Analysis helping planners in Knox County strengthen local food system


COLUMBUS — A first-of-its-kind Ohio State University analysis is helping planners in Knox County strengthen the area’s local food system. The project report, “Planting the Seeds of Sustainable Economic Development: Knox County’s Local Food System,” is available to download at

Detailed assessment

The report provides a detailed assessment of Knox County’s food and farming system, focusing on the impacts of increased production of food to be sold and consumed locally.

“The Food Policy Council in Knox County wanted to be able to answer questions about economic impacts of a local food system, and so our team of campus-based Ohio State University Extension specialists worked with them to provide those answers,” said Jeff Sharp, a rural sociology researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and an executive member of the Social Responsibility Initiative in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“Before, we could only answer questions with anecdotal information or in generalities. This analysis gives them some solid data to guide their efforts to build the local food system in the area.”

Howard Sacks, director of the Rural Life Center at Kenyon College and founder of Knox County’s Food Policy Council, said the report — a team effort of Sharp; Greg Davis, OSU Extension specialist; Jill Clark, director of the college’s Center for Farmland Policy Innovation and Molly Bean Smith, research associate — is exactly what the council was looking for.

“We started looking for this kind of analysis about five years ago,” Sacks said.

“We looked across the country, and we found that no one has ever done this before. This is the first economic analysis of a local food system ever that we’ve been able to find — something that looks at dollars in and dollars out, and at the feasibility and economic impact of alternative food systems.”

Impact beyond county

Sacks said he believes the analysis will have significant impact beyond Knox County — that it will serve as a model not only for other Ohio counties but across the nation.

“This gives us a much more focused sense of where we have the most opportunities for strengthening the local food system,” Sacks said. “Now we can go back to growers, planners and the general public with specific information on the benefits of branding, infrastructure-building and local production.”

For example, the report outlined that expanding Knox County’s local food sales in restaurants and grocery stores by 10 percent would likely support 243 new jobs in the county, increase sales tax collections by $344,000, add $3.9 million to the annual personal income of Knox County residents and increase sales in the county by nearly $12.8 million.

Other potential opportunities for developing the area’s local food system — increasing higher-value specialty crop farm sales by 5 percent or adding a new food processor in Knox County — would have more modest but still significant economic impacts.

Strong base

In addition, the report identified that Knox County has a strong base of independent grocers and locally owned restaurants, which might be expected to have more flexibility in ordering local foods to offer their customers.

However, when asked, those retailers appear to have little interest in purchasing locally produced foods. Their reasons included concerns about year-round availability of products and the ability to purchase adequate quantities, as well as the challenges of purchasing from multiple producers compared with the ease of purchasing inventory through normal distribution channels.

Still, when researchers analyzed production of several products in Knox County, they found that growers already produce enough apples and sweet corn, for example, to meet total annual local demand although currently, much of that production is likely going into regional distribution channels.

Three ways

The report concluded that the local food system could be strengthened in three ways: helping farmers adopt to practices to extend the growing season to allow them to supply fresh product for a longer period of the year; developing proper storage facilities in the area to increase the period that seasonal products could be sold and/or developing a stronger marketing program to sell Knox County-grown goods in nearby, larger markets of Newark, Mansfield and Columbus.

“The real dollars are in the Columbus region, and again, we outline that in the report,” said Sharp, who is also an associate professor of Human and Community Resource Development and an OSU Extension specialist.

“How Knox County can scale up and access that market is the challenge, but the local area could position itself as a prime local food source for a large urban market.”

Absolutely pivotal

Sacks said the project’s findings will be “absolutely pivotal” in the Knox County Food Policy Council’s work with civic, economic and governmental organizations to plan for the future. And he imagines that other counties will want a similar analysis done for them.

Several counties are in a prime position for such an analysis, said Amalie Lipstreu, senior program manager for Sustainable Agriculture at the Ohio Department of Agriculture and coordinator of the statewide Ohio Food Policy Council.

Currently, Lipstreu said, Ohio has 11 existing and emerging Local Food Councils in areas across the state.

“They’re all at different stages of development, but Ohio is leading the nation in local food policy groups,” she said.

Increasing the use of local foods has many beneficial implications, from reducing the use of fossil fuels used to ship foods to stimulating healthier eating, potentially reducing obesity and weight-related disease such as diabetes. But the economic impacts could be even stronger.

“Ohio consumer spending on food is between $35 billion to $40 billion a year,” Lipstreu said. “Localizing 10 percent of that spending could result in an additional $10 billion per year in the state economy, based on conservative economic multipliers.”

Lipstreu added that Ohio’s unique combination of urban and rural areas makes the state a prime area for testing new concepts in local foods.

“Ohio has 16 metropolitan statistical areas with a strong farm base around all of them,” Lipstreu said. “Ohio is the perfect land laboratory for developing local food systems.”

More information

For more information on the Ohio Food Policy Council, visit and search for “Food Policy Council.”

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