The Economics of the Edible

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This week’s Star Tribune article about how the USDA’s school lunch program is no bargain here in Minnesota despite its reliance on highly-subsidized commodities reminded me of a conversation I had some time back with Robin Gaines, who is in charge of providing food for people on the other end of the age spectrum: retirement home residents.

“You’re money ahead to buy the local food that your residents are going to eat, rather than spend the money on the item that comes off the truck that you’re going to end up throwing out,” Gaines told me in her typically blunt manner during an LSP Ear to the Ground podcast interview (episode 69).  “It’s wasted money and it sends your food costs up. So you might as well buy something that people are going to eat.”

Gaines is not exactly shy about offering up an opinion on a wide range of topics (it was hard to edit our conversation down to 10 minutes), but she knows what she’s talking about when describing the advantages of serving local food in an institutional setting.

She is an assistant administrator and vice president for support services at Bartels Lutheran Home in Waverly, Iowa. Bartels is setting out to prove that food served in an institution does not always have to be a bland, tasteless product shipped in from hundreds, or even thousands of miles away.

The 200-bed facility provides retirement, nursing, assisted living, skilled and Alzheimer’s care in the midst of some of the richest farmland in the world. However, before 1999 next to none of the 600 meals served daily were sourced locally. This is particularly ironic considering that many of the residents are former farmers.

During the past decade, Gaines has worked to change that. She started out buying tomatoes and sweet corn. The facility’s local food efforts got a kick-start several years ago when it began working with Kamyar Enshayan at the University of Northern Iowa’s Local Food Project. The project helped them figure out how to find farmers who could provide the quantity and quality of food they were looking for.

As Gaines and Bartels chef Tracy Wilson explained to me, the original goal of the facility was to buy at least 10 percent of its food from local farmers. By 2004, the facility had spent 15 percent of its raw food budget on local products.

And by 2008, that percentage was well over 25 percent. Almost all of that local food travels less than 25 miles to get to the facility’s kitchen. Bartels now buys a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as beef and dairy products from at least 17 different farms.

It hasn’t always been easy. Significant obstacles such as seasonality, transportation efficiencies, processing resources and even food safety concerns have limited the facility’s ability to increase its local food purchases even more. Gaines and Wilson can’t even buy local eggs because of the requirement that they serve their residents expensive pasteurized ones. On the bright side, they have successfully ignored the many myths out there about what local foods a facility like theirs can buy.

Despite the obstacles, Bartels remains committed to buying as much food from the community as possible. The kitchen is getting rave reviews from residents on the taste and quality, and other health care facilities in the Midwest have approached Gaines about ways they can begin sourcing more of their food locally.

Her message? Start out small and work your way through the growing season step-by-step. Don’t plan on going totally local from May to October the first year— it will be a disaster for the staff, the farmers and the people you’re feeding.

Gaines also has another bit of advice that goes back to her feeling that in the end local food makes sound fiscal sense in more ways than one: view that purchase from a local farm as a long-term investment in the community. One side benefit to serving locally-sourced food is that the Bartels staff feels good about the fact that they are supporting the local farm economy.

“It’s kind of like we’re invested in the farm too,” Gaines says. “We’re invested in the farm, we’re buying from them, we’re helping them to succeed.”

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