A Roadmap to Local Sustainable Foods: Part 1

In 2014, the Bush Consulting Group developed a roadmap to build a sustainable foods business cluster for Cuyahoga County. The roadmap was a five-year plan “centered on competitively advantaged clusters, or geographic concentrations of
interconnected businesses, suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions in a particular sector.” So, right up The Center for Food Innovation @ Oberlin’s alley!

The roadmap outlines eight interventions needed for the region to meet the goal of creating a sustainable food sector and increasing regional jobs, revenue, and sustainability by supporting local food and beverage businesses. We’re going to take a look at these eight options and see what has happened since the roadmap was created and where there are still gaps in the proposed plan.

We had the opportunity review these interventions with Casey Hoy and Brian Gwin, professor and staff member respectively, at the Ohio State University Wooster extension about the the progress they’ve seen (or not seen). This article covers an overview of the first four interventions, including Hoy and Gwin’s perspectives, and part two covers the last four.

Health snacks, craft beers, and specialty cheeses stand out as category leaders and represent high growth opportunities.

Intervention 1: Establish NEO Food Expo and regional match-maker to help shift $100 million in regional food business spend (2% of total) to local producers.

The region has many strengths it can leverage for this intervention. First of all, more and more people are interested in buying local. Secondly, incubator kitchens are more robust and fairly solid options for entrepreneurs now. Back when the report was created these businesses were still in the development phase for the most part. Now, there are many creators using these spaces and generating enough volume in product that there are now more opportunities in co-packing and refrigeration centers that are needed. One great example of this is Central Kitchen in Cleveland. That being said, there hasn’t really been an NEO Food Expo, and just now with CFI’s creation, a regional match-maker group is only in the beginning phases of supporting organized partnerships.

Intervention 2: Expand nutrition access partnerships to new products and retailers to drive consumption of local, healthy, value-added foods via a federally funded pilot.

While the pandemic opened our eyes to our national and local food systems like never before, there’s still a lot of work to do to educate consumers about the value of local and the true cost of the food in the grocery stores. Additionally, while farmers markets, CSAs and other fresh food sources have gained traction, it will be just as important to maintain current levels of consumer support and increase momentum in the local food movement to see any real nutritional impact in the region. While the pandemic has skewed the number of SNAP benefit participants upward over the last few years, it is expected that the 2023 Farm Bill will only strengthen the local aspect of the program’s reach.

Intervention 3: Develop an anaerobic digestion partnership for food waste recovery to divert 20% of annual food waste.

This may be the least successful of the eight interventions so far. There were a couple projects when this report was written, but unfortunately incentives like federal programs and subsidized loans were stripped away, stunting the expansion of waste and carbon recovery programs. In addition, natural gas prices began to drop around this time too, making it even more difficult for biogas, an end product of these processes, to be competitive on the market. That said, there has recently been a resurgence of interest in biogas in California, so it is possible we could see a similar trend here in Ohio. Quasar Energy Group, an Ohio based renewable energy and organics management company, has actually been installing digesters all around Ohio.

The food waste focus has shifted to reducing commercial distribution waste. This involves redirecting waste in commercial distribution to emergency food suppliers. For example, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective has partnerships with Walmart and Kroger. This may not be a long-term solution though since companies are getting better at keeping their foods fresh and therefore reducing the amount that they would have to either discard or donate, which could impact the feasibility of digesters too if food waste is drastically reduced. On the consumer (at-home) end, composting is becoming more and more popular and accessible with organizations like Rust Belt Riders in Cleveland.

Intervention 4: Assess frozen food intermodal facility feasibility for increasing rail shipments in and out of the region to drive export growth.

There are already a lot of frozen food manufacturers in Northeast Ohio today. One of the issues here is that truck transportation of frozen products is expensive and limits regional export opportunities. With that, the state has been doing a lot to improve intermodal transportation (when two or more types of transportation are used i.e. farm > truck > rail > consumer) to increase export capacity, most notably to allow stacking of shipping containers on the rail system. This means more volume would be able to ship at once and therefore reducing shipping costs.

For the most part, these four interventions have come a long way since 2014. There has been a lot of progress made toward making Northeast Ohio an ideal location for an agtech cluster and CFI is here to help the region continue down this prosperous path.

Read part two of this roadmap update now.

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