CISA’s web tool helps local food buying add up

The Recorder, October 24, 2013. By Richie Davis

Who says you shouldn’t play with your food?
Not CISA, the Deerfield based nonprofit that tries to get people in the Pioneer Valley to eat more local farm products.
To encourage local voracious habits in its 20th anniversary year, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture has launched an online calculator to help people see for themselves how much of a difference buying their milk, eggs, produce and meats from local producers can make for the local economy.
The calculator comes as the most ambitious effort in a year of innovative challenges to pump up the volume of local food consumption — activities from a “Farmstand Bingo” game this summer to organizing local food potluck dinners this fall.
The online tool, developed with help from economists Anita Dancs of Western New England University and Helen Scharber of Hampshire College, lets people plug in how much of their food budget they spend on locally produced items to see how it affects the local economy.
“We wanted to find a way to help people understand the importance of food choices they’re making on a daily basis, and to demonstrate the value of buying local agricultural products,” said CISA Program Director Kelly Coleman. “None of this is totally straightforward, and we felt the accuracy of the information was really important.”
In two steps, the calculator helps a user gauge how much local food they’re already buying, and then it shows how much of a difference it would make if they bought more — or less — in any given category, including cutting back on buying frozen or canned foods and “long-distance” produce, meats, dairy and eggs.
“That’s to encourage people to think about how they can do more, what the impact would be,” said Coleman.
Because even a small commitment by numbers of people to buy certain kinds of local products can affect the local economy in surprising ways, the calculator demonstrates the power of shopping locally, says Coleman. “One of my favorite little features of it is, if you make this change, say switch $5 to local vegetables from vegetables bought from far away, it has maybe 1.77 times more of an impact on the economy, almost twice the impact. That’s really inspiring to me. And we haven’t had that (evidence) before, for the number wonks.”
For example, by shifting $30 monthly to more of a local emphasis for local vegetables and meat, it adds 2.24 times more to the local economy than spending that same amount on nonlocal foods, according to the data presented.
The calculator uses an IMPLAN economic modeling program, used for economic analysis and planning, applying numbers that the user inserts according to the total amount of “intentionally” purchased local food divided by the total grocery purchases. It automatically adds 10 percent to account for other local food that may be unwittingly part of the mix.
While the calculator template may be used effectively in other parts of the country, Coleman said the data, from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, is tailored specifically to this three-county region to account for the local agricultural economy here due to different production and processing costs.
CISA did a “soft launch” of the calculator program on its website about a month ago, Coleman said, encouraging users to test it to work out confusing language and glitches.
“It’s not so much that this will make a difference to everyone,” she said. “Some people are really inspired by personal stories, while others really like the numbers. We felt this would be another way of demonstrating the impact that will inspire a certain population that really loves numbers, and this would be fun. We’ll still provide the stories and other ways” to encourage people to be “local heroes.”