Building capacity in our local food system, part 3

Published 3:51 pm Monday, May 18, 2015

In recapping this series thus far on building local sustainable food systems, I’ve said that a food system hopes to accomplish health, wealth, capacity, and community. If a food system had a mission statement it might read like this: “…To work with local farms to provide nutritious food affordable for all, provide hunger relief, eliminate the root causes of hunger, improve health, preserve food culture through mentoring, growing, preparing and teaching, promote economic development, and bind people together.”

This third part in our series focuses on building a food system’s capacity. It takes an enormous amount of operational monies and training when crossing over to the legal frenzy of food system building.  The legal implications for food safety issues requires lawyering up and procuring lots of product certifications, permits, licenses and liability insurance.

Because of big ag, the art of farming is considered the second highest risk industry to insure, with commercial fishing in Alaska being the first. It is taking all hands on deck in Polk County to develop a package of programs and services that turns the legal food frenzy into a unified local food system that offers capacity.

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There are two major areas of capacity building on which we can focus today, though there are a dozen more to be included.

One is to promote and support the work it takes to connect farmers with food access programs such as food banks, daycares, group homes, senior centers, school systems, healthcare systems, hospitality and tourism, and other non-emergency food access programs.

Kids need to know how to grow food. In schools, raised bed gardens are quickly granted by Head Start at the pre-K to kindergarten level. Community grants extend support into elementary and middle school with entire farms being raised, like the one at Polk County High School.

A second area is to promote and finance infrastructure and facilities that support the work of farmer-to-food programs and consumer-based food businesses. Figure out what food access programs are spending retail (as food costs are usually their third biggest expense with staffing and facilities being one and two.) These numbers create an astonishing sum of monies that disappear at rapid daily rates from the local economy.

Write into mission statements that we will use cooperative purchasing power with a focus on produce. Local produce initiatives could be made available to all agencies, farm stands, commercial kitchens, curbside markets and healthy corner stores. All of these efforts are a continuation of capacity fulfillment.

Trucks are up and down the roads and they should never be traveling empty. There are farms all around and there are foods needing distribution. The minute a farmer has to drive off his or her farm for truck deliveries, they begin losing money. There are always more crops to plant and more to harvest for sales to stay strong.

So, develop a system that knows what trucks are out on the roads, where they are going, when they are empty, and perhaps a food cowboy business can form to help with distribution. Dairy farmers can co-op in on refrigerated truck services. For the farms that can fill large purchasing orders or welcome gleaning programs, these relationships help fill empty trucks!

Farmers really like working with food hubs and purchasers that are good customers. Pay fair and pay it forward. For seconds and field runs, accept donations but also offer at least cents on the pounds that may have otherwise gone to waste. Build trust because that builds capacity. Farmers like that trucks pick-up and buy in large volume. When working with food banks, pantries or value-adding facilities, the trucks are purchasing all of their seconds, regardless of shape, size, and standardized packaging.

In building capacity, we can canvass all of our groceries and see if they are buying from local farmers. We can purchase their seconds or edging out of date produce, again for the cents on the pound, then send it to value-adding facilities or community free meal programs.

Commercial kitchens are essential to building local food system capacity and can be a well-utilized hub for nutrition education, cooking classes, entrepreneurial development and community gatherings and fundraisers. Commercial kitchens in major cities easily produce and serve 3,000 plus meals a day for various programs including after school programs in the schools.

Farmers markets that accept SNAP are increasing in existence. This should also include food festivals. Local businesses, hire a farmer! They need side work and off-season work and typically have amazing handy skills or can consult to help you plan your own food gardens.

Building capacity in a community food system begins internally and like anything else, you get what you pay for. If we want to establish a value chain for healthy food for all in Polk County, there is money that has to be spent.