Thanks to support from the Erb Institute, I was able to spend my summer as an intern with Local Foods in Chicago. Local Foods is Chicago’s first wholesale distributor and retailer of strictly local foods from the Midwest’s best farmers. They source and deliver the finest farm foods to consumers, restaurants, grocers, and institutions.

I specifically wanted to gain a better understanding of how a locally sourced food hub operates and Local Foods was a perfect fit. Local Foods has built a reputation for successfully sourcing and distributing strictly local products from the Midwest’s best farmers.

I worked on a variety of projects with the goal of strengthening the connection between Local Foods and its producers. I worked with stakeholders across the food system from farmers and processors to chefs and retail consumers. I visited farms, received product at the warehouse, delivered product to restaurants across the city, and analyzed the current performance of Local Foods’ suppliers in order to identify opportunities to make the business more effective and efficient.

Local food sales have grown rapidly in recent years. In 2014, local food sales in the United States reached $11.7 billion compared to $5 billion in 2008.1

People support local and regional food systems for a variety of reasons including a desire to support local economies, better understand how their food is produced, eat healthier, and improve the environment.

I was continually impressed by the commitment of the Local Foods team to not only make the food system more transparent but to also make it easier for Chicago residents to eat locally sourced products. I want to highlight two important ways Local Foods makes this happen:

  1. Local Foods plays an important role in connecting farmers and chefs so that they each can concentrate on what they do best — farming and preparing delicious local foods. On several visits, farmers expressed their gratitude to the Local Foods team for their role as facilitators. Farmers no longer need to invest their time and energy making connections and coordinating deliveries to individual chefs and grocers. Local Foods is connected to over 150 farmers producing a variety of products from over 150 farmers, allowing it to provide its customers a reliable supply of local products.
  2. Local Foods takes its role in educating consumers about food origins and production practices seriously. During my internship, I accompanied a group of chefs on a visit to Local Farms Harvest in Lebanon, Indiana and saw first hand how the chicken and pork they prepare is raised. For customers unable to make regular trips to the farm, Local Foods provides detailed information on the production practices of its producers, and every product sold at the wholesale and retail level can easily be tied back to the original farm.

The team at Local Foods is also committed to supporting small and medium-sized producers, providing important information and feedback on the quality, assortment, and production practices demanded by Chicago consumers. It recognizes that its ability to differentiate itself and continue to grow in the food distribution marketplace is contingent upon the ability of its suppliers to provide consistent, high quality and competitively priced foods.

Over the course of my internship, I had the opportunity to contribute to the development of Local Foods’ supplies by formalizing requirements related to quality, production practices, and pack sizes. I also led a project to develop a supplier scorecard that would easily communicate supplier information to the entire Local Foods team and allow them to strengthen the performance of the company’s supplier network.

I am incredibly grateful for the experience to intern with Chicago Local Foods, and I am excited to watch the organization’s continued success.