The limits of locally grown food

Bunch of asparagus

TEXT OF STORY

Renita Jablonski: Demand is healthy for locally grown food at farmers markets and in restaurants. Of course, a restaurant kitchen that serves 75 meals a night isn't the same as an institutional kitchen that serves 10,000. From WHYY in Philadelphia, Peter Crimmins tells us economies of scale are keeping the local food movement small.


Peter Crimmins: John Cipolini is in charge of every meal served at the University of Pennsylvania. And to celebrate Penn's commitment to locally grown food, he planned a special dinner for 700 with items from nearby farms.

John Cipolini: Asparagus was going to be one of the featured items. And delivery day came around, and we had had a cold snap, and lo and behold, no asparagus.

Instead, he told 700 customers to have more salad. That's embarrassing. So, when Cipolini feeds 10,000, most of the food comes from large distributors. Cipolini can't risk his food supply on the vagaries of local farming.

Cipolini: We could probably single-handedly wipe out the free-range chicken population in Pennsylvania, if we decided to buy nothing but. Very quickly. Probably within a couple of days.

Local produce also tends to be pricier. Glenn Brendle grows peppers and tomatoes and herbs on a few dozen acres in Lancaster County. Recently, he said, he visited a huge asparagus farm in Mexico.

Glenn Brendle: When you have 1,000 acres of asparagus and somebody calls up and wants a ton and a half, even if you only make a penny a pound on it, you know, you're still making reasonable amount of money. If I have a little patch, say, quarter of an acre of asparagus, and I have to sell it for a penny a pound, it doesn't pay me to go down there and pick it.

A Philadelphia agency called the Farm to Institution project is trying to bridge the gap between farmers and institutional kitchens. Its director, Lindsay Gilmour, said one way is to ask the institutions to tailor their demand to what the farmers can supply, and vice-versa.

Lindsay Gilmour: What we decided to do was develop a limited list of products, that we would get an understanding of the volume that institutions need and an understanding of the volume that the farmers could potentially supply, and build the supply of those products.

In order for a relationship like that to work, it requires something you don't often see in the open market: loyalty.

In Philadelphia, I'm Peter Crimmins for Marketplace.

Jablonski: Starting tomorrow, Marketplace Morning Report takes a look at the global food crisis. Be sure to listen for our special series, Food Fight.

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