-- Want to help your own and fellow local small businesses? I've got an appetizing suggestion: buy and eat more "local" food.
Slow Food Nation – a celebration of local, sustainable food – took place over Labor Day weekend in San Francisco. I had three deliciously educational days, where I learned about the positive effects of buying and eating locally-grown or raised food. (And I ate a lot of some simply scrumptious food.)
Yes, I know, this sounds like one of those arugula-and-goat cheese fads for yuppies. And, I admit, there are a lot of those kinds of folks in the local-food movement. But the major beneficiaries are small businesses. First, the small farmers, ranchers, or fishermen from whom the food is purchased. But all local small businesses benefit when dollars stay in a community instead of being sent overseas or across country to distant suppliers.
Indeed, my own interest in local food comes, in large part, because of my commitment to small business. That's because many of the same reasons to buy local food are the same for buying any local product or service:
• Sustains local economies
• Supports small businesses
• Reduces reliance on fossil fuels and makes us more energy independent
• Reduces greenhouse gases
• Reduces reliance on foreign suppliers
• Increases our diversity and health
Food in American society has been like virtually every other product.
"Post World War II," says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, "farms became national. Once New Jersey was the 'garden state' for New York, … but supermarkets wanted to deal with fewer suppliers. (That became possible) with cheap fossil fuels, interstate highways, refrigerated trucks."
The same – minus the refrigerated trucks – could be said for virtually every product or service. Large retailers and corporations wanted to consolidate their purchasing by turning to large, typically non-local, even overseas, suppliers.
But the cost of fuel is changing that. For example, according to Pollan, the price of shipping a box of broccoli went from $3 to $10 in a single year. As a result, large buyers are more interested in local sources.
"Every bite of food has fossil fuel in it," explains Gary Nabhan, author of Where Our Food Comes From. "The west coast of Mexico feeds the east coast of the United States." This is not only more costly than buying locally and produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases, it makes our food supply more vulnerable to both illness and terrorists. That was certainly evident after this summer's widespread salmonella outbreak in the U.S. that was traced to peppers from Mexico.
"What if every local group met at a local food restaurant and that restaurant bought their plates and supplies from local companies?" asked Nabhan. "It would help bring health and wealth back to the local community."
Localization and diversification is good in our food supply, our energy supply and in every other product or service. When large retailers rely solely on national suppliers it makes them less competitive with lower-priced retailers or Internet sellers who can easily obtain the same products. When a large corporation relies almost exclusively on distant vendors it makes them more vulnerable to disruptions or cost increases in transportation.
I'm betting that the local movement is starting with food – but it won't stop there. If large retailers, restaurants, and corporations have success with local food – both in terms of consumer demand and also learning how to create the infrastructure to make it efficient and affordable to purchase from local suppliers – food may become a prototype for other types of products and services to be purchased from local sources: maybe even yours.
So add local farmers' markets into your shopping routine. Ask your grocery store to start carrying more local produce and meats. Look for local restaurants that buy from local farmers. Then, start making an effort to shop at local retailers – I'm guessing it's often cheaper – when you figure in the cost of gas – to buy from your local hardware store instead of driving across town to Home Depot.
You'll meet your neighbors, support your community, help your local economy. Sooner or later, some of those dollars will come back to you. The future is local – and small businesses are local businesses.
Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Their newest is Finding an Angel Investor In A Day. Register for Rhonda's free business planning newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com. For an index of her columns, click here. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2008.