Building Wealth from the Ground Up

A recent study proved that buying a mere 10% of our food from local growers may add as much as $80 million a year to Sarasota’s economy. Local nonprofit Transition Sarasota’s goal is to help make this a reality.

Don Hall, founder and executive director of Transition Sarasota, believes the best way to improve the world is to start locally.

Through educational programs, community dialogue, and innovative projects, Hall, 30, says Transition Sarasota’s goal is to revitalize local agriculture, strengthen the local economy, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and bring about a new vision for Sarasota’s future.

“There are probably a couple of thousand Transition groups around the world,” he said. “We started out here in Sarasota in 2010 by doing events. We did over 80 public events the first year on energy, the economy, food. We had film screenings, speakers, panel discussions. Then we gradually moved into projects.”

Transition Sarasota’s first endeavor was the Suncoast Gleaning Project, which focuses on the harvesting of surplus produce at Jessica’s Organic Farm in Sarasota.

“I think we harvested somewhere in the area of 60,000 pounds of organic produce that we’ve donated to All Faiths Food Bank, which they’ve distributed to their agency partners in Sarasota and DeSoto counties,” Hall said. “You know, we outsource practically every aspect of our lives, to the extent that we produce nearly none of our basic needs locally. What we want to do is start with the most basic thing we can do, which is to grow more of our own food. That has benefits for health, for the economy, for sustainability, and a host of other factors.”

Another project launched by Transition Sarasota is the Eat Local Resource Guide and Directory (www.eatlocalsrq.org), an online index that lists local produce, wine, meat and fish, farm stands, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, wholesalers, buying clubs, community gardens, and farm and garden suppliers, to name a few.

“The guide supplies around 200 businesses that are involved in our local food system, from Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and DeSoto counties,” Hall said. “They all serve local produce and have a commitment to working with local farmers and grocers. Hopefully our first print edition of the guide will come out this fall.”

Another part of the guide consists of a 10 percent local food shift pledge, which asks visitors to grow or buy at least 10 percent of their food locally.

“There was a study done back in 2006 by Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota that found if all of Sarasota County’s residents spent just 10 percent of their food dollars buying directly from a local farmer, it would add $80 million a year to our local economy,” Hall said. “Food is a $1 billion industry just in Sarasota County, so directing some of those food dollars to local farmers and growers means that they’re more likely to get spent again with somebody else locally.”

Hall said Transition Sarasota is currently supported by donations and grants, as well as funds brought in through workshops and special events. Sponsors and partners include the University of Florida, Whole Foods, Sir Speedy, Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, and All Faiths Food Bank, among others. But additional sponsors and volunteers are always welcome and can register at the Transition Sarasota website by logging on to www.transitionsrq.org.

“People are also welcome to come out during the gleaning season, which runs from October until the end of May,” he said. “We’re harvesting almost every week at Jessica’s Organic Farm at 4180 47th Street in Sarasota, and our workers go home with a bag of some of the fresh produce - lettuce, kale, collard greens, fennel, beets, cucumbers - they’ve harvested in appreciation for their time.”

Hall added that Transition Sarasota, along with its partners around the world, is a do-it-yourself model of community engagement and urged interested members of the public to get more involved in its activities.

“All local initiatives are self-organized,” he said. “There’s no coordinated strategy. It’s mainly a learning network for best practices of how to do this in the community. It’s an ambitious mission. We’re not just trying to change one small thing, we’re trying to change the whole thing - to instill a vision of the future, because assumptions we’ve had about the future are not panning out.”

Hall added that due to the economic downturn, states and municipalities are encountering serious budget shortages and the cutting of social programs.

“What’s going to fill that void?” he asked. “There is now enormous pressure on social arrangements we’ve made for basic systems like our food system, like our financial system. And we need to be proactive about how we’re going to meet those challenges. At Transition Sarasota, we’re going to build year after year, to do just that. We’re aiming pretty high here.”