The Benefits of Food Localization for Northeast Ohio and How to Realize Them

By Brad Masi, Leslie Schaller, and Michael H. Shuman
December 2010


The local food revolution has come to Cleveland—big time. The city now has so many community gardens, farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, urban farms, celebrity chefs, and local-food procurement programs that the environmental web site, SustainLane, recently ranked Cleveland as the second best local-food city in the United States. But the region has only just begun to tap the myriad benefits of local food.

The following study analyzes the impact of the 16-county Northeast Ohio (NEO) region moving a quarter of the way toward fully meeting local demand for food with local production. It suggests that this 25% shift could create 27,664 new jobs, providing work for about one in eight unemployed residents. It could increase annual regional output by $4.2 billion and expand state and local tax collections by $126 million. It could increase the food security of hundreds of thousands of people and reduce near-epidemic levels of obesity and Type-II diabetes. And it could significantly improve air and water quality, lower the region’s carbon footprint, attract tourists, boost local entrepreneurship, and enhance civic pride.

Standing in the way of the 25% shift are formidable obstacles. New workforce training and entrepreneurship initiatives are imperative for the managers and staff of these new or expanded local food enterprises. Land must be secured for new urban and rural farms. Nearly a billion dollars of new capital are needed. And consumers in the region must be further educated about the benefits of local food and the opportunities for buying it.

To overcome these obstacles, we offer more than 50 recommendations for programs, investment priorities, and policies. In a period of fiscal austerity, we argue, the priority must be to create “meta-businesses” that can support the local food movement on a cash-positive basis. For example:

  • To mobilize consumers in the region to buy local food, we suggest creating local debit, credit, and gift cards, and purchasing platforms that better connect local food businesses to one another and to government procurement agencies.
  • To increase the competitiveness of local food businesses, we recommend the creation of local business alliances that facilitate peer learning and new kinds of delivery services, local-food malls, and joint procurement cooperatives.
  • To make more capital available to local food businesses, we propose establishing new revolving loan funds, municipal food bonds, and a local stock market.
  • To support a new generation of local food entrepreneurs, we recommend deployment of a network of food-business incubators and “food hubs” operating in concert within a network of enterprise support.

Our final—and most ambitious—recommendation is the creation of a NEO Food Authority, potentially owned and capitalized by thousands of shareholders in the region. This Authority might issue tax-exempt bonds and then provide seed capital for many of our initiatives. The next step should be to prepare a business plan for this idea.

(read the full report)