Making Regional Food Webs Work
Old Perspective: Large companies like Kraft, Tyson, Conagra, Cargill, and Nestle have given us so much variety, so many convenient choices in all seasons of the year. Their huge scales of operation have enabled prices to remain affordable. This is the good life!
New Perspective: The food-industrial complex has made a mess of the American diet, which in turn has spread around the world. Corporate control of the growing and marketing of food has resulted in the loss of health, crop and animal diversity, family farms, cultural traditions, soil, and trust. The best way to counter-balance corporate dominance is for communities, counties, and states to strengthen their regional food webs.The mantra we hear time and again is that consumers vote with their dollars. True, but to express civic convictions in dollars alone is to underestimate our power to create a sustainable food system. We’re far more than consumers, we’re also school board members and concerned parents, farmers, scientists, shareholders and employees in food companies, and voters who influence political decisions. Without any extra effort, our food choices influence our families and friends, creating cultural consensus and market demand. While some might insist that corporate farming is the only efficient way to grow food, they may not be aware that a primary reason why industrial food is so cheap is that it receives heavy subsidies from taxpayers for commodity crops like corn and wheat, while fruit and vegetable growers using sustainable practices get nothing. Consolidation in the food industry has reached freakish proportions: in the U.S. and globally. Corporations have bought out more than 600,000 U.S. farms since the 1960s, and now just four huge companies pack 84 percent of beef and crush 80 percent of soybeans. Corporations produce 98 percent of poultry; 2 percent of farms produce 50 percent of all agricultural products in the country. As corporate control of the food industry increased, dietary and crop diversity also decreased: Iceberg lettuce, frozen and fried potatoes, potato chips and canned tomatoes now make up almost half of the vegetable consumption in the U.S., and a mere four crops account for two-thirds of what we eat.
When the size and marketing clout of corporate farms threatened Wisconsin’s small family farms, growers banded together to create a market niche for organic food. From its original membership of seven farmers, the cooperative Organic Valley has grown to more than 1,200 family farms across the nation, making it the largest organic farmer-owned cooperative in North America. Recognizing the need for a new generation of farmers to provide locally grown food, some cities sponsor farmer training programs like Bellingham, Washington’s “Food to Bank On” project, which connects beginning sustainable farms with training, mentors & market support. Area food banks have received $50,000 in fresh produce from these farmers since the programs’ inception in 2003.
Civic response to the corporate dominance of agriculture has been ineffective, but it has now found its center of gravity: re-localization. Like the organic food movement, local food has quickly come into America’s mainstream, promoted in great detail by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) and Gary Nabhan (Coming Home to Eat). A survey of more than 1,200 chefs, many employed by chain restaurants or large food companies, identified locally grown food to be one of the hottest food trends in the country. Entrepreneurs such as Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, California are stepping into the niche, providing customers with home delivery of gourmet meals crafted with local produce. A company called Edible Communities recently launched a network of thirty-three region-specific “Edible” magazines (e.g., Edible Atlanta) to promote local foods and flavors in the different locations. Clearly, many Americans want flavorful food with a face.
The challenge is finding mechanisms to connect farms directly with markets and people. A small employee- and farmer-owned company in Portland, Oregon brokers food from local farms to supermarkets. This is typically a difficult sell, since supermarkets prefer year-round deliveries of uniform, flawless produce, in large and reliable quantities. Organically Grown Company became a persuasive agent, convincing farmers to stagger crops; purchasing back-up supplies from warmer locations in Oregon and California; and ensuring that all deliveries are attractively presented. So successful have their efforts been that the company now has a staff of 160. Similarly, geographical diversity of the Rainbow Farming Cooperative – about 300 family farms in Wisconsin, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and the South – makes produce available year-round.
Cleveland, Ohio’s revitalization vision is based in part on urban agriculture. The city’s food policy council (FPC), spearheaded by citizen activists, teamed up with city councilor Joe Cimperman, a strong supporter of urban farming because it’s “good for the economy, nutrition, health, and public safety.” The combined efforts of City Council and the FPC are pursuing zoning changes that will permit garden plots of one acre or more and also allow chicken raising and beekeeping.
Farmers Markets and Farm to School programs are two of the most visible examples of how regional food webs can be woven. In just three decades, close to 5,000 farmers markets have become local traditions in America’s towns and cities. The Greenmarket system in New York City has the country’s largest network, with a centerpiece market in Union Square and about sixty others in the city, including Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where blight has often left residents in urban food deserts that have no supermarkets and shops. A pilot project gives food stamp users greater access to healthy food, because they use food stamps at farmers markets.
Several variables have converged to bring Farm-to-School projects into the mainstream: new federal and state regulations with nutritional requirements for schools, an epidemic of obesity among students, generous grants from various foundations, and pioneering efforts in cities like Berkeley, California. Berkeley’s Unified School District approved a school lunch program that delivers “farm to fork” education about planting, growing, and biology – in addition to instilling healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. Students in over 2,000 school districts in forty states are eating farm-fresh food for school lunch or breakfast. Overall, schools report a 3 to 16 percent increase in participation in school meals when farm-fresh food is served. Many benefits besides better health for the students result from programs like these: teachers learn to incorporate food and agriculture into their curricula; parents change their shopping and cooking patterns; and food service staff gain knowledge and interest in local food preparation.
A local food web is more resilient, and able to prevent large- scale catastrophe. “When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions,” writes Michael Pollan. “Such a system is even more susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is to decentralize it.”
Benefits of a Regional Food Web
- Helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. (A typical food item travels up to 2,500 miles from farm to plate—25 percent farther than most food traveled in 1980.)
- Reduces the need for packaging and processing.
- Provides healthy produce that can be picked at its peak, providing much better flavor.
- Reconnects people with their communities and the land their food comes from.
- Eating local keeps 90 percent to 100 percent of the money you spend in your town.
- Provides accountability – the closer you are to where your food comes from, the more control you will have over how it is grown.
How can individuals help weave a local food web?
- Shop at local farmers markets
- Support farm-to-school programs, crop gleaning programs, and municipal composting to reuse local nutrients
- Reduce food waste in households, restaurants, and supermarkets
- Organize or participate in a food policy council, in which citizens help direct local food decisions
- Join a Community supported Agriculture (CSA) program, in which participants “subscribe” to produce grown by a local farmer
- Start a community garden, or put in a garden in your yard.