Is there anything better than a fresh, ripe, juicy tomato? Yes. When it’s used to make your favorite dish and it tastes better, costs less, and contributes up to 4x more to the community. Is it possible? Yes, if those tomatoes were purchased from a local grower. From farmers markets to CSAs, school cafeterias and grocery stores, the market for local food in the Hudson Valley is expanding rapidly. Enhanced national awareness and concern for food traceability has increased consumer interest in locally and sustainably sourced food items across the country, and noticeably so here in the Hudson Valley (HV).
The Hudson Valley is home to over 3,100 farms producing more than $322 million of food annually. Often referred to as the “Bread-basket of New York State,” the Valley’s high quality soil and ample water supply give this region all the essential tools and resources needed to cultivate delicious, nutritious food. Yet despite the ideal market environment, the American Farmland Trust estimates a New York farm is lost to development every 3.5 days.
Why are farms disappearing and what can we do to prevent it? Answer: Patronize local businesses that support area farms. In other words, dine local.
Located in a region driven by agriculture and rooted in community, Hudson Valley businesses have the perfect conditions to take advantage of this growing trend. But, this type of behavior change doesn’t come easily, particularly when it comes to the food we consume. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the typical American meal contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries outside of the United States. The fresh vegetables on your salad travel an average of 1,596 miles before reaching your plate and the fruit for your breakfast oatmeal racks up an average of 2,146 miles. Several studies have found that purchasing local and sustainably grown produce not only reduces carbon emissions, but is fresher, higher in nutrients and more flavorful. And local, sustainably grown meats contain more antioxidants and good cholesterol than their factory farmed alternatives.
Encouraging consumers to support area farms when they cook at home as well as when they eat out would amplify the economic and health benefits of purchasing food grown locally. Just to put the power of consumer demand in perspective, if residents in the Hudson Valley and New York City spent 10% of their food dollars on food produced in the region, the result would be nearly $4.5 billion in sales alone. This 10% shift would generate vast opportunities for expansion of the HV’s local food marketplace. A recent study conducted by Re>Think Local and Civic Economics found that Hudson Valley restaurants keep more than 2.5x more money circulating in the local economy than corporate chains. That’s 2.5 more dollars towards the salary of a local waitress, or 2.5 more dollars donated to a local foundation — the list goes on — that’s the beauty of keeping hard earned dollars within our communities; a far greater percentage of revenue is recirculated directly back into the local economy.
It is impossible to discuss food systems without mentioning restaurants, and here in the Hudson Valley, we love to dine out. As one of the most powerful industries in New York State, with over 44,569 locations generating over $34.5 billion in sales, the restaurant industry has the opportunity to benefit immensely from this growing trend and simultaneously support farming communities throughout the state.
Chefs and restaurant managers have expressed great interest in the trend already; in 2013, The National Restaurant Association (NRA) surveyed 1,300 professional chefs on which food trends and culinary themes they expected to be most popular in the following year. The survey found three of the top six in the “Top 20 Trends” for 2014 were local sourcing of meats, seafood, and produce. The NRA estimates – even 10 years from now – local sourcing is expected to remain a top priority, indicating that the popularity of local food is not simply a short term fad, but here to stay.
So, are you joining the local food movement, if yes, how? Tweet me your favorite recipe, farm market, or restaurant on Twitter: @JessARidgeway. Do you know what’s grown locally during spring in the Hudson Valley? And how does your go-to “main street” restaurant measure up?
Are you interested in learning more about how you can capitalize on the local food economy in NYS? Stay tuned for the next blog in this series which will focus on building sustainable and profitable relationships between food growers and preparers.