Growing Local Food Connections Online
With farms now exporting across the world, it can be nearly impossible to track the trail that food goes through before it comes to the table. Many restaurants, supermarkets, schools, and most of all, buyers, are concerned about the long paths that many foods travel before they are consumed, and the pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, and other additives that make the journey possible and economical. Local farmers, distributors, and buyers are seeking a better way to shop and to sell and are reaching out to their neighbors instead. One online marketplace has made it easier than ever to find exactly where food comes from and made it available to buy.
Covering over 16,000 square miles, the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan is bigger than nine states and encompasses thousands of acres of farmland. The UP Food Exchange (UPFE) is an online marketplace and partnership of regional food hubs that helps to make these distances easier to cover. UP farmers as well as restaurants, supermarkets, schools, and other wholesale buyers can join the UPFE for free and utilize a number of online tools to locate a wide range of 100% homegrown ingredients.
“The work that we’re doing is local,” said Michelle Walk, Extension Educator through the Michigan State University Extension office, which represents the eastern third of a three-part alliance including the Marquette Food Hub and the Western UP Health Department. “We work predominantly with small and mid-scale farms that use organic food practices,” said Walk, though other members also use traditional farming methods. The UPFE directory includes more than 130 farms that grow, raise or make dozens of different fruits, vegetables, meats, trees, plants, and honey. The UPFE also hosts classes and distributes information to buyers and sellers on food safety, branding, labeling, marketing, and a wide variety of other resources.
Michigan’s UP is heavily reliant on agriculture, making the UPFE a powerful asset in optimizing distribution. The online marketplace allows buyers and sellers to find, make, and manage orders through the system with a few clicks, skipping time-consuming calls, purchase orders, and mailings. Connecting with buyers and sellers throughout the area does, however, require reliable Internet.
“We tried to pick a platform that someone could use through dial-up,” said Walk. Many rural areas in the UP still lack broadband Internet, or options available are not economical. “It has been a challenge as we’ve used primarily an electronic format.”
Communities in the UP seeking broadband expansion through Connect Michigan, Connected Nation’s state branch, have included the UPFE as a part of their technology plans. With broadband Internet available in more areas throughout the UP, more farmers and more restaurants, supermarkets, schools, and other buyers will be able to get online and buy local.
To learn about other online initiatives and local programs connecting citizens through broadband, stay in touch with www.connectmycommunity.org.