A sustainable local food system for all

Published 10:37 pm Monday, March 16, 2015

A young university researcher called me a few days back for an interview. She is working on a research project to better understand the experiences of food hubs in Western North Carolina, their successes and challenges. One of the goals of her project is to share with local organizations and governments the needs and gaps in infrastructure that food hubs face. She is going to aggregate her information and contribute it to the Farmer Support Cluster of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council and to the regional discourse on strengthening local foods systems.

She had heard of my involvements within this discourse as an entrepreneur and at the county and regional level with organizations and governments and she was particularly interested in the economic aggregative quality of the Manna Cabanna local organic multi-farm CSA program, born in Saluda in 2005.

We started in on the interview and learned quite a bit from one another. I was somewhat surprised to hear that there is already some reaction to the distributive values of local food hubs working on distance before local saturation: that brokers, drivers and the local production growers they contract with are shipping food out of our hyper local communities and economies at rates greater than distributing within it.

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There is concern that without a volunteer or dedicated staff member working solely to build relationship with local food buyers in the immediate population, that the food of local growers who accomplish larger scale production does not stay here at home where there are thousands of people who want and need it.

My say is these are all real concerns, and they are concerns of my own. I am also concerned that growers and farms stay profitable while hyper local infrastructure waits its turn for a broad enough amount of community support that it too can grow and get to work. Placing value and investment in local entrepreneurs within the food system, from producers to marketers, to distributors, to value-added processors, to educators and consumers, creates small business success stories. There are money-making jobs in all of this and the long-term benefit of developing a sustainable agriculture system for Polk County and its edging neighbors is vital for everyone living here.

Skyrocketing demand for local and regional foods offers the American farmer many opportunities for profitable business and the building of a sustainable way of life unique to a conventional food system. I told the young intern interviewing me that the beginning of any local food system conversation does well to first ask, “What does our food system accomplish?”

And I’ve learned this: Food systems should build health, wealth, connection, and capacity. I believe there is nothing we can do better to avoid ill health than to eat really well. If farms aren’t making wealth, we are not going to have a sustainable food system. People have meals together for a reason. Because it helps us connect in a special way. Food speaks heritage, it speaks place in the world, it speaks culture, family, language, history, science, and policy-making. In some cultures, it’s only food that has survived. We don’t talk about these things in our policy circles because those conversations are simply all about making money. Our food system should be about reclaiming our food producing skills.

I would argue that for all the bells and whistles of our conventional food system now, the convenience, the misleading promises, with all the pretty packaging, we are actually dumber as a society about food today than we were just decades ago.

And if we don’t reclaim these skills as a population and build back these capacities among ourselves, we actually have no hope of having a strong food system in this country so it’s very important to do this well.

I don’t know how to prove this but I would argue that the food system we currently have now is failing us on four counts. It builds bad health outcomes at considerable public expense. It builds bad wealth outcomes by giving money to some people at the expense of others. It disconnects us rather than bringing us together. And, we are hurt by the current food society and all the “conveniences” we have.

If we think this is the goal of a food system, we have some serious work to do. The main economic insight I’ve had about food systems is that the food system we have is very efficient at taking wealth out of our communities, especially rural communities like ours where farming should be some of the most profitable means of living.

That’s also to say of course, that the food system we have is creating poverty. We were asked, “Who thinks that poverty and hunger are related? That is then to say that our food system is creating hunger.”  How do we address this very fundamental dilemma day after day?

The secret lies in building a community around sustainable agriculture, which includes all systems within that community participating.