RALEIGH — As the 2011 legislature works to close a big budget gap while also keeping North Carolina moving forward with economic development and job creation, I offer some food for thought.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolinians spend approximately $35 billion annually on food. That's a lot of money. If we buy more locally grown food, more of that money stays here in the state.
Many studies have shown that investing in locally owned and operated farms and businesses generates more wealth, jobs and income for the community than investing in non-locally owned businesses. There is a multiplier effect when money is circulated and re-spent in a locale. This effect makes intuitive sense: local businesses often spend more money on local labor, local inputs, local services and professionals, utilities, taxes, etc.
According to the food industry newsletter Packaged Facts, 70 percent of people want to know where their food comes from and how it was grown, and are willing to pay more for locally grown foods. We should capitalize on this strong and growing demand and bolster our state economy at the same time.
Even though data clearly show that investing in local businesses is good for the economy and job creation, we spend a great deal of money (in the form of tax relief and incentives) in the state and throughout our counties to attract businesses and jobs from outside the state. Why not "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps" by investing similar resources in the infrastructure and local entrepreneurial initiatives which would allow us to capitalize on the demand for local foods and the many dollars spent on food every day in the state?
No one is advocating to eat only what is grown locally. North Carolina, however, is well-positioned as compared to other states to realign its economy and its policies to benefit from a smart balance of local and global strategies.
With food, it does make sense to seek out locally grown products when they are available and when there is a choice. Yet there are significant barriers to increasing the amount of local products available in our markets and our larger institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals.
The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and others, including several county governments, are working to overcome these barriers (for example, developing processing capacity, value-added facilities, local aggregators and distribution networks) which can ultimately lead to significant job creation. It's a win-win situation for everyone.
And the benefits? There are many, including keeping our rural areas vibrant, preserving farmland and enhanced food security. But one benefit stands out above the rest: health.
Nutrition-related illnesses are taking a significant toll on the state's human and financial resources. In 2009, 65 percent of adults were overweight or obese, and 28 percent of high school children were overweight or obese. Nearly 10 percent of the population suffers from diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Diabetes Association, medical expenditures in the state to treat diabetes and obesity amount to well more than $5 billion per year.
Subsidized, processed food is cheap and plentiful, but its long-term health costs are staggering. To the extent that the majority of such foods come from out of state, we are suffering a negative multiplier of sorts: in addition to the wealth we transfer out-of-state, we assume a health liability that grows each year.
By helping to make more local and fresh fruits, vegetables and other farm products available, we will not only impact food-related diseases, but also the health care costs the state incurs in treating them.
Availability of fresh farm products is one thing, but what makes us think they will be consumed more, especially by children who need to begin making sensible eating choices at an early age?
The answer is taste. Because we can grow varieties locally that can be picked at their peak of ripeness and nutritional quality - and have been bred for taste, flavor and nutrition rather than their ability to be picked green and shipped across the country - we can get kids to want to eat fruits and vegetables again. They will clamor (really!) for peaches and tomatoes, and we will change a mindset and our future.
Let's get creative and utilize our important and rich natural resource base, long growing season and human capital, and bring our state back from the brink.
Nancy G. Creamer is director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and distinguished professor of sustainable community based food systems at N.C. State University. Information about a campaign to have people spend 10 percent of food dollars on local food is at nc10percent.com.