Effort aims to keep more food dollars in state

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

With little effort, Southwest Nebraskans can enjoy choice, locally-sourced beef through a local locker plant, directly from a rancher or by placing an order at a steak house.

But how many of us actually care where that T-bone was born?

Fill up our shopping carts at the grocery or big-box store, and most of that food traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to reach our pantries or refrigerators.

Sure, no tomato that was picked green to ripen while waiting to be purchased can compare to a fresh-from-the-vine Big Boy, but we want our BLTs when we want them, not just when tomatoes are in season.

“When we spend food dollars outside of the state, that weakens our local economy and limits local access points,” said Sandra Renner of the Center for Rural Affairs and co-author of a new report, “Biting Into Food Access: A View of Nebraska’s Food System.”

That beef and veal? Nebraska is the top exporter, but where did that hamburger you plan to have for lunch originate?

While 1,300 Nebraska farms sell directly consumers, with sales of $5.9 million, that’s only 0.04 percent of the farm product sales in the state, according to the report.

During the 2017-18 school year, Nebraska Farm to School reported $2.7 million in total local food purchases, including melons, vegetables, chicken and milk.

Currently, only about 10 percent of the $4.4 billion that Nebraskans spend on food annually is expended on products grown and processed in the state.

Why so little? It’s a matter of simple economics; large, out-of-state producers and processors are set up to deliver product at lower prices, taking advantage of economies of scale and climates more conducive to fruit and vegetable production.

The report, which examines demographics, food production and land use, food consumption and access, and food waste, offers guidance for the newly-formed Nebraska Food Council.

That group has created a list of research topics, policy work and areas of focus that need to be pursued.

“We’re looking at how to better feed our population and how to shift toward creating opportunities for more food production aimed at human consumption,” Renner said. “By addressing key issues on food, farm, small business and community-level and institutional policy, there is potential to identify strengths, changes needed and gaps in the food system.”

Seed catalogs are already arriving, and gardeners are already planning this year’s efforts. Some of them plan to raise much more than their families need, and sell the rest at local farmers’ markets.

Those of us without green thumbs or time to pursue home vegetable production can support them by visiting those weekend gathering places, or buying vegetables from a local producer whenever we can.

Perhaps Nebraska can’t compete directly with vegetable production giants like California, Texas, Florida or Arizona, but with imagination, innovation and determination, we can shift more of our food dollars to friends and neighbors instead of sending them out of state.

Check out the report here: http://bit.ly/2TuGZGu

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