Nashville, Tenn., boasts seven different farmers markets citywide, proving that urban residents have a strong appetite for locally sourced food.
But the mainstream food markets—like grocery stores, hospitals, schools, and restaurants—find it much easier to order from national distributors like Sysco, which trucks in produce from an average of 2,000 miles away.
Without access to larger food buyers, Nashville growers are struggling to succeed—a trend that has resulted in the decline of local food production. Today in Davidson County, only 0.36 percent of the farmland is being used to grow fruits and vegetables.
Why have small farms been excluded from the supply chain?
The problem has to do with scale. Farms in and around urban areas tend to be small and usually can’t produce at the sustained volumes that institutions like schools or grocery chains require.
And without economies of scale, small farms aren’t able to shoulder the cost of delivery, storage, and marketing. On the market side, larger food purchasers require one-stop sourcing and don’t have the capacity to coordinate with multiple local farms.
“We have farms that are right next to the people they’d like to be serving,” says Sarah Johnson, founder and director of Nashville Grown. “But if there isn’t a food system set up to get the produce from small farms to the end consumer, it’s never going to work.”
Nashville Grown aggregates produce from many small farms, making it possible to fulfill the larger volume orders required by bigger food buyers like restaurants.
Aggregation also means that a small grower can still turn a profit if she specializes in producing a particular crop.
As a food hub, Nashville Grown provides storage, distribution, and marketing. Its online purchasing system posts what farmers have for sale, and buyers can go online and order produce for delivery the next day.
Ms. Johnson launched Nashville Grown last August and began “bootstrapping it,” with just an empty warehouse space and her personal vehicle, equipped with picnic coolers. The organization now helps 15 local farms and market gardens sell to restaurants and catering companies.
However, getting large grocery chains and institutions like schools to carry local produce is proving to be more challenging.
“Right now, our selling platform skews our buyers to higher-end restaurants that can create menu items and specials around what’s available from local farms during a given week,” Johnson says. “They’re flexible if something’s not available. But our current system isn’t as attractive to buyers like schools or other restaurants that may not have that flexibility in their menu planning. We’re trying to work on that.”
Another challenge involved in selling to chain grocery stores and institutions is that they tend to require Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, and adherence to other food safety protocols that are costly and potentially impossible for small, diversified farms to comply with. GAP processes are designed for large, commodity farms, and enabling investigators to track sources of food-borne illness—for example, E-coli bacteria in spinach that has arrived from many large farms and has been mingled at a central processing facility.
“GAP isn’t required by the government,” Johnson says, “but it’s what these larger institutions are used to working with. One solution would be to have an external
party establish specific safety standards for small, local farms, because they have an entirely different set of risks compared to large farms.”
Many large buyers had established processes that simply couldn’t accommodate local food, Johnson also discovered. For example, Nashville Grown approached the Kroger supermarket chain, which expressed an interest in carrying local food.
“But nothing could go directly to the store, because their rules require that everything has to be shipped to their warehouse in Kentucky first,” Johnson says. “But the farm was just a couple miles away! So much of the food system was created without the desire to source food as locally and as freshly as possible. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Nashville Grown also helps farmers with marketing and promotion by sharing photographs and stories about farmers and their land. The stories appear on the Nashville Grown website, as well as on food packages and labels.
“A lot of the farmland here has an amazing history,” Johnson says. “People really want to know where their food comes from, and any city could have a powerful local brand that inspires consumer loyalty. There’s a huge amount of value that hasn’t yet been realized by restaurants and grocery stores.”
Despite the barriers to reaching larger institutions, the demand from restaurants alone is greater than Nashville Grown is currently able to fill. “My hope is that creating the means for existing farms to become more profitable and competitive will also enable new farmers to start,” Johnson says. “There is so much potential for food to be grown in cities, and so many small vacant plots available for farming in and around urban areas.”
Nashville Grown can serve as a model for other food systems confronting the challenges of making local food accessible beyond the farmers market. This organization was recently selected as an early entry prize winner in the Nutrients for All, an Ashoka Changemakers competition that is seeking solutions that will ensure the availability of nutrients for healthy, natural ecosystems, farms, food, and people.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor