If you've ever explored Buford Highway or visited Your DeKalb Farmers Market, you know that Atlanta has a large international population. What you might not know is that included in this population are about 50,000 international refugees who have fled their home countries due to genocide, religious persecution, and war. Or, that Atlanta is considered an optimal city for U.S. and U.N. relocation programs due to its relatively low cost of living, job opportunities, and public transportation (in some areas).
International lawyer Susan Pavlin does know this. The 45-year-old Illinois native has lived in Atlanta since 1992 and long worked closely with refugee women and children from Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Over the course of the last decade, Pavlin realized the importance of local agriculture to many of these refugee communities. It inspired her in 2009 to found the Global Growers Network, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees grow food for their communities and earn extra money by selling the crops at local farmers markets. In 2012, more than 230 international families in Atlanta grew approximately 100,000 pounds of produce through Global Growers. Eighty five percent of the produce stayed in the communities. The remainder was sold to restaurants, at farmers markets, or through CSAs.
Smaller farms often lack the financial capital, land, human resources, and equipment to compete with behemoth foodservice companies like Sysco. Pavlin wanted to find a way to help small-scale Georgia farmers supply larger organizations such as schools and hospitals.
"I find farming much more complicated than international law ever was," Pavlin says. "When you combine that with the fact that trying to find a new way or at least a way that hasn't been here for a long time to build a local economy in the face of something that is setup and structured, it is not easy."
It might not be easy, but it could be doable with Pavlin's latest venture, the Local Source. The startup will work with farmers to develop crop plans that will enable them to meet the season's forecasted demand. After harvesting, Local Source will purchase the produce and handle the processing, packaging, and distribution from one central location. By pooling the local food supply from many farms, Pavlin believes the Local Source will be able to accommodate the growing number of urban markets looking to go local and also allow larger organizations to source locally from a single supplier.
Pavlin has already piloted the Local Source concept on a small scale through Global Growers. Each year, Pavlin has overseen the organization's effort to pool all the produce from its network of small farms and gardens to sell to restaurants and farmers markets. Last year, Global Growers sold about $35,000, or 15,000 pounds worth, of food.
Pavlin is aiming for Local Source to be open for business supplying large and institutional kitchens by summer 2014. Her goal is to sell 200,000 pounds of fresh produce in the first year. By year three, Pavlin projects the Local Source will sell more than 1 million pounds of food.
"What we are attempting is essentially a disruption to the global food system," she says. "The reason it hasn't been done yet is because it is very, very hard to do."