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From left, Tharten Tsering, Thinly Tenzin and Cairen Traru prepare vegetables for dumplings at FEED Kitchens in Madison. Small food producers like them could benefit from a wholesale facility that allows for more efficient distribution.

Madison is flush with farmers’ markets, community gardens, community supported agriculture and unique projects liked FEED Kitchens. But some believe the lack of a wholesale market puts local food retailers at a disadvantage.

A majority of Madison’s local food production operates on a smaller scale, either through personal production of food or directly from the producer to the consumer, like farmers’ markets, according to Lindsey Day Farnsworth, a postdoctoral fellow for the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.

“What we really need to grow the local food economy isn’t just expanding retail infrastructure or growing more community gardens or expanding our number of CSA pick-up sites, we have to build wholesale infrastructure,” said Day Farnsworth, who is also a member of the Madison Food Policy Council.

Food system map

Madison's food system includes farmers' markets (green), community gardens (yellow), CSA pick-up locations (red) and unique food-related projects (blue) but lacks a wholesale market. 

Last Tuesday, Madison’s City Council approved up to $100,000 to study what a wholesale facility could look like in Madison. The funding was appropriated from the 2018 Healthy Retail Access program.

It is more challenging for independent food retailers, especially small grocery stores and ethnic markets, to meet minimum order requirements for distributors and source fresh products.

Day Farnsworth said food terminals, another way to describe wholesale markets, are a strategy used in other cities to support small food businesses. The facilities also have “cross-docks,” which help move fresh products quickly as a simultaneous pick-up and drop-off location.

A food terminal cross-dock facility could have the potential to boost market access for small farmers and food businesses, connect them to local and regional food supply chains and drive job creation and economic development in Madison, said Day Farnsworth.

“Essentially, it allows for more convenient access to locally grown food,” city food policy director George Reistad said. “It allows those locally grown foods and those who produce them to get into a larger market.”

Reistad said the study is on a more “aggressive” timeline because of the recently vacated Oscar Mayer site and its potential as a wholesale facility location. He said these facilities are economic development tools that can spur business and meld well with Madison projects like the Public Market.

“Madison has a pretty great food culture especially for a city of its size,” Reistad said. “This gets at the idea that we can support our retailers, and we can support our communities in having access to fresh healthy food, especially at an affordable price.”

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