TALKING with Omari Washington,
of Hudson Valley Seed
School districts and Institutional purchasers represent the next chapter of growth for the Regional Food Movement but the barriers to their full participation are significant.
The global food market is perceived as reliable and convenient. The regional food movement has a lot of catching up to do in order to compete effectively with it.
Rural farmers need to work harder to get to know their urban markets and the diverse food preferences of the urban eater.
Contributor: Javier Gomez
About Hudson Valley Seed
Omari Washington, the former deputy director of Hudson Valley Seed, reflects here on the role of food education and school systems in creating a market demand for locally sourced food within our local urban communities.
Hudson Valley Seed is a nutrition-education-based nonprofit operating primarily within the Beacon and Newburgh Enlarged city school districts. Through its partnerships with these school districts, Hudson Valley Seed develops on-campus school gardens, and provides lessons in food literacy and healthy eating to over 4,000 elementary school students annually.
Omari notes that although increased demand from school districts for local food is advancing the growth of the regional food system, the challenges are many—including competition from what consumers perceive to be a more convenient and consistent global food system. He also believes farmers need to forge stronger connections with the urban communities they hope to serve and be open to growing the produce that urban populations from diverse cultures want to eat.
Schools Provide a Taste of the Regional Food System
For many young students, programs like Hudson Valley Seed provide the first opportunity to participate in our regional food system. In addition to lessons in agriculture and nutrition, Hudson Valley Seed works directly with school districts to expand their capacity to procure locally farmed foods and serve those foods to students in their cafeterias. Omari shares: "If students and their families aren’t able to access healthy affordable food then that is going to be a barrier to their ability to make that decision (to purchase local food).” He touts the recently implemented New York State Farm-to-School Program as a catalyst in incentivizing Hudson Valley Seed’s partnering school districts to give more attention to local food procurement.
Omari maintains that the involvement of schools districts as institutional purchasers of local food is crucial to creating a sustainable regional food system where urban-community residents have more encounters and opportunities to consume and purchase local food, and farmers gain a reliable institutional client in the school systems as well as an opportunity to engage a new urban market for their produce. Omari is observant to the emerging shift toward institutional buying of local produce: “The focus right now is on institutional purchasing like farm to school and farm to hospital, the idea being that if enough of these institutions begin buying locally that will create more market opportunities.”
Weekly Crop Shops at Schools Are a Good Start but Need to be Expanded
As an example of the way farms are developing new markets through partnerships with schools, Omari mentions recent successes Hudson Valley Seed has seen through “crop shops.” At crop shops—after-school farmer’s markets located at several Newburgh schools—parents and teachers have been able to supplement their regular grocery shopping with local food purchases. Omari points out that while initial interest in crop shops has been high more need to be developed to make a noticeable shift in consumer buying habits.
Omari states the problem simply: “When there is only one market a week a lot of people can’t do most of their shopping there because the food will go bad.”
The Challenge Goes Beyond Institutional Purchasing
While Omari is confident that the strategic approach to leverage large institutions as opportunities for local food procurement will have a positive impact on our regional food system, he acknowledges that the challenges in developing a consistent demand for local food within the Hudson Valley’s urban communities go beyond just institutional purchasing.
Omari states, “The focus on institutional procurement is working pretty well and I think we will see the results of that over the next five years, but it is complex. We’re talking about competing with a global, interconnected system. The globalized food system is extremely efficient in producing food with long shelf-life and uniformity. It has done such a good job at becoming standardized. Whereas, a local food system varies its produce by season.”
Omari makes an understated point here about the difference between a global (albeit unsustainable) food system and a regional system from the perspective of a majority of consumers. Our current system has possibly developed a societal standard and expectation for consistency and routine in what we eat that is probably unattainable outside the global food market. That level of consistency and reliability is not likely to be met fully by a regional food market.
Omari guesses that the current regional food market is not yet grappling with the level of demand for consistency that the global system has supported. He says, “The average person is eating locally somewhat as a novelty, they’re saying ‘Oh, it’s strawberry season! We can get some fresh strawberries.’ But it’s not seen as a regular part of their diet. If you need something that is easy, reliable, and fits into your schedule, then you’re going to the grocery store where you know they’re always going to have those bell peppers, they’re going to have that romaine lettuce. But if one week they’re only going to have Japanese eggplant or parsnips then that’s a mental shift you have to make to say ‘Okay, I’m not going to cook the thing I regularly make.'”
Farmers Need a Better Knowledge of Their Urban Markets
For Omari, a successful regional food system must provide an opportunity for farmers to gain a specific and informed understanding of what kinds of produce consumers are looking for. That is especially so in urban communities with historically weak relations with local farms. Omari says, “In order to fulfill the needs of your average consumer you have to know what they want to eat too.” He reports that in the last few decades there has been a social distance between urban communities like Newburgh or Poughkeepsie, and the local farming community.
A lack of interaction between these communities could have an impact on the demand and interest in local produce. Omari shares, “When you have farmers who don’t live in the communities they’re serving or don’t fully understand the communities they’re serving, they may be growing things that they (the farmers themselves) like or just growing what they can grow here easily, but that may not be what the community consumes.”
Omari recognizes that not enough work is being done at the local level to understand the food demands of urban communities, but he also doesn’t see it as realistic to put that ask onto small local farms.
“We’re trying to figure out in Newburgh right now how do we make food more accessible and representative of the different cultures that make up Newburgh,” says Omari. “The challenge is it’s hard to ask farmers to grow something that they are unfamiliar with and that they don’t know will sell.”
He shares his research-based perspective that historically New York farmers have produced the same food for decades, and that our state government has had an active regulatory role in promoting and preserving that consistency in produce. He believes our state can and should play a role in meeting the needs of new urban markets: “The state can help to figure out how to support a shift. That could mean providing incentives to farmers to do that so that they aren’t the only ones taking on that risk to try something new.”
An additional challenge is that few city residents own or work at farms, where they might have an opportunity to provide local produce for their community themselves, whether that be through urban agriculture projects or any farms in the vicinity of their city. Outside of some small-scale urban agriculture projects within Newburgh Omari notes that he is unaware of existing opportunities for urban residents to become farmers in the greater city area.
In parting, Omari expressed his belief that despite the obstacles, the movement toward a sustainable regional food system is gaining traction. He hopes that more research and storytelling will add new layers of insight about the movement and communicate its value in a way that garners more attention from policymakers, institutions, and investors.