community month in the fall aims to spark more extensive food system conversations during harvest season. Before 2020, the organization held a large-scale event called Fork Fest, a beloved structure. But those efforts shifted online during COVID.
Staff has used the time to examine their approach to bringing people together around food in a way that produces change and educates about a healthy food economy that serves the community and planet.
Heating Things Up
To expand consumer engagement, they’ve been investigating ways to gamify the local food experience, and one idea that’s risen to the top is the Hot Ones’ model. This format popped up around the country and was brought to their attention by some of their members.
The idea is that Local First would host a show or panel, during which guests would answer questions related to local food. But here’s the catch; those guests would consume increasingly hotter sauces or foods as they go. “So the conversation becomes just a little bit more freeform and may be vulnerable,” Roark described with a laugh.
A fun and funny approach, this model is one People First Economy is looking to riff off of with the help of local producers. They’re also considering incentives to encourage event attendees to follow up with participating businesses. And they’re wondering if there might be a way to give it a fundraising spin and accept real-time donations. While still in the early stages, it’s an idea they’re excited to test out.
Live Free and Eat Local
In New Hampshire, bringing on the fun after the last few years of uncertainty has led to impressive outcomes. During the pandemic, the NH Food Alliance shifted their efforts to social media, launching a photo contest, and other online initiatives. While it kept the dialogue going, Communications Coordinator Colleen Stewart said it felt “hollowed out” because of the missing interaction between eaters, local farmers, and restauranteurs.
In 2022, she faced the question of whether people missed that connection enough to get back out into the world. With fingers crossed, the Alliance launched a Live Free and Eat Local Challenge (based on NH’s motto, Live Free or Die).
During their August NH Eats Local Month, residents tracked visits to farmer’s markets, farm stands, restaurants that source locally, co-ops, and other producers. They mailed in a form, and then randomly selected winners received donated foodie prizes from across the state. “It’s really about celebrating our food and all the amazing things our state can produce,” Stewart said.
The initiative was simple, and it was a hit. Many people even wrote right on their tracking forms how much they loved the challenge. “I just think that being out in the community really brought it to life for everyone,” Stewart said. The enthusiastic response disproved the theory that people might prefer to live digitally forever after the pandemic.
Instead, the in-person experience was richer, and that’s what Stewart wants to capitalize on. While she recognizes emphasizing those human exchanges may make for slower growth, it will mean the people participating are really engaged.
She has felt inspired by connecting with other AMIBA members across the country doing similar work. For instance, she pointed to The National Farmer’s Market Association’s Farmer’s Market Week in August, which aligns perfectly with New Hampshire’s Eat Local Month.
Stewart was able to plug into their campaign and leverage ready-to-go resources in her home state thanks to the amazing connection from AMIBA. AMIBA’s data has also been invaluable for driving decision-making. Detailed information about the economics of shopping local vs. on Amazon has helped strengthen NH Food Alliance’s messaging and inform its campaigns.
Gathering and Sharing the Bounty of Grassroots Efforts
AMIBA members find that added credibility to be a big advantage. “We need to come together around this consistent and concise, unified language,” Stewart said.
Gregory Nicaise, local food program manager for SBN MA, also relies on the national dialogue led by AMIBA members. “It was really helpful last year and this year to have some of those debrief sessions and hear what other people are doing,” he said.
In 2022, he worked closely with Jen Risley, AMIBA’s director of operations and Choose Indie Local coordinator, to develop a documentary film showing that sparked local food conversation via SBN MA.
It’s a strategy AMIBA has been leaning into over the last several years, most recently screening the film GATHER virtually last July, followed by a meaningful discussion with director Sanjay Rawal, as well as other food resilience thought leaders. It was an opportunity for viewers to connect deeply with the film’s stories, which delved into the fight to revitalize native foodways.
For communities to create highly functional food systems, these conversations are critical because local food producers face myriad challenges, from staffing shortages and rent increases to finding investors and accessing funds. “It’s really hard to get the capital to scale and grow,” Nicaise described.
While evidence in the northeast points to plenty of demand for local food, it’s the underdeveloped infrastructure that often creates hold-ups. Nicaise posed the question: “How do we get enough co-packers, manufacturers, and people with enough technical expertise to get through all the food safety regulations?”
In Washington, Vaughn sees similar barriers. With increased distribution channels, small growers and producers could get their products to market, making it easier for wholesale purchasers, like restaurants, grocers, and institutional buyers, to source more locally.
While distribution is a substantial factor in the local food access conversation, Nicaise posits that economic development is the piece that needs to rise to the forefront. Entrepreneurs, many of whom are historically immigrants, tend to be the faces behind the local food industry. Empowering people to become part of that entrepreneurial force can be a game changer.
“Getting out there and buying local is important, but not everybody can do that. One thing people in that position can do is talk to their policymakers,” he said. It’s a chance to work together to craft the future food environment.
“If we were able to create an ecosystem where there’s an entry point for everyone who lives in our community, that would be the end-all, dream goal,” Roark said.