Filling the Gaps: Creating a Central Mass Buy Local Program

By FALPC Intern Jacquelyn Burmeister

If you want to be connected to the local food network in Worcester County, Maleah Gustafson is your woman.  She is author of the Central Mass Local Food website and Facebook page, where she boasts more than 650 followers.  Not bad for a mom that works full time.  The popularity of her site, as well as other indicators is telling of the consumer interest for a stronger Buy Local Initiative in Worcester, and the City is responding, with hope to utilize the networks that Maleah and others already have in place.

A Practical Idea

Maleah has always loved sharing the interesting tidbits that she learned about food with her friends and family.  And the more that she learned and shared about local food in the Worcester region, the more that she became a resource for anyone who wanted to learn about how to procure Worcesters finest produce.  “I’m very passionate about food”, she says. So about three years ago, when her friends asked her to create a central place to share her responses to their questions, she acquiesced and created a Yahoo group dedicated to connecting people with local food.

But she had no idea what she got herself into.  Soon it wasn’t just friends and family who were requesting her knowledge, but other Worcesterites that she hadn’t known previously.

Filling the Gap

As it turns out, Maleah’s group was beginning to fill a regional gap for a Buy Local Network in Worcester County.  Regional Buy Local Groups are organizations that help connect local farmers to customers, in order get more produce to more people.  Many of them have websites and directories that list all of the local producers and their contact information, as well as what and when they sell.  Massachusetts is already the home to eight distinct Buy Local Programs, covering the Cape, Coast and Islands, as well as the western regions of the state.  However, looking at the map of these programs, one can’t help but notice the large gap in the center of the State.

buy local food map

Given that the first Buy Local Program began in Massachusetts in 1993, and that they have been successful up to this point, it seems strange that Worcester, with its wealth of small farms, has taken so long to get on board.  Apparently, Worcester did attempt to create a Program about 10 years ago, but the movement was top-heavy, tried to do too much too fast, and ultimately fell apart.

Over the months, Maleah’s site gained more popularity, and she soon had to upgrade to a website and Facebook page.  All of this suggested that consumers, at least, are very interested in connecting with their local farmers and are probably be very receptive to a Buy Local Program again.

Gathering the Masses

Meanwhile, the Central Mass Regional Planning Committee (CMRPC) had been rethinking a local food network as well.  About a year and a half ago, they began to survey consumers and meet with farmers and found that the interest in agriculture awareness was on the rise.  They decided to pursue a new initiative to increase awareness of the plethora of local produce resources and the importance of buying local.

In the process of surveying, they met Maleah, who was working with the Holden Agricultural Committee at the time.  Her enthusiasm and connections caught their attention, and they invited her to attend the preliminary meetings about how to steer the new initiative.  Together, they worked on getting the word out for a meeting of the minds for all of the people that a Buy Local Program would involve:  Policy makers, farmers, NGOs, universities and business owners.

CMRPC had its first meeting on May 28, which was open to the public, and filled the hall with more than 50 representatives from the aforementioned groups.  The meeting was facilitated by our very own Liz Sheehan.  “There was so much energy and enthusiasm in the room”, reflects Maleah, “Up to this point, everybody had been talking about this in their own groups, but no one had ever brought us together in the same room”.  During the meeting, ideas and opinions were heard and an advisory committee, facilitated by Montachusett Regional Planning Commission (MRPC) and CMRPC, was self-selected to develop the goals of the organization.  The second group meeting was on June 24th, and was also well attended, to discuss more specifically geography, mission, objectives and strategies.

Establishing a Course of Action

In the short term, the commission plans to make a directory much like that of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), the Buy Local Program of the Connecticut River Valley.  It would be either a paper or electronic publication that lists the contact information of all of the local producers in the region.  And this isn’t just fruits and veggies.  It would include meats and dairy, lumber and even local flower providers.  Additionally, it would list all of the restaurants and establishments that provide food options made from local ingredients, so that a consumer could learn which businesses in his area provide locally sourced food.

The long term goal is to make people aware of the resources that are available to them and emphasize why its important to buy local.

The advisory committee will continue to meet over the remainder of the summer to develop these goals, before the next public group meeting on September 16th.  Maleah emphasizes that the process will go slower this time around, verses the last time the City tried to create the program.  “This time, it’s not just one person taking it on, saying ‘this is what were going to do and how we’re going to do it’, this is why it’s different”, says Maleah.  The survey will serve to highlight the needs that need to be addressed, and the diverse participant groups will all offer their input as to the best way to move forward.  Hopefully, the collaborative nature of the project will engage and energize groups to keep at it, as opposed to petering out when things get tough.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the rapid movement and enthusiasm on the part of CMRPC and its partners, Maleah mentioned that there still may be some challenges ahead.  “I think one of the challenges that Worcester has are the geographical divisions”.  Historical agricultural zone divisions that the state created decades ago are still recognized by many.  Maleah highlights that the movement is inclusive, and hopes that everyone who wants to participate has the opportunity to do so.  The size of the geographic area that the Initiative would be covering is quite large, but it is the last remaining swath of land that is not represented, so it would be a catchall for the remaining farmers that want to be a part of a Buy Local Initiative.

Finding a way to get a hold of some more remote farmers to encourage participation may also be difficult.  There are many unconnected communities of farmers.  Many are very busy maintaining the farm and their current distribution chain to want to experiment with new methods.  But Maleah is optimistic that by utilizing the existing networks, farmers can contact other farmers and the word will be passed on.

The growing interest of different groups is also positive, but can lead to differing opinions as to the direction of the project.  Maleah thinks that the various missions have been navigated well so far, and hopes that they can continue to work in an inclusive and collaborative manner while still getting the work done.

Fanning the Flames

In the mean time, you, the consumer, should make sure your opinion is heard.  The group meetings for the Initiative are open to the public, so if you are interested in hearing about or helping in the development of the Worcester Buy Local Program, make sure to attend on September 16th, at 6:30 at Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, 1427R Water Street, Fitchburg, MA 01420.

To see CMRPC’s updates for the Buy Local Innitiative, click here:  http://www.cmrpc.org/central-massachusetts-buy-local-planning-initiative-0

To see Maleah’s Facebook page, Central Mass Local Food, click here: https://www.facebook.com/CentralMassLocalFood

To learn more about by Montachusett Regional Planning Commission (MRPC), follow this link: http://www.mrpc.org/

You can contact Maleah at [email protected]

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