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Local food system depends on local producers

HANCOCK — Food production is changing, particularly as scientists gather increasing evidence on the negative impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the environment. Consumer wants are shifting from large, commercial “agribusiness” produce, to locally or regionally grown food.

In 2022, the University of Missouri published its “Introduction to Local Food Systems,” which states sentiments similar to those of the Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Collaborative.

“Increasingly, people are searching out food that not only is flavorful, healthy and safe but that also supports their local community,” UM states.

In its article, UM referred to a 2010 USDA report that said no consensus on a definition of what a local food system could be reached. What UM did conclude, however, was that in defining a food system, they are considered alternative food networks. These include;

• Civic agriculture, the joining, within a community, of consumption activities with community-based agriculture and food production activities that provide fresh, safe, locally produced foods; create jobs; encourage entrepreneurship; and strengthen community identity.

• Community food security, a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice and makes a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet available to community residents.

• Community food system, the integration of sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place.

• Local food system is often defined as “based on marketing arrangements, such as farmers selling directly to people at farmers’ markets or to schools.” For us, a local food system comprises the interrelated social, economic and environmental aspects of bringing together food producers and food consumers in a particular place, the article says.

Since its founding in 2018, the Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Collaborative has worked to develop programs that meet all of the definitions UM described.

As a regional planning organization, since 1968, WUPPDR has been providing general planning support to the western six counties of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula through its several programs, projects and services. This includes the WUPFSC, which was founded in 2018.

WUPPDR is one of 18 organizations partnered with WUPFSC, said WUPPDR Senior Regional Planner and WUPFSC co-founder Rachel Pressley,

Among the partners is an organization called the U.P. Food Exchange.

The U.P. Food Exchange is a resource portal for farmers, businesses and individuals looking to participate in the local food system. UPFE supports local food projects of all kinds, including policy work, community education, food safety, business development, farm to school, and more. Key to the organization’s work is the UPFE Online Marketplace, a food hub for local producers and purchasers in the Upper Peninsula region that aggregates local food products for institutions and retail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Pressley said the U.P. Food Exchange is two things. It is a food collaborative, just like WUPSC, but for the entire U.P. It’s also an online platform that lists local food for institutions to buy.

Institutions include hospitals, schools, restaurants and retail locations.

Pressley said how the system functions, farmers keep a live inventory, the U.P. Food Exchange holds an aggregation space, like a walk-in cooler, in the basement of the Marquette Food Co-op.

The WUFSC is currently working to develop a similar aggregation space for the Western U.P. Lacking such a system is inefficient and costly.

Under the current system, Pressley said, as an example, a farmer selling to an institution like the Houghton Elementary School drops off the ordered produce and invoices the school. The invoice is not addressed until the School Board conducts its monthly meeting, at which the trustees vote to pay the bills, which includes the money owed to the farmer. The school then sends the payment to the farmer, often months late, said Pressley.

“Aggregating and collectivizing the farms based on the history of what we’ve learned from this land, that it actually does work, is what we’re trying to do now,” she said.

Like the U.P Food Exchange, based in Marquette, the goal of the WUFSC is to develop a collaborative farm network, which purchases, stores, sets prices with the growers, and sells the produce to the purchasers.

In the Western U.P., farmers want a similar system.

“The farmers here want that back,” Pressley said. “They want a warehouse like the former Cohodas-Paoli Company’s. They want that space, but it takes organization.”

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