Fill the Food Gap – The Mission of Meals on Wheels in Boulder, CO

Meals on Wheels America (MOWA) delivers affordable, healthy noon meals to seniors in their homes or at MOWA-sponsored group dining locations. In that single instance each day MOWA fills the food gap between the point of preparation and the point of consumption for seniors. And with that meal come the only calories some seniors will have for the entire day.

What if a local food system delivered ALL the calorie needs for each person in that community every day? Kind of a MOWA on steroids! Yet as far-fetched as this proposition might seem, it is the challenge every community faces if its members choose a sustainable path. After all, everyone NEEDS food and to not have it puts survival at risk.

How might a single meal everyday for everyone system work? The Meals on Wheels of Boulder, Colorado offers a glimpse. The MOW of Boulder mission is

…to provide tasty, nutritious meals to residents of our community who need and want our service, regardless of age or income.

That’s quite a statement. Add “affordable” and “familiar” to the description of the meals and the stage is set for meeting the food needs of the community.

The current MOW of Boulder tagline reads, “Building a Future, Nourishing Our Community.” Formerly, it read, “We Deliver Energy”! And that’s exactly what nourishment is—energy in the form of calories for the human body!

Here’s the rub, though. On average, each of us needs 2,000 calories per day. Those calories are delivered via three meals plus a snack. Like all MOWA chapters, MOW of Boulder delivers one meal per day for a sliding-scale fee based on ability to pay. If we take the cost of a meal yielding 600-700 calories times three in order to meet the 2,000 calorie daily requirement, the total cost may well exceed the threshold of $10 per day. That brings us back to the challenge of affordability each community faces if it is to have a self-sustaining local food system.

The key to the solution rests in how well value-added operations throughout a local food system fit and function together. As a result, sustainability depends on the successful integration of local food preparation and distribution, such as what MOW of Boulder provides, with upstream local food processing and food production. When done effectively, the result is a flexible, interdependent food value chain that stretches from the points of consumption to the points of production. Interestingly, MOW of Boulder shows significant progress enrolling value chain partners with the inclusion of several Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares and other fresh produce from local farms and community gardens.

The community of Boulder has a long way to go before its local food system has the capacity to serve all members and be sustainable. But the efforts of MOW – Boulder and its partner organizations has given it a tremendous leg-up in the process. Keep it up, Boulder!

What can YOU do to help YOUR community establish a Meals on Wheels chapter? And if there is a MOW chapter already up and running, what can YOU do to help it extend its scope to fill the food gap wherever it exists in YOUR community?

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development on Tumblr by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, August 28, 2010

What’s in the Center of Your Local Economy?

A local economy delivers needs such as food, water, energy, housing, etc., to those who reside within a specific neighborhood, community, or rural area. Like any social system, its function is predicated on what or who is in the center.

In the diagram below, those who produce goods and services are in the center. From there, the system distributes output across stages of processing, preparation, and retail into a market where people choose to purchase what is delivered from multiple competitive options. Such a design opens up the possibility to purchase needs delivered by providers in the global economy and far removed from the transactional boundaries of the local economy. With such choices comes a reduction in local business revenue, outsourcing of paid work, and leakage of expenditures to provisioners outside the area. Basically, this is the way the current global economy works. It is the antithesis to the intent of a sustainable local economy.

Production-Centered Local Economies

In contrast, people placed in the center of a local economy invite a very different dynamic as suggested in the graphic below. Members of the social system meet their needs as close to the point of consumption as possible. The retail “ring” represents the transactional space wherein people take delivery of a needed product or service after completing its value-added cycle.

People-Centered Local Economies

Since people within a given locality share the same basic needs, they, collectively, define a steady market. This stabile and consistent demand invites an interdependence among businesses in the locally-oriented preparation, processing, and production “rings”.

A local economy is, by definition, a needs economy (see At the Bottom of the Pyramid, It’s Looking Up!). The survival and sustainability of people as a social unit depend on whether they can meet their basic needs without interruption. This imperative places people at the center of their local economy. This gives them access to the assets and resources within their purview and grants them license to deploy those means in ways that assure their continuity and reasonable quality of life.

To have production in the center invites those who are not invested in the sustainability of the local system to have control over its destiny. That is not an enviable situation in which to be. What’s in the center of your local economy?

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development on Tumbler by Steve Bosserman on August 20, 2010

Another Opportunity Space for Local Food Systems

Grocery Truck Caters to Underserved Market Open Learning

Michigan Ramps Up Efforts to Promote Healthy Eating by David Runk, June 4, 2010 in The Oakland Press

Produce Truck Brings Healthy Choices to Detroit by David Runk, August 24, 2009 in The Oakland Press

Peaches & Greens in Detroit by Mark Maynard, August 11, 2009

Not to detract from the value of having fresh fruits and vegetables available in urban food deserts, but the article “Vegetable Truck Pushes Nutrition in Detroit” by David Runk, Associated Press, August 11, 2009, referenced in Dana’s posting highlights yet another opportunity within neighborhood-based food systems:

“I can’t say if they have their own jingle, but I can imagine the sadness a child might feel when they run out to the front yard telling, “Ice Cream!” and instead find lettuce and string beans. But it’s about time eating healthy goes mainstream. Two Detroit teens hired to help with the vegetable truck service were presented with zucchini and had no idea what it was.”1

The last sentence suggests that people would benefit not only by having access to fresh, locally-grown food, but by having it processed / prepared on the spot into tasty meals that preserve natural nutritional value and are served quickly, conveniently, and affordably.

Perhaps some Veggie Vans or Peaches and Greens trucks could be outfitted as mobile kitchens that offer a full-range of options for neighborhood residents concerning their food supply. Then, imagine that the source of fresh food for those mobile kitchens is local in terms of food produced on vacant lots and abandoned properties in the neighborhood rather than within 100 miles. Then, imagine further that the owners / operators of the mobile kitchens are residents of the same neighborhood so that a complete food system begins to take shape within the community.

This lays the underpinnings for a local economy based, in part, on a local food system. It initiates a process by which resources are “grown” in the community, reinvested in the community, and used to strengthen the community through wider participation. This a local food system that truly means something to those who own it and care about it – community members.

Imagine. And with only a couple of converted vans and trucks to get it underway!

Originally posted to Local Food Systems by Steve Bosserman on Friday, October 2, 2009 16:31

  1. Version of article with this quote is not available online

Don’t Mix Apples and Oranges When Designing a Local Food System

On Monday, 24 November 2008, I attended a Poultry Processing Working Group meeting convened by Megan Schoenfelt at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, OH with a video link to the main campus for The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. Over 20 interested individuals and key representatives from various agencies, institutions, and businesses gave thoughtful consideration to the feasibility of designing, developing, manufacturing, operating, and maintaining mobile poultry processing units, e.g., slaughterhouse or abattoir, in support of small to medium sized poultry production enterprises throughout Ohio. At the conclusion, commitments were made by several to develop plans further, put them into action, and move the concept forward. Megan’s minutes will provide you with an excellent overview of the session.

Although the meeting achieved its objectives and assured progress to goals, one topic that surfaced frequently during the session concerned the design criteria for local food systems versus those for a global food system. The difficulty arises when elements of a global food system are mixed into the specification for a local / regional food system. The two systems have unique organizing principles. The business model / value proposition for one is fundamentally different than the other. For this reason, comparing the two haphazardly or indiscriminately blending elements from both into a hybrid is the equivalent of mixing apples and oranges — doing so puts subsequent plans at risk for unsuccessful implementation.

So what are the main characteristics of a global food system versus a local food system?

Characteristics of a Global Food System

Below is a diagram that illustrates the flow of food from production to consumption in a global food system. Key points include the following:

  • Producers have a narrow portfolio often consisting of a near monoculture of crops, e.g., corn and soybeans, animals for meat, e.g., cattle and hogs, or dairy and poultry. Their objective is to produce as much as possible of one item for the least unit cost.
  • Aggregators and distributors span significant geographic distances in support of the overall system as it relentlessly pursues lowest cost labor, easiest access to natural resources, and highest performance of technology wherever that may be in the world. Their objective is to optimize transportation payloads from one value-add stage to another.
  • Value-add processors and packagers make major investments in capital equipment and facilities to increase capacity and automate operations. Their objective is to appropriate technological innovation that facilitates economies of scale in their operations, amortizes investments across high volume runs, provides consumers with an array of choices within discrete product groups and reduces dependency on human labor.

To quickly summarize, global food systems prompt producers to focus on growing / raising a limited portfolio, logistics and distribution become big ticket items due to the global reach of the system, and value-add processors centralize their operations to command as much margin as possible.

Characteristics of a Local Food System

The diagram below depicts the flow of food from production to consumption in a local food system. The main elements include the following:

  • Producers have a diverse portfolio of crops grown and animals raised. Many of the entries in such a portfolio are indigenous, have mixed use applications, and are interspersed / intercropped. The objective is to optimize the portfolio to include as wide a selection of offerings as possible and effectively leverage assets. This combination provides a hedge to protect revenue and cap costs despite unexpected swings in supply and demand for particular products or failures due to unexpected conditions.
  • Food processing, preparation, and retail occur within a contained geographic space – 1-100 mile radius – so that as food is produced it travels a short distance for just-in-time delivery to the next step in the value chain. The objective is to place the sale of fresh food in close proximity to food preparation and processing so that quality, taste, freshness, ripeness, and appearance are maximized and waste and spoilage are minimized. What doesn’t get sold as retail or is used in preparation moves immediately to value-add processing. This type of highly-integrated stacking of functions assures the highest return on investment of time and resources.
  • The dynamics of a local / regional market create a situation where the community or cluster of communities participating in the local / regional food system impart a “brand” on the food produced, processed, prepared, and sold within it while consumers enjoy a wide variety of locally-produced foodstuffs. The objective is to draw upon the virtues of economies of scope, leverage brand recognition within the community, and establish sufficient market participation due to ample selection to drive the emergence of a local economy. And as widespread participation persists, the local economy is sustained and the community is stabilized.

As a recap, local food systems encourage participants to diversify their portfolios, leverage investments, take advantage of integrated food processing, preparation, and retail operations within a 10 – 100 mile radius, and utilize economies of scope to lay the groundwork for local economies to be established.

Beware Mixing Global and Local Food Systems

As is obvious by their definitions, the differences in organizing principles and business models between global and local food systems are significant. While both certainly can and must co-exist within the total food system, an indiscriminate mix of one with the other almost always disadvantages the local food system. In many instances it will prevent such a system from forming or becoming sustainable.

So, what about that mobile poultry processing unit? How would a local food system work with poultry?

  1. Diversify the production portfolio by including as many different kinds of domesticated birds, waterfowl, game birds, and exotic / specialty species as possible distributed across a wide range of small-scale producers.
  2. Keep the processing unit in close proximity to clusters of food retail, preparation, and value-add processing facilities to assure quality, timeliness, variety, and price advantages in local markets.
  3. Develop a strong brand identity in the local / regional market for the complete package of locally produced, processed, and prepared poultry products which obviously includes the mobile poultry processing unit.

Of course, attempting to operate as a global food system would be fraught with danger. Three actions to avoid:

  1. Limit producers’ portfolios to one of two kinds of birds. Worse yet, consolidate the number of producers into one or two large-scale producers.
  2. Distance the mobile poultry processing unit from the producers or those in downstream food preparation and value-add processing.
  3. Target consumer markets that are far afield from the point of production and processing so that local branding is difficult. Worse yet is to limit the range of product offerings so severely that sustainability is at risk due to lack of market exposure and penetration.

While this example of sorting through local and global food systems characteristics concerns poultry operations, it applies to all other food products. Perhaps you will find this checklist a useful guide when developing such food systems.

Originally posted to Local Food Systems by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, November 29, 2008 09:59