Ground Breaking Conference Highlights Local and Regional Food Issues

Posted: September 11, 2009

Over one-hundred stakeholders gathered on May 19-20, 2009 in Kerhonkson, New York to explore the research, what works, and what we still need to learn about local and regional food systems.

To our knowledge, this was the first-ever major conference organized around the topic in the US. Eleven northeastern states were represented as well as a wide range of other states. While most attendees came from higher education, other non-profit, governmental and commercial entities were also represented.

The conference’s main presentations included:

Dr. Kate Clancy presented on “What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Local and Regional Food Systems?” She stressed that a review of these issues was urgently needed after nearly four decades of interest in local foods and rapidly growing bodies of research and commentary. Dr. Clancy went on to discuss the multiple meanings of food systems, confusion of global with U.S. situations, important differences between regional and local, conflation of local foods with direct marketing and sustainability, and the need for systems research.

Dr. Clare Hinrichs discussed “What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know about the Community Impacts of Local and Regional Foods?” She suggested that the recent surge of interest in local and regional foods includes environmental, economic, nutritional, and social elements. However, many efforts to develop local and regional food systems assume that their benefits are assured and dramatic; most efforts give little consideration to possible downsides or trade-offs in local and regional foods.

Dr. Dawn Thilmany’s talk focused on “Consumers of Local Foods: Civic Minded or Seeking Assurances?” Myriad reasons are given for the significant growth in “locavores,” including the desire to reconnect with the food system, produce quality that is perceived to be higher, or support for the local economy, according to Dr. Thilmany. All of these food issues likely matter for some consumer segments. The presentation explored whether local and direct markets are in fact market-based solutions to provide consumers with assurances that their purchases have substantive impacts on concerns that matter to them.

Dr. Mike Hamm presented “Growing Kids, Growing Food – Farm to School: Opportunities and Realities.” He explored the expansion of farm to school programs across the US. Conceptually, such programs are simple to implement, by developing agreements between local farmers and K-12 food service directors to supply local food products for the school lunch program. However, important questions arise. For example, what are the advantages and costs of such programs across the K-12 educational system? Why do farmers and food service directors wish to engage in such relationships? How does the school lunch budget relate to the price farmers receive? How does the farmer know if they are getting a good price relative to their cost of production?

Dr. Richard Pirog highlighted “Building Networks That Work: Iowa’s Network for Food and Agriculture Working Groups,” He argued that all too often the organizations that work to support businesses and communities in sustainable food systems collaborate only at superficial levels that do not synergize the expertise and social and financial capital available to make systems change. Value Chain Partnerships (VCP), an Iowa based network of food and agriculture working groups, uses a more collaborative, decentralized approach in managing knowledge for food systems change.

Dr. Jennifer Wilkins, Kathy Ruhf and Duncan Hilchey served on a discussion panel, and Deputy Commissioner Jerry Cosgrove, New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets discussed local food system policy. In addition, research roundtables and poster sessions provided participants with a wide range of related information and implementation strategies.

Discussion and workgroup efforts highlighted the need for the wide range of research, information, and educational programs if we are to truly understand – and take full advantage of – the opportunities presented by the growing interest in local and regional food systems.

Slideshows and videos of each presentation can be viewed now at Full proceedings on the conference will be available on the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development website in September.

Contact Information

Walt Whitmer
  • Senior Extension Associate
Phone: 814-865-0468