Is Nebraska Ready for Regional Food Systems?

A new Center for Rural Affairs report says yes, with much work. It zeroes in on a series of focus groups we held to explore interest and barriers to creating regional food systems in our state. We talked to farmers and ranchers, consumers, food-serving institutions, and grocery stores. You can download the Regional Food Systems Focus Group report here.

We found great interest, but also major challenges that need to be resolved first. Earlier we reported on a comprehensive survey of Nebraskans on local food system issues. Those surveys and these focus groups show several issues between producers and consumers that require answers before local and regional food systems can be truly successful.

For example, the usual food buying experience of consumers (location, hours, convenience) do not always translate to a local or regional food buying experience. Farmers are experienced in farming and growing and producing their products for sale; their skills in marketing and basic business operations may be lacking.

Balancing the expectations and needs of consumers and the skills and desires of farmers and ranchers will be necessary to create long-term successful and sustainable local and regional food systems. Yet all groups with a stake in the food system appear to want to make a local and regional food system work. Now we must capitalize on that support and enthusiasm to build for the future.

It is clear from the survey results and the focus groups that all three groups - farmers, consumers, and institutions - need to collaborate to make regional food systems a viable reality. A number of steps need to occur to bring about the necessary collaborations between food system partners. Those include:

  • A state food policy council or local and regional food policy councils to organize regional food systems and determine the strengths, challenges, and needs of localities and regions in relation to food systems.
  • Local and regional entities to develop the infrastructure necessary for the cultivation and advancement of regional food systems. Things like information and education for consumers and institutions on local foods, their advantages, how to purchase them, and how best to use them; non-farm business training for farmers involved in local food production and marketing; and “bricks and mortar” infrastructure such as distribution and retail channels.

Neither the original survey or the focus groups discussed the issue of distribution. In a state like Nebraska, geography is crucial to feasible distribution. As it relates to food systems, geographically challenged or remote communities could include almost any community outside of Omaha and Lincoln or any other population center. If regional food systems are to be viable in more geographically remote communities, questions of distribution and aggregation must be discussed and dealt with. 

Questions and issues of resources – both financial and human – are, of course, always paramount in developing new systems and infrastructures. Communities and regions developing food systems must develop sources of funding for needed infrastructure, communications, networks, and training. These funding sources will likely need to be alternatives to government funding, and significant questions exist as to the source of needed resources. But with collaboration of all interested stakeholders, that question is not insurmountable.
 
Nebraskans raise some serious questions and challenges that must be addressed for regional food systems to have a viable future in the state. However, they also express genuine interest in seeing regional food systems become part of the state’s food landscape. There is indisputable excitement about making regional food systems become a workable part of Nebraska’s food production, marketing, and consumption approach. Matching the questions and needs with the interest is the next step in making regional food systems a reality.