The Newest Champion of Local Food: City Hall

Boulder, Colo., is rolling out a huge initiative to get residents to spend more of their food dollars locally.

A farmers market in Boulder, Colo. (Photo: Courtesy

Oct 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

If your city has a thriving local food scene, you probably owe thanks to the restaurants and farmers markets, advocacy groups and nonprofits, and small farmers and conscientious residents who worked together to help build it—not your mayor or city council member. Save for the relatively recent addition in some cities of food initiatives or sustainability “czars,” municipal governments have more often played a background role, choosing to focus their energies on reducing crime, improving schools, or approving new development.

The ever-crunchy city of Boulder, Colo., may change that dynamic, however, when it rolls out an expansive, multipronged initiative to increase local food procurement and consumption. The initiative, Making Local Food Work, which could launch as early as next spring, is the result of almost two years of city-led roundtables and working-group discussions with educators, nonprofits, farmers, and other local food advocates.

Tim Plass, a Boulder city council member, made local food a platform during his election in 2011 and, along with Council Member Suzanne Jones, helped spark the project. He says the response from the community has been impressive. Local advertising agencies have donated as much as $50,000 in marketing assistance to help with a consumer education campaign, the city is investigating how to leverage publicly owned lands for the expansion of urban agriculture, and Plass and others working with the city are asking farmers and producers what infrastructure—such as cold storage, for instance—would be helpful in expanding their operations. The initiative, he adds, has been one of the least controversial issues the council has taken up.

“Making sure that our citizens are healthy is a building block of a successful city,” he says. “We do that in a lot of ways, whether it’s park design or equipping our first responders. Local food is a natural extension of that.”

Boulder may be making some of the bigger strides on this front, but other city halls aren’t too far behind, with many adding sustainability offices and convening food policy councils to guide policy decisions. Some cities, such as Salt Lake City, have gone a step further, creating specific plans for increased local food production. But Plass says he’s unaware of another place “where there’s a mix of city and county governments, nonprofits and for-profits, and farmers” working together to focus specifically on bolstering local food economies.

The initial members of Making Local Food Work are the city of Boulder, Boulder County, the Boulder County Farmers’ Market, the Boulder Valley School District, the Chef Ann Foundation, Local Food Shift, Naturally Boulder, the University of Colorado, and the environmental advocacy group 350 Boulder County.

Plass says the initiative will launch with an education campaign focused on the health and economic benefits of buying more local food. Currently, around 2 percent of the food Colorado residents eat is grown in-state, according to Plass, but he’d like to see that number doubled in Boulder County by partnering with organizations like Local Food Shift, which is asking residents on the Front Range to shift 10 percent of their food budget to local items. The Making Local Food Work campaign will ask consumers to make small changes that, cumulatively, make a big difference, such as replacing one packaged product they regularly buy with a local product or joining a community-supported agriculture program.

But Plass recognizes that for too many of the city’s low-income residents and those he calls “food challenged,” swapping out a can of tomatoes for the $6 heirloom tomato from a farmers market may not be a shift they can afford. He says Boulder’s Double SNAP program, which matches food stamp dollars spent at farmers markets, extends the local food budget for low-income residents, and the city is looking into planting food forests and edible landscaping near poorer neighborhoods.

Boulder may be the perfect test case for such a large-scale, city-driven local food campaign. For one, it’s on the smaller size as cities go, with a population of just over 100,000 people (310,000 countywide), perhaps simplifying outreach and tracking. Boulder is also already one of the nation’s healthiest cities, and residents are accustomed to exercising and eating healthfully. It’s also home to more than eight natural foods stores. But while the city might become a prototype for similar-sized municipalities, Plass says there’s a deeper significance to the city’s push to accommodate more local food.

“There’s this whole role of local food that’s about community building,” Plass says. “It’s about knowing your farmers and knowing your neighbors. It’s about rebuilding these connections in our community, and food is the perfect vehicle to do that.”