Focus on baking's role in local food push

by Morton Sosland
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Of the many fads that have surfaced in the food industry in recent times, none has more applicability to the bread business than the expanding interest in and favor for so-called local food systems. Hardly any food sector is based to a greater degree on local production than baking and distribution of fresh bread. Even as advances in baking have permitted distribution over wider areas, yes beyond the most stringent definition of what is “local,” it is hard to identify any other food sector that more closely conforms to the desires of the advocates of local food systems. Indeed, the latest modifications of this approach, looking with increasing favor on systems defined as regional rather than local, seems tailor-made to bread baking if not applying across nearly all of grain-based foods.

In the face of this high degree of compatibility, wholesale bakers have been cautious in claiming this stellar position in what fits most definitions of a local food system. The most obvious reason for this reluctance is the way that campaigning for local food largely has been from outside the food business, often reaching into the political arena. Proponents include Michelle Obama, the first lady, who has sought to prove her commitment by installing a vegetable garden at the White House. Mrs. Obama has gone so far as to proclaim that emphasis on local vegetable gardening will improve public health and will be especially significant in fighting obesity. Along similar lines is the support for local food systems that originates with the sector of society ferociously intent on accusing the food industry of being wrong in everything it does.

Not only does baking fit within almost all definitions of a local food system, but its distribution, primarily direct-store delivery, is the dream of proponents who believe they are pressing for a return to the food system of centuries ago. Grocery store buyers frequently are challenged to seek ways of purchasing food (usually the reference is to fruit and vegetables) by direct delivery from nearby farms, often without recognizing cost and volume obstacles. Only scant reference has been observed in pressing this matter to how commercial baking has dealt with direct delivery issues for a century or longer. As ideal as direct delivery to stores may seem to those who espouse local food systems, this concept runs up against supermarket domination of the food marketplace. These stores, relying mainly on a hub and spoke system through large central warehouses, have posed a conundrum for baking that local food advocates would do well to examine. Along with electronic systems for ordering and shipping to stores and store shelves, the supermarket represents an approach singularly meant to achieve the lowest possible costs.

Hardly anything is more eagerly wanted by local food advocates than close relationships between producers and consumers. That is very difficult to accomplish without brand names on these fresh garden-grown products, unlike baking where brand names on locally produced loaves are essential to business success. The task of assuring sufficient volume has emerged as a major obstacle to local food efforts. This is the case even when supermarket flexibility is acknowledged as opening the way to all sorts of innovation. “Relocalization” is still on the distant horizon.

No one knowing the food business expects local food systems relying on farmers’ markets, inconsistent quality from small producers, and similar issues with small processors to override the system currently in place to provide consistent quality products in huge volumes at low cost. Essential to this success is the ability to originate food from wherever available, creating what is rapidly becoming not just a national but a global food system. Because of how bread is best made, mainly in response to these needs, baking finds itself central to local food systems while doing everything possible to measure up to the demanding requirements of world-circling supermarkets.

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