State of the Local Food Economy -- January 21, 2012

If you want to sense the energy that exists in Louisville’s food community, check out our reaction to an online poll being conducted at Southern Living’s website.

As many of you know, late last month, that national magazine named the South’s “top ten tasty towns.” Obviously, they included Louisville! Then they launched a month-long online poll to choose the #1 city.

Online polls aren’t scientific, of course, but they DO gauge the level of commitment, enthusiasm, and organization that a community has. And Louisville has been going after this thing like it was the Nobel Prize of Southern Food!

All this enthusiasm means we’re outvoting New Orleans – a city that likes to eat! – by a ratio of about 3 to 1, and we’re racing toward the finish, running neck and neck, with Lafayette, Louisiana.

It’s been fun – and it will be more fun if we win, so vote every day! We’ve got 10 days left!

But that good publicity is not unique.

A year ago, it was Mother Earth News naming Louisville one of ten “great places” – because of our support of home gardening, our 15Thousand Farmers program, and other sustainability efforts.

Last week, it was an article in the national Tasting Table about the executive chef at Rye’s innovative pinto bean recipe.

And just few days ago, it was the exciting honor of being the first city to win a Childhood Obesity Prevention award – with a $150,000 grant attached – at the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting.

That award recognized, among many things, our efforts to bring fresh produce to underserved neighborhoods. For example, we opened two new Healthy in Hurry stores last year, bringing fruits and vegetables within walking distance of 17,000 additional households.

The word is definitely getting out about Louisville as a food mecca – in ways both earthy and elegant!

We’re committed to enabling everyone to eat better – from the kid picking up a snack at a Chickasaw convenience store to the couple celebrating an anniversary at Harvest. More and more of the $3 billion Louisvillians spend on food each year is going to quality, local food.

And the rest of the world is noticing. This spring, the Slow Foods National Congress will be held here. And Middlebury College in Vermont will be sending 12 college students to Louisville this summer in a program called FoodWorks Louisville, to both bring us fresh ideas and learn from our models.

From our renowned culinary arts programs, to our entrepreneurial restaurant scene, our growing food truck culture and our strengthening bonds between suppliers and purchasers, this entire sector of our economy is becoming a model – not just for what other cities might do to enhance their own food economy, but for what we need in every part of our economy.

Schools in every field should be graduating students with high level skills that match what is needed in the marketplace – as the Sullivan and JCTC culinary programs do. Those skills will then pay off in innovation and growth.

And city government is working hard in its proper role – a limited but vital one – by getting all the right parties to the table.

When we get attention for what’s going on – the spotlight naturally falls to the people who are starting the cool restaurants or the farmers who are nurturing us. That’s fine. That’s how it should be.

But I know that you all appreciate that some very vital work also goes on in less glamorous contexts. For example, consider the legwork that Louisville’s Farm to Table program does to make sure that local farmers know what forms they need to fill out to sell to JCPS, and what the schools need and when.

That sort of thing doesn’t make for a great photo on Facebook, but it builds important relationships. The schools bought 3,000 pounds of green peppers last year and sent out bids to buy 19,000 pounds this year, some of which will come from local farmers thanks to relationships built through the Louisville Farm to Table Program.

That program’s connected at least a half-dozen Kentucky farmers directly to JCPS and Oldham County Schools. That means better food for our children and more money in the pocket of farmers who deserve it.

Likewise, an organization like the University of Louisville hires a lot of caterers – and a lot of the people eating those meals would prefer local food when possible. A program like Louisville Farm to Table can make sure that preference gets conveyed to the caterers – and, more importantly, make sure that the caterers know how to find what they need when they need it!

Farm to Table reports that these connections lead to new jobs – for local companies that are able to expand their operations by the opening up of local markets. That kind of job growth will never get the attention that a big announcement like the Ford expansion does, but we know that steady growth in small businesses really fuels the economy.

I’m also pleased that the Food Policy Advisory Council is up and running and it’s working hard to draft an amendment to our land use policy code so that neighbors and organizers know what to expect from community gardens. This will make it less complicated to garden in the city by spelling out the expectations and procedures.

I announced Theresa Zawacki, in the city’s economic development department, as Louisville’s “point of contact” for food policy issues. This is another development that sounds bureaucratic – naming a food policy point of contact – but is vitally important when it comes to getting things done.

By having a “point person,” someone who knows and understand the local food scene in its entirety, rather than spreading out the duties over many roles and departments, we make it easier to pull the right people into a conversation.

Having someone like Theresa makes it easier to work with groups like Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit out of Connecticut that is putting together “pop-up” farmer’s markets at Rangeland and Wellington Elementary schools. The markets will provide double-value coupons to people using food stamps and will help encourage the use of healthy foods at these schools – which are health magnets sponsored by the Humana Foundation.

In fact, throughout the community, there are now about 25 Farmer’s Markets in Louisville -- 11 of which accept debit cards, electronic bank transfers, and nutrition program vouchers. That makes good food more accessible to customers and new markets available to farmers. That’s good news for the whole state. It’s good news when the city folks are connected with the farmers from around the region. We are all one family!

When I spoke to you all last year, I’d been mayor for just a few weeks. Now, I’ve got one growing season behind me and I’m pleased to say that, in this case, more experience means I’ve even more optimistic about our future.

When I spoke with you a year ago, I talked about developing LIFE zones – enterprise zones aimed at local food efforts. That idea has morphed and changed a little, as good ideas do when they bump up against the realities of budgets and funding sources – but I’m pleased to report that LIFE zones concept is evolving in a promising direction.

We’re hoping this spring we’ll be able to start a revolving loan program – tied to the Portland neighborhood – that will help businesses who want to work with local food – whether that means chopping and freezing vegetables that can used by large organizations like JCPS when they need them or taking tomatoes with a short shelf life and turning them into tomato sauce that Louisvillians can buy with pride.

This will be creating new markets for Kentucky farmers, growing jobs and helping to revitalize Portland all at the same time!

Getting that program fully functional is one of my administration’s top four goals for food policy this year. In addition, we want to:

1) Make sure we get funding from the Agriculture Development Board to continue Farm to Table. That program’s good work must continue!

2) Better quantify the demand that exists in Louisville for local food.

3) Develop a strategic plan for how to meet that demand.

The state of the local food economy in Louisville is exciting indeed. We’ve come a long way and we’re still advancing!

Our thriving food culture spills over into our other projects as well. I’d be remiss if I did not point out that Louisville locavores are among the luckiest in the world, because they can stay true to their values and still drink Bourbon!

Brown-Forman is a fine supporter of the work being done by people in this room, and the development of the Bourbon Experience – the Bourbon Trail – is going to draw more people into our region, to learn from us and from our unique flavor.

Too often in our country recently, we’ve tended to view things in stark, “either/or,” or “black or white” terms…

We act as if people are either “pro-business” or pro-social programs. … I was honored recently to be named by The New Deal as a progressive, pro-growth public servant. They recognize that you can be both!

Progressive ideals and pro-business ideals may never be identical, but there should be considerable overlap. After all, the best social program is sometimes a good job. And the best business decision can often be a social program that will keep children in school, working toward becoming a great workforce of tomorrow.

In the same way, we should understand that the practices of a multi-national corporation like Brown-Forman and a hyper-local business like Grasshoppers may never be in complete sync. But there is considerable overlap!

Both want quality products that please customers!

Those involved in the local food economy have high ideals about how food is produced and how it should taste and nourish us.

Anyone who is not an ideologue can look at those two groups and see how they could learn from each other and help each other.

By working together, we’ve demonstrated what a community can accomplish in a short time, by applying business sensibilities about supply, demand and distribution to our loftiest goals and aspirations.

You are truly a model of what Louisville needs to continue to become! And last, a big thank you to Stephen Reily for all of the work he and his team have done here today and throughout this past year for the local food scene.

Keep up the good work! Keep working with us! And thank you for all you bring to the community.