Food is among the most relatable, and certainly most fundamental, issues facing our country. Regardless of race or class, everyone has an agrarian heritage somewhere in his or her ancestry. And regardless of culture or political leaning, everyone must eat.
The modern food system is much more complicated though, with stakeholders, profits and politics muddling the otherwise simple survival instinct to feed ourselves. In many cities and regions with a strong agricultural tradition, the majority of food grown is exported to other parts of the country and world, forcing the city to import the majority of the food its residents consume. This mismatch between production and consumption — caused as farmers are incentivized to grow cash crops that require processing, packaging and marketing, until the product looks little like its raw food version — has negative impacts on local economies and environments. The recent uptick in consumers’ efforts to buy locally-produced food is a reflection of the desire to return to self-reliance and community preservation.
City officials play an essential role in cultivating a strong food system to drive local economic recovery. On a panel at the Community Food Security Coalition’s recent conference, Food Policy from Neighborhood to Nation, Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center described his vision for local food economies built on health, wealth, connection and capacity. The current food system takes wealth out of farming communities and funnels it to banking and commercial sectors, Meter said. By building an inclusive network of community-based businesses – founded not only in commerce but in connections and trust – cities can capitalize on food’s ubiquity to foster economic prosperity. Local elected officials can support this small business infrastructure and catalyze connections between farmers and consumers to keep food dollars circulating within the local economy. A shift from a linear supply chain leading out of the community to a value network of local stakeholders can allow the money spent on food to buoy local economic prosperity.
For example, speaking on the same panel, Janie Burns of Meadowlark Farm in Nampa, Idaho referenced an assessment of Vermont’s potential to stimulate its economy through food. The study by economist Doug Hoffer found that by substituting local products for 10% of imported food, Vermont could enjoy $376 million in new economic output, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3,616 new jobs. A study by Ken Meter found similar potential for Boulder County, Colorado. In 2009, of the $662 million that Boulder County consumers spent on food, only $715,000 of products were sold by farmers directly to consumers. Therefore, if Boulder County undertook a “10% Local Food Shift” campaign, the local food sector could grow by $66 million annually, significantly strengthening the local economy.
The food system has enormous potential as a driver of economic recovery, but the shift must be intentional. Local elected officials must be champions on this issue, which transcends government department silos and affects every constituent’s quality of life. More and more city leaders are recognizing that food creates jobs, and that food security is energy security and economic security. Leaders like Cleveland Councilmember Joe Cimperman, who is frustrated by the 24 year discrepancy in life expectancy across Cleveland’s neighborhoods and aims to reduce that number through healthy food initiatives and community gardens to make neighborhoods safer, happier and better connected. Leaders like Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin who sponsored Seattle’s Local Food Action Initiative, now in its fourth year of strengthening urban agriculture business opportunities and connections between regional farmers. Leaders like Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who planted a vegetable garden at City Hall that grows produce for homeless shelters and who seeks to improve access to local food through 20-minute complete neighborhoods. And leaders like First Lady Michelle Obama, whose Let’s Move! campaign seeks to reverse childhood obesity within a generation, through physical activity and healthy eating. Through champions like these and many more, cities and towns are reconsidering their local food systems and the related impacts.
To reflect these inspiring efforts, the sustainability program at the National League of Cities recently released a city practice brief, Developing a Sustainable Food System, which highlights nine cities’ programs to increase urban agriculture opportunities, improve access to fresh food and reduce food system waste. These examples are among many solutions from cities that seek to ease the environmental burden of their food system, improve public health and cultivate economically strong local food sources.