Any doubts about the significance of the local food movement in the United States were dispelled in May 2007, when the cover of Time magazine proclaimed “Forget Organic, Eat Local.” Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, describing her family’s efforts to embrace a 100-mile diet, became a national bestseller. Also in 2007, the Oxford Dictionary called “locavore” one of the most important new words of the year. Today, anyone who walks through an American city, suburb, and town will find at least one restaurant, supermarket, or farmers market advertising “local food sold here.” This movement is spreading worldwide. Slow Food International, for example, boasts more than 100,000 members in 132 countries.
Yet the local food movement is still not very well understood. To many, local food is exclusively about proximity, with discriminating consumers demanding higher-quality food grown, caught, processed, cooked, and sold by people they know and trust. But an equally important part of local food is local ownership of food businesses. Indeed, without well-designed small enterprises, local food would be an oxymoron. Proximity and ownership, of course, are naturally related to one another—locally owned food businesses tend to focus on local markets, and locavores tend to favor these businesses—but not always. As locally owned food businesses grow, they often reach into global markets. This report is about the full range of locally owned businesses involved in food, whether they are small or big, whether their focus is local or global markets. We call these businesses community food enterprises (CFEs).
Many of our readers thinking about CFEs might conjure up images of roadside stands selling bruised apples, of food cooperatives with industrial sized bins of dry grains for self-service, or of fancy restaurants with meals affordable only by the rich. Even though these scenes are contradictory— it’s hard, after all, to be simultaneously proletarian and praetorian—they are consistent in suggesting a movement that operates on the fringe.
This report aims to provide a more nuanced, comprehensive, and accurate field report on CFEs. Through 24 case studies—half inside the United States and half outside— we show a range of CFEs that suggest a huge diversity of legal forms, scales, activities, and designs. We explore four questions in depth:
- What strategies are community food enterprises deploying to heighten their competitiveness?
- What are the major challenges facing these enterprises and the ways they are overcoming those challenges?
- How well are these enterprises meeting the triple bottom lines of profit, people, and planet?
- To what extent are successful CFE models capable of being replicated worldwide?
The success of CFEs is often measured against their larger competitors, many of which are realizing greater economies of scale and decidedly not locally owned. Yet our case studies reveal 14 powerful strategies CFEs are deploying to compete effectively. Moreover, and less well appreciated, is that larger companies also are encountering growing diseconomies of scale. Long supply chains, for example, are especially vulnerable to rising oil prices. It’s true that CFEs face special challenges—in leadership, finance, secession, and technology, to name a few—but even here they are developing impressive ways of overcoming them. And many CFEs are making these strides without compromising their social performance—indeed they have turned their superior social performance into compelling competitive advantages. Together, these innovations, once they are fully known, appreciated, and communicated, suggest that CFEs might be capable of explosive growth in the years ahead.