The Real Food Network is a project of Community Agriculture of Columbia County, an educational non-profit organization, located New York’s upper Hudson Valley. We are dedicated to strengthening our rural community and its economy by fostering the development of sustainable agriculture and a more localized food system. The Real Food Network connects farms and small-scale processors in Columbia County with local households and locally-owned stores and restaurants through a Product List and preorder-based physical distribution system. We also raise the profile of local agriculture through community events, outreach and advocacy.
The work of our organization is to foster sustainable agriculture in our community by working to relocalize our food system. New York’s Hudson Valley is an area which is still agriculturally rich and diverse, and capable of supplying many of our local food needs. In the light of recent food safety and security issues worldwide, consumers are seeking clean food, and closer contact with the producers of their food. A localized food system will increase farmer’s financial security by having markets closer to home. A food system in which the farmers are more directly in contact with their consumers will result in farmers using more environmentally appropriate methods on their farm, especially if they can be assured markets willing to support such commitment. Farmers’ health and quality of life would be enhanced, as well as that of their surrounding community. As a food system develops, large producers may turn to more sustainable diversified production. Niches will be readily identifiable for new types of local production, and storage and processing for year-round availability of local product (replacing imports) would be profitable. The need is reduced for increasingly competitive exportation of food into a global market, and for resource-guzzling, polluting transportation of food over long distances. Meanwhile, the networking required for development of a local food system builds stronger community at home.
Progress is slow toward protecting small scale farming. We believe it is best accomplished one community at a time. We are working on the county level, developing relationships between producers and consumers, educating about the issues, in order to establish market loyalty to local production. Making the connections, person by person, one-to-one, is essential. But moreover, we are committed to actually moving the product around our county, making it available to our households, retailers, restaurants, and institutions, as consumer demand develops. The Columbia County Real Food Network is a functioning local distribution system for local product. We sought funding from SARE for its development.
Under this SARE grant, our performance targets included expansion of the producer/ product base and the consumer base of our distribution. Both of these goals have been accomplished, but in different ways than initially envisioned.
The number of producers with whom we are associated has increased as initially projected, from 25 to 35. When the funding period began, we had 50 participating households. At the end of last season, we had doubled that membership to include 100 households. Through the events in which we participated this past season, many more consumers have become aware of the Network. Our database has doubled. When household distribution recommences, we hope to be able to build quickly to the participation level of 200 households, which we initially projected.
In commercial sales to small stores and restaurants, we also have yet to reach our mark. During the funding period, we expanded commercial delivery routes from one to two, not the projected five, and outlets from the initial seven we started with to eleven, less than half our lowest original projection. The drive to significantly expand the commercial accounts was continually postponed. There are four reasons for this: First, the changeover from a twice-monthly to a weekly delivery, which we considered necessary to accommodate commercial accounts, was more time- and energy-consuming than we expected, Secondly, we suffered from a lack of adequate infrastructure, as our transportation system still relied on personal vehicles, and we were concerned about expanding sales faster than we could deliver, as far as accommodating the physical volume of product. (Therefore we submitted a separate funding proposal to purchase a van, which we now have). Thirdly, it was more of a challenge than we expected to come up with a line of merchandizing aids which would be accepted and successfully used county-wide. We are only now finalizing those materials. And fourth, in terms of general development, we discovered that it truly is only very gradually, as we originally stated, that attitudes and actual behavior would move toward supporting local -– it is not a linear development but an organic one; growth occurs sometimes in the leaves and stems, and sometimes in the roots, and each is dependent upon the other, and upon fertile ground. More groundwork needed to be done for people to understand the bigger context of what we are doing, before we could meaningfully expand the presence of local foods on store shelves and on restaurant menus throughout the county. Hence, in its second year of funding, our local food system development project branched out from a focus on the weekly distribution.
In the first year and a half of the project, our focus was mostly on expanding participation in the physical distribution. Since the end of the distribution season in December, a new direction emerged which has affected our overall work plan and the development of the Network. In the course of planning outreach and development, it was determined that we needed to create a real, visible, high-profile, physical center for our work. It would showcase the agricultural producers in the county and demonstrate the viability of marketing local products. Through it, the creation of marketing and merchandising material could be facilitated.
After a long process of meetings and a few failed negotiations for leases on spaces, one of our dedicated members has purchased a property that will house a new cooperatively-owned storefront for local and regional food, as well as the office of Community Agriculture of Columbia County (CACC, the educational non-profit of which the Real Food Network is a project). We are currently completing renovations on a small building, which is part of the property, that will be the new home of the Real Food Network distribution. We will restart weekly distributions upon completion of the distribution center.
In the meantime, we have focused in two directions: We have worked on a number of discrete local food events and projects which have served to raise the profile of the Real Food Network (RFN) and bring more producers and consumers “into the fold”, and we have participated in meetings and committee work within the community as advocates for local food system development, in the contexts of the local Chamber of Commerce, the Cooperative Extension Agricultural Summits, our regional RC&D Council (our 501(c)3 sponsor), and the Town Planning Board.
In the first two seasons of the project, we met our goal for producer involvement, and we doubled our household participation. In December, we left the distribution space we had been renting and began work on a new distribution center which will be part of a complex dedicated to local food system development. While the center is under construction, we have turned our attention to discrete events and projects which could be accomplished without a dedicated space.
In the spring, at the request of a local library whose director is a consumer member of the RFN, we sponsored a series of three public sessions about local food systems. The first focused on CSAs, with a slide show and farmers as guest speakers. The second was about other alternative food sources, with speakers from the Real Food Network distribution, a farmer’s market, and two preorder coops in the area. The third evening was about globalization and its impact on local food economies, using slide show and materials from the International Society for Ecology and Culture. We also consulted through the season on the plan and program content for a Children’s Garden that was initiated at the library.
In May, the RFN was contracted to bring Columbia County food and promotional literature to a reception in New York City for Satish Kumar, renowned editor of Resurgence Magazine, an internationally distributed UK publication which highlights appropriate scale and sustainability, frequently with a focus on food system issues. Satish is inspiring in his belief that work on local food issues is now one of the major means toward world peace, because it is an issue that can transcend polarization. We were able to provide for this event because the distribution was positioned to source, gather, and deliver a diversity of Columbia County foods.
Also in May, the RFN created an artistic exposition of the products of ~20 of our local food producers for a six-week exhibit in a local gallery and cultural center. The food products were displayed alongside the work of seven local potters in a show entitled “For Earth’s Sake: Local Potters, Local Food”. The opening, with a buffet of local foods, drew 100 people.
In mid June, we held a very festive, well attended, and highly successful first annual Local Foods Brunch, featuring a buffet laden with a truly awesome array of dishes made from all local ingredients, the products of over thirty producers brought together by the Real Food Network. The event was our first large social celebration, a festive gathering of long-time Real Food Network producers and consumers, with much of the food contributed by producers, and music provided by a trio which included our local honey producer, our sauerkraut maker, and a local vegetable grower… Our hope is that new contacts made and goodwill built on that day will provide the basis for a targeted fundraising effort to help cover the costs of our new distribution center.
Then, June 25-27, we were contracted to procure and deliver several thousand dollars worth of Columbia County food to a weekend conference at Bard College, at Annandale-on-Hudson. The conference topic was Local Currencies, and the whole concept of developing local economies was integral, with the primacy of developing local food systems acknowledged throughout. The E. F. Schumacher Society, which sponsored the conference, enlisted the Real Food Network to source and provide local food for the meals. We worked with Chartwell, a major institutional food service, to bring local products into their kitchen and menus, providing 250 conference attendees with six meals featuring local fare. It was a great success, and highly visible, a major inroad for local foods into a college campus.
Also during the summer, we were contacted by the CEO of our local community hospital, Columbia Memorial. We have met with her, the food service director and the head nutritionist. The hospital is serviced by Sodexho (formerly Sodexho/Mariott). They are very interested in incorporating local foods into their food service, and will be ordering through us when weekly distributions are reestablished. This is a very important development.
In related work in the community, CACC has been working with two school classes and a summer club for the second season of a school garden we initiated at the Chatham Middle School last year. When we brought some of our garden produce to the food service director for use in the cafeterias in the three schools in our district, we introduced him to a source for local potatoes, which he has since been purchasing on a biweekly basis. Through that contact, we have now met with a representative from the Department of Agriculture and Markets and food service directors from two other school districts about the mechanics of increasing school purchasing from local sources. When the new growing season begins, we will be in a position to be instrumental in facilitating that purchasing.
Currently, we are meeting with a new regional promotion/marketing/distribution effort, Hudson Valley Fresh. The project, which is being developed through the Dutchess County Cooperative Extension office, is actively supported by one of our state assemblymen, Patrick Manning. Hopefully, our experience networking and distributing in Columbia County will be of help in dovetailing with this new effort.
Another local food system development project we initiated this season is a Community Garden at our local park, with 16 plots (15’x20’) available for households and four plots dedicated to a Children’s Garden for a six-week summer gardening program which met three times week). The project was funded by a small grant from a local foundation.
Since January, 03, CACC/RFN has also been participating in a comprehensive planning process with the Township of Chatham, NY (where we are located) to insure a focus on agricultural protection and food system development. The town has become a pilot site for the “Keep Farming” program of the Glynwood Center, a non-profit think tank devoted to rural development issues. The program, a community process which has involved about 50 people, is educating and developing commitment and participation, and clarifying the need for the practical, active, on-the-ground solutions and the food system approach that the Real Food Network provides.
During the summer, The Columbia County Fair, the oldest agricultural fair in the country, running for five days around Labor Day weekend, and visited by many thousands of people, contracted us to organize their New Face of Farming exhibit this season, which highlights the major new positive trends in agricultural, including organics, heritage breeds, local food system development, etc. The Real Food Network brought in a wide range of local producers, and ag related organizations (including the SARE Farmer Grower Grant program!) as well as distributing our own materials.
Through the summer we also helped plan and then participated in FarmFest, the second annual one-day exposition of county agriculture and ag related business, sponsored by the Agricultural Committee (on which we sit) of our local Chamber of Commerce.
We are developing a website (www.realfoodnetwork.org), with a page devoted to each of our major projects. As with the rest of our work, our outreach has mostly been focused on our local area, with public contact through events and community projects.
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
There is no doubt that, through our work, a seed has been planted about the importance of local food system development in our county, and it is beginning to sprout, in a number of directions at once.
We continue to pursue the Real Food Network distribution development as originally outlined in our proposal. We remain committed to that original plan, including delivery routes and household pickup sites, (focusing on development in the southern part of the county, as the opening of the coop will absorb three of our northerly sites). We still see the establishment of a regular physical distribution as basic and essential to developing the food system. By now, it has become clear to many involved in advocating for agriculture that appropriately-scaled distribution systems are key.
We are poised to restart the distribution out of our new location. The renovation of the space will soon be complete, as will our website, a range of point-of-sale merchandizing materials for identifying local product, designed elements of a local food campaign, and updated wholesale and retail product lists. We have developed a tremendous amount of goodwill over the last several months of outreach. Our logo will be seen around the county on the sides of our new (used) white Chevy van, a purchase made possible by a small local grant. We have an experienced team and well-developed systems. We will focus on sales to small locally owned stores and restaurants, and renew our relationship with households throughout the county. When the growing season begins, we will be in full swing, and turn our attention to the hospital and school kitchens.
Having entered the realm of institutional kitchens, and with our plans for a store and our involvement in the many events to showcase our local food system, we have progressed substantially beyond the scope and hopes of the original proposal of two+ years ago… It was the SARE grant that has allowed us to continue to pursue local food system development through these past two years, via distribution, education, and advocacy. We’ve had the opportunity to learn, to make contacts, to glean valuable experience and to gain a reputation for our efforts, and we’re having an impact on our community.
Areas needing additional study
Successful food system development has to take place on many fronts at the same time. Production has to be encouraged, and new farmers have to be educated. I can already foresee demand outstripping supply in our area. Also, storage and processing capacities have to be built up. Winter storage crops, preserving, canning and freezing are integral. Also, for our remaining dairies to continue, dairy processing must become a focus here.
We have come a long way, yet I always question whether we are creating a replicable model, because every place is different, and because I know that to accomplish what we have without endless hours of selfless volunteer work would be impossible. But hopefully our project can inspire others. Where people are willing to work like we’ve worked, and with support from funding sources such as the excellent and progressive SARE program, we do have the potential to reinvigorate our local food systems.