Recent Developments in the Local Food Community Highlight Positive Growth

Parisi’s organic garden plan, FEED Kitchens, Willy Street Co-op among those pushing the ecosystem forward

In the eleven years we have written this column there have been a handful of times that felt significant in terms of moving the local, sustainable food system story forward. This is one of those times. Several developments in the last couple of months either build in meaningful ways on a growing food ecosystem or portend growth to come. All feel like the geniune articles.

In mid-September, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced the designation of twenty-four acres near CamRock County Park as a pilot parcel for its new initiative to make county-owned land accessible to farmers who wish to grow organic crops. What’s important here is the idea of organic growing, as some parks have used conventional agriculture as an interim management tool for years. This move is a recognition of new perspectives on the impact of those policies on natural land management and of course the growth and interest in local foods.

Slow Food Madison recently held a Slow Food Swap for folks interested in trading homemade, homegrown and foraged food. It’s exciting to think policies like Dane County’s will expand the number of people who are able to make, grow or find such foods. At the same time, there are important conversations going on at the state level on relaxing unnecessary restrictions on the distribution and sale of home-produced goods. The federal Food and Drug Administration has been having similar hearings at the national level and a variety of local organizations, including REAP, the Urban League of Greater Madison, the Farley Center and the Willy Street Co-op have worked collaboratively to solicit and gather local input.

The new FEED Kitchens on North Sherman Avenue will obviously be a major factor as well. Not only are the five commercial-grade kitchens in the facility now open to local food entrepreneurs and home chefs, but the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation has launched a program to support new food entrepreneurs, including those interested in using the FEED incubator. WWBIC’s “Business Planning for Food Business” class series is scheduled to begin in January at the Goodman Community Center and promises to provide “in-depth learning about all major aspects of operating a food business.”

Meanwhile, the Willy Street Co-op took a Slow Money idea, won support from Forward Community Investments and assistance from the UW Extension and created a $100,000 Local Vendor Loan Fund. The pilot program now underway will provide up to four loans in the $25,000 to $30,000 range to support the sustainable growth of local food companies. According to Willy Co-op finance director David Waisman, the future may include allowing co-op members to invest in the fund, expanding the amount of money available and increasing the number of loan recipients.

UW–Madison is making another contribution to this movement, hiring a faculty member whose job is specifically to support local produce. Julie Dawson joins the Department of Horticulture as an urban and regional foods specialist and will, in her words, “focus on farmers who are marketing directly to consumers,” and serve “the needs of Wisconsin’s small, direct-to-market farms—including those located in and around urban areas—that sell their produce at local farmers’ markets, restaurants and grocery stores, and through community supported agriculture shares.” She expects to field a lot of calls from people interested in starting small farms or with questions about small-farm management.

Add in initiatives like J.H. Findorff & Son’s Findorff Gardens, which produced five hundred pounds of produce for local food pantries, and we are seeing an influx of resources and creativity that feels not just well thought out but also authentic in their
inception and execution.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. 

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