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Study: County can leverage food system

Chautauqua County’s food system accounts for $2.6 billion of all sales generated within the local economy.

With its strong presence, a preliminary report by the University at Buffalo’s Food Lab team shows opportunity to bolster the economic power of the local food system.

Nine students spent the spring semester exploring the food system in Chautauqua County. Analyzing multiple data sources and working with the public and private sectors, their research found that tapping into larger nearby markets could contribute to the county’s economic regeneration.

Through their work, it was found that the percentage of sales volume through the county’s the food system, 23 percent, is significantly higher than the state average of 11 percent.

Erin Sweeney, UB student, presented the report to the Chautauqua County Legislature last week. She said the county’s geographical proximity to Toronto, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, which have a combined GDP of $323 billion, offers a significant market for the local food system.

“The agricultural heritage and tight-knit community in Chautauqua County creates a nice place for residents and visitors,” she said. “Many innovative projects and organizations in the county are already working to make connections, and we see opportunity to make further connections through ideas we discovered.”

According to the report, 61 percent of the land in Chautauqua County is prime for farming. The total number of farms in Chautauqua County is 1,515 — the second highest in New York state.

Aggregation, processing and wholesale sectors represent $1.8 billion in annual sales in Chautauqua County — the largest sales volume of the local food system.

The report finds a low density of food retail options throughout the county, which is posing a challenge for many of those without a car to obtain healthy and affordable food. Participation in food-related public assistance programs is low as 45 percent of households below the poverty line are not receiving SNAP benefits.

Other challenges stated in the report include barriers to markets, price fluctuations in commodity crops and a shortage of labor that significantly reduces profits and income for the multitude of small- and mid-sized farms.

As for food waste management, Sweeney said grassroots projects are underway to support reclamation and reuse.

To enhance the food system, the report included 20 ideas that could be used in the future. Sweeney said the county should look to expand enrollment in higher education for workforce development and attract food business through public incentives. Sweeney said educational opportunities should be created for careers in the food system and a culture of local food support through campaigns and spending should formulate.

In addition, Sweeney said the county should consider adding a food system economic development staff position to facilitate ideas and capitalize on success.

“There are many connections across the food system in Chautauqua County already and we encourage an opportunity to build this in several ways,” she said.

The study was made possible through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that the county received in 2015. The county was one of eight communities in the country selected for an opportunity to examine the local food system.

UB’s Food Lab team is prepared to offer continued technical support to Chautauqua County. A final report is expected to be complete by September.

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