Buying vegetables at the farmers market may pay off for the regional economy.
If Chattanoogans spent 5 percent of their food budgets at the farmers market or a grocery store’s “local food” section, $100 million would be spent in the region, according to “A Preliminary Analysis of Food Production and Consumption in the Chattanooga Foodshed,” released Tuesday by Chattanooga-based Crabtree Farms and the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
That’s enough to buy a supertanker of oil or 30 million additional pounds of beef.
“We see tremendous advantages to concentrating more of our local spending on locally produced food products,” said J.Ed. Marston, spokesman for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, after reading the report.
Right now, area residents spend about 2 percent or less of their food budget on local products, Ochs Center policy analyst Lori Quillen said.
Since Chattanoogans spend about $2.05 billion on home-cooked foods every year, pledging just 5 percent of the total would increase local spending by a total of $100 million, Ms. Quillen said.
The report is part of the Chattanooga Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign launched in August, said Crabtree Farms Executive Director Vanessa Mercer.
Buy Fresh Buy Local Chattanooga also plans to publish a regional food directory in May. The public is invited to an advisory committee meeting to discuss ongoing Buy Fresh Buy Local business on Feb. 6, Ms. Mercer said.
Local food buying has become more popular in recent years.
Some buyers want to know how their food is produced, others look for fresher foods, many look for shorter transport miles to reduce carbon emissions and therefore global warming, and a large group wish to keep their dollars circulating at home, said Jon Frady, a Tennessee state agricultural marketing specialist.
Nationwide, the number of farmers markets rose from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,685 this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Community Supported Agriculture, in which customers buy shares of a year’s food production directly from a farmer, enjoys great popularity among organic customers in Georgia and Tennessee, Mr. Frady said.
Globalization reorganized agriculture so that giant producers now typically contract with international companies to ship large quantities of food worldwide. Within 100 miles of Chattanooga, for example, 4,517 farms sold $1.4 billion in poultry and eggs in 2002 — 68 percent of total area food sales, Ms. Quillen said.
Mr. Marston said the trend toward buying local foods won’t leave the consumer benefits of mass-produced global food behind.
“We’re not talking about 100 percent local buying,” he said. “We’re looking for a healthier proportion of local buying vs. food produced far away.”
Food prices might come down as local production increases, he said.
“Right now we have a ‘boutique’ local food model,” Mr. Marston said. “But if our local economy geared up and produced more food, it would probably be more affordable.”
Meanwhile, successful local farms rely on direct farmer-to-consumer transactions. By taking the place of the corporate middleman, area farmers’ incomes returned, Mr. Frady said.
“(Now) you can definitely make a living with a small farm,” he said.
Buy Fresh Buy Local Chattanooga has identified 250 regional farms selling locally, Ms. Mercer said, and the number is rising. Still, some farmers said their production can’t keep pace with demand.
“We see exponential opportunity to sell locally and make fair value for what we grow,” said Denise Burns, co-owner of Burns Best Farm in Ringgold, Ga.
The lack of infrastructure for local food production, such as grain mills or poultry processors for small farmers, limits their progress, she said.
“If some of that 5 percent (spending on local foods) floated our way, we’d be in a pretty good situation,” she said. “I would have enough money to make investments in my farm and service a few more people. I don’t want to be Con-Agra, but I’d like to meet the demand we have.
“We certainly wouldn’t need a federal bailout,” Mrs. Burns said.