On the Scene: Multnomah Food Summit

sceneblogbwAt the second annual Multnomah Food Summit, Tom Osdoba posed a question to a group of nonprofit workers and food growers: We don’t always buy the absolute cheapest house, car or clothing we can find, so why do we buy the cheapest food?

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By Emma Hall

We don’t usually buy the absolute cheapest house, car or clothing we can find. So why do we buy the cheapest food, rather than the best food?

This was just one point brought up by speaker Tom Osdoba at the second annual Multnomah Food Summit, where a group of 230 like-minded nonprofit workers, business people and politicians gathered on June 3 at the University Place Hotel and Conference Center in Portland to discuss ways to implement the Multnomah Food Action Plan. The plan aims to connect local food growers with Multnomah County residents, in order to cut down on both hunger and obesity rates.

The Food Action Plan is a long-term 15-year plan to achieve a local, healthy food system that benefits the regional economy. It aims to encourage community interaction and partnerships, all with the goal of making it easy for families to choose healthy and regionally-produced food.

Over a lunch of build-your-own sandwiches, summit attendees listened to Osdoba, director of University of Oregon’s Center for Sustainable Business. Osdoba has many years of sustainability work in Oregon and Canada, including helping launch the Portland Sustainability Institute and Clean Energy Works Oregon. While many discussions throughout the day at the summit focused on the possible outcomes of the Food Action Plan, such as feeding local families with healthy, locally grown food, Osdoba spoke on the business side of the plan, focusing on the economic potential of the regional food system.

Since it was the last day of classes at the University of Oregon, Osdoba spoke quickly before returning to his university office. However, that didn’t stop him from speaking much longer than the allotted time.

Osdoba described a recent Fast Company article which argued that food is the next clean tech industry. “That idea is both exciting and frightening as hell,” Osdoba said. There is a lot of room for growth in the organic food industry, with plenty of investment opportunities.

Often, people are scared off of buying organic because they worry about the cost. However, Osdoba cited studies that showed it is actually cheaper to buy local, organically grown food at a farmers market than from a big-box grocery store like Safeway. He challenged summit attendees to conduct their own experiment by trying to buy everything on their average weekly grocery list at a store specializing in local food, like New Seasons. “You’ll be surprised [about the cost comparison],” he said.

He gave some of his own ideas for how we could fix the current food crisis. One idea is to create a B Corporation in the region to provide more access to capital for urban food growers. Another idea is to provide more capital to young farmers, since the industry is increasingly starved for youth. Currently, farmers under the age of 35 make up only 4.2% of state farmers.

A major point at the summit was that there were tons of good ideas, Osdoba’s being some of them, but now members of the Multnomah Food Action Plan needed to unify in order to actually make progress on the 15-year plan. Osdoba described biking up to the conference center to give his speech, only to find that all the dozen or so bike parking spaces were already taken. He had to park his bike two blocks away while numerous cars were able to park less than 100 feet from the entrance. “As good as we think we are [about sustainability] in Portland, we still suck in a lot of ways,” Osdoba said.

Emma Hall is web editor for Oregon Business magazine.