Locally grown food initiative ends in Chattanooga

Locally grown food initiative ends in Chattanooga

November 21st, 2013 by Shelly Bradbury in Business Around the Region

The Benwood Foundation's program to promote locally grown food will shut down at the end of the year, almost four years after the initiative was launched.

Gaining Ground started in April 2010 with a three-year mission to establish a local food economy, link consumers with regional food growers and raise awareness about locally grown food. Benwood spent $2 million on the program, which was extended through 2013.

"It's a trendy issue now, but it wasn't when they started," said Joel Houser, executive director of Crabtree Farms, which will be continuing some of the work Gaining Ground did. "There was a lot of foresight that went into that, and it's thanks to that program that we are where we are."

In the early days, Gaining Ground worked with about 40 or 50 farmers and restaurant owners, and that's grown to more than 250 today, said Gaining Ground program director Jeff Pfitzer. The number of regular, full-time farmer's markets in Chattanooga grew from two to six, and the larger markets are growing sales between 30 and 50 percent every year.

"We have substantially stronger general awareness in the community about the importance of supporting local food," Pfitzer said. "We've really got a lot of momentum, and we're excited about that."

About 40 restaurants in Chattanooga regularly serve locally grown food, he added.

Much of Gaining Ground's focus was on public awareness and marketing campaigns, Pfitzer said. And while that big picture piece of the puzzle is ending, some of the initiative's efforts will continue through Crabtree Farms, which will continue to produce the annual Tastebuds local food guide and manage the Local Food Program's network of farmers, restaurants, grocerers and consumers.

Houser expects to spend around $105,000 annually on the Local Food Progam, and is applying for funding from Benwood for 2014. But, he added, the farm will also look to raise money from corporate sponsors and increase the program's revenue streams.

The end of Gaining Ground is also a good chance to reevaluate what the Local Food Program will offer in the future, he said.

"We want to figure out if there is anything we're doing that the time has passed for," Houser said. "A lot has changed in local food in Chattanooga since [Gaining Ground] started. It's an entirely different scenery."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.