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Cultivating a preference for Idaho

Michael Boss

Michael Boss

In last week’s blog I suggested that the Tea Party movement take on the cause of wresting control of our nation’s food supply from the forces of Big Government farm policy and return us to a more balanced and sustainable agricultural model. While admittedly taking a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to what I consider a very serious subject, I’d like to continue that discussion with a story of how “small government” can be a part of the solution to the imbalances in our food supply. This is the story of Idaho Preferred.

The Idaho Preferred program was created in 2002 through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant aimed at promoting local food producers, with a particular emphasis on producers of specialty crops. Managed by the Idaho Department of Agriculture’s Leah Clark (with help from a part-time assistant) Idaho Preferred currently represents nearly 200 culinary businesses – up from less than 90 just five years ago. More than half of Idaho Preferred’s current member base is made up of food and wine producers, with nursery producers, retailers, and farmers markets making up the balance of its member base.

The goal of Idaho Preferred is, if not simple, at least straightforward: to expand local markets for local foods. To accomplish this, Idaho Preferred engages Gem State consumers on a number of levels, starting with what they encounter in the aisles of their neighborhood grocery stores. Idaho Preferred actively partners with retailers like D&B Supply, Zamzows, Costco, Albertsons, Wal-Mart, and Paul’s to increase the number and visibility of local food and nursery products in their stores.

Addressing another major consumer touch point, Idaho Preferred brings local producers together with local restaurants. A linchpin of the “locavore movement” is the belief that people ultimately care about where an item on a menu came from, how it was raised, who raised it, and what it took to get it to their plate. When consumers care, restaurants care. When restaurants care, distributors care. When distributors care, the food producers take notice in what Idaho Preferred rightfully recognizes as the ultimate “grass roots” (pun intended) movement to create a healthier, more sustainable food system.

In 2009, Idaho Preferred’s Farmer-Chef Collaborative program brought 100 producers and nearly 50 restaurants together in culinary events throughout the state. Idaho Preferred has also given local producers a “seat at the table” at monthly gatherings of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine, a Boise Chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

On the consumer side, Idaho Preferred hosts the Culinary Walk About Benefit (with proceeds supporting Meals on Wheels), which in 2009 featured 10 Idaho chefs and 11 members, and attracted an audience of 700. An even greater turn out of consumers occurred at the 5th Annual Taste of Idaho back in September, where over 2,000 attendees where able to get up close and personal with nearly 40 member exhibitors. And then, of course, there was last summer’s sold out “Locavore Express” that took Idaho “locavores” by train from Horseshoe Bend to Banks for a food fest of local producers, wineries, and chefs.

What I find the most impressive about Idaho Preferred, from the standpoint of its potential long-term impact, is its efforts to bring local food into our children’s school cafeterias, and to create healthier food choices in the process. Idaho Preferred’s “Ag in the Classroom” programs include “The Healthy Locavore Challenge”, “Incredible Edible Idaho”, and a fundraiser that in conjunction with the state’s Parent Teacher Associations raised $25,000 for Idaho schools at the same time it increased the number of local food products in our schools.

In particular, I have to single out Idaho Preferred’s “Farm-to-School Program”, a collaboration with the Idaho School Nutritional Association, whose mission is “to connect local school foodservice staff and decision makers with Idaho products, producers, and distributors.” This is a cause that has not only benefited Idaho school kids nutritionally, but also generated $125,000 of additional sales for Idaho food producers. What’s not to like?

In an era when “rant radio” hosts make a very comfortable living trashing government, Idaho Preferred is a reminder that when government as “we the people” reflects our best collective aspirations, it brings together “the best and the brightest” to serve causes that the private sector might never champion as a bottom-line priority, although I’d be remiss in not acknowledging the private sector support that the program receives from food distributors Sysco and Food Services of America.

The success of Idaho Preferred’s mission is evident from the results of its annual member survey, which reported that 68 percent of its members believe that the program “met expectations”, while 51 percent linked an increase in sales to those efforts. Those are poll numbers that President Obama and Congress would probably kill for right about now. Not bad for a government agency in a staunchly anti-government state.

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Click here to listen to an interview with Leah Clark of Idaho Preferred

About Michael Boss