Why Sarasota Needs a Foodshed Study

Eat Local Week 2014 keynote speaker Michael Shuman.

Eat Local Week 2014 keynote speaker Michael Shuman.

Two weeks ago, Sarasota County's ninth annual Sustainable Communities Workshop generated a three-ring binder's worth of bright ideas. The daylong event sparked conversations about how to plan for climate change, how to reach citizens who live in our area's 19 food deserts and how to more wisely invest public economic development dollars.

Amid all that, Transition Sarasota Executive Director Don Hall mentioned a simple and eminently doable idea: Let's raise $10,000 to commission a foodshed study by economist and author Michael Shuman, the event's keynote speaker.

What's a foodshed study? The idea is to try to figure out exactly what kind of impact localizing our food consumption would have on our area. Shuman has performed that type of analysis in a number of different areas, places like Boulder, Denver, Detroit and more. In Cleveland, for example, Shuman charted what "the 25% shift" - i.e. meeting 25 percent of local food demand within Northeast Ohio - might look like. Shuman projected incredible results: 27,664 new jobs, $4.2 billion in increased regional output, $126 million in new state and local tax collections. Huge.

For our area, Hall would like Shuman to limit his study to a 10 percent shift. That might sound small, but Hall emphasizes how far we have to go to get to that point.  He estimates that local food consumption is currently around 1 percent. So to get to that 10 percent threshold, we'd need, say, 10 more Jessica's Organic Farms.

And we'd also need to aggressively rethink our planning and economic development policies, something Hall thinks could be helped along by presenting local officials with the concrete numbers only Shuman can provide. Hall says he's pitched local officials on the idea of a large-scale local food shift before, and while the initial reaction is excitement, when he tries to follow up, he gets no response. He says the pattern is "indicative" of where the local movement stands on the Suncoast: "brief bursts of excitement" that peter out.

Not that the trend toward localization is fading away. Far from it. One of the most surprising stats Hall shared at the Sustainable Communities event was how rapidly the local food industry has grown in the past three years. Each year, Transition Sarasota compiles an encyclopedic and invaluable Eat Local Guide and Directory. In 2011, the group identified 98 local food businesses. This year, they found 253.

But to push on to bigger and better things, it's going to take engaged government policy, a point Shuman emphasized during his talk two weeks ago. He chided the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County for considering offering $137 million in land and tax breaks to a single company that promised to hire just 191 employees.

"You folks have just wasted an enormous amount of money on big outside corporate attractions," Shuman told SNN. "That takes away public money that could be better used to produce more jobs."

Hall says his goal of commissioning a Sarasota foodshed study by Shuman generated positive feedback throughout Eat Local Week, Transition's weeklong celebration of local food. The $10,000 figure Hall cites reflects the fact that $5,000 has already been committed to the project. Hall says he'd like to see local government embrace the study and fund it. There's no "silver bullet" that will magically localize our food industry, Hall says. The plan is to "work outward organically" from where we are today. But the time is right for a study of Shuman's kind.

"We're building up the groundswell, but then there's this series of tipping points," Hall says. "We're at one now."

Let's hope so.


Watch Shuman's full presentation at the Sustainable Communities Workshop here, captured by the Flow Factory's Steve McAllister: