Local Food Systems Strongest with Local Leadership

The 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River  has gone down in history for causing a nationwide outcry that compelled the federal government to clean up and ensure the safety of our waterways. This, amongst other efforts, resulted in the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the creation of the Federal Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through rulemaking and enforcement, the CWA established a force in America that would protect our waterways, no longer allowing immediate economic gratification to trump environmental costs.

A similar outcry surrounding local food systems is currently being heard across the country. Frustrations about food access inequality and the impacts of unhealthy foods are some of the commonly raised challenges at the community level. Mounting problems exist throughout all stages of the food system: independent farmers and agricultural corporations are facing record droughts, sending food prices skyrocketing; the vast majority of food production practices are causing a deleterious effect on water, air and soils; and our country wastes food in record numbers, impacting food costs, access and hunger.

Could this potentially mean that food systems are veering towards the course of other resource issues that eventually required federal intervention?

Picture this scenario: A group of mayors and USDA administrators are meeting about the rigidity of Healthy Food Act requirements, mandated by the federal government. A mayor is recounting her ten-year legal fight over being unable to provide healthy food in a community food desert. A superintendent is faced with removing sugar-sweetened beverages from her schools, not because of local pressure, but because of a federal law.

In actuality, communities have taken steps to build sustainable food systems in their communities, such as policies to source food locally, create farm-to-school programs and incentivize local farmers to adopt organic practices. Currently these activities are developed and implemented for and by local communities, not as a result of federal intervention or a response to the threat of enforcement. I am willing to bet that should our national food challenges eventually require federal involvement, mayors would feel frustrated about enforcing federal regulations in their communities on the inherently local issues of food access or production.

In many cases, an absence of federal enforcement or legislation provides an opportunity for communities to be entrepreneurially nimble. City leaders make and implement decisions affecting food production, access and disposal based on local contexts, conditions and needs. Cities work together with partners including concerned citizens, private industry, universities, small businesses and the non-profit community.

Cities have a critical role to play in strengthening local and national food systems. Currently these systems are strained and fragmented, but can be restored through local leadership rather than requiring federal intervention. Local leaders have already accomplished much in the area of food systems support and it’s time that we share effective practices, model policies, and successful requests for proposals. Let’s foster a competitive spirit from town to town, identify which cities have figured out practical, innovative ways to make healthy food available to all of its residents, and celebrate local leadership on this issue!

NLC is tackling Local Food Systems as a priority issue for 2013 and looking forward to supporting cities through a newly launched section on the Sustainable Cities Institute website.

As we continue to develop these resources we want to hear from you: what resources, tools or topics would be most helpful to assist your efforts in developing a strong, sustainable and healthy food system in your community?

Send feedback, ideas, successful practices or questions to David DeVaughn, NLC National Urban Fellow, at devaughn@nlc.org.

Supporting Food Systems, Supporting Communities

“The best way to preserve farmland is to make farmers successful on that land.”

This call to action from participants attending the Supporting Local Food Systems Roundtable at NLC’s Congress of Cities (CoC), speaks to just one of the many factors driving the National League of Cities’ (NLC) commitment to addressing sustainable food issues in America’s cities and towns by providing local government leaders with effective tools and resources.

This past Congress of Cities in Boston was my first, and potentially my only, as NLC staff. I am a National Urban Fellow, Class of 2013, who was chosen to spend my nine-month fellowship working with all three centers of NLC: Federal Relations, Research & Innovation and the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. I come with past experience in endowment consulting and food system work, and hoped that my fellowship experience would allow me time to understand the intersection of food and policy in communities.

I am thankful to be working on the development of a comprehensive suite of resources to assist local activities and decision-making within the area of local foods. The resulting content will be used to build a brand new section of NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI) on Sustainable Food Systems. As the centerpiece of NLC’s sustainability efforts, SCI provides a dynamic online platform of resources and peer‐networking opportunities to assist cities in identifying, planning for and implementing holistic, long‐term approaches to community‐wide sustainability. The Sustainable Food System section will be the latest addition to SCI and is scheduled to launch in early 2013.

My hope was to see the intersection of my interests as a fellow and the goals of SCI, come together to answer questions like: What issues are on concerned citizens minds about food that connect with local, state and federal policies? And how can local government play a role to help incentivize, finance and provide partnerships towards sustainable food systems? I started to answer portions of these questions while at CoC 2012.

The call to action that started this piece, made during our Supporting Local Food Systems Roundtable discussion, speaks to how I hope we as staff and the elected officials we serve see our respective constituents. Potentially, that the best way for a local elected official to preserve their cities and towns is to make sure their constituents are successful at home, at work, and in their neighborhoods. Potentially, that the best way for NLC to preserve its local elected official membership, is to equip that membership so that it is successful in its communities. This call to action recognizes that supporting worthwhile efforts, through preservation and maximization of resources can make successful communities.

During the roundtable discussion, I was reminded that food is critical to cities and towns because it connects so many different issues: poverty, economic development, public health, etc. I have found that the more I learn about food, the more it becomes an issue that unearths other issues; that a reality like food insecurity, is a symptom of something larger that city leaders strive to address.  I believe that NLC will make these connections from food to areas like economic development and infrastructure.

City leaders continued to make these connections at the conference during a World Cafe table on financing healthy foods, and a workshop titled “Growing Your Local Food Economy.”  Ideas were shared and roadmaps were offered around the issues of healthy food access, urban agriculture and the difficulty of luring large grocery stores to underserved communities. Also discussed were potential avenues of state funding, novel examples of partnerships and passing of ordinances to support, preserve and maximize efforts.

Every elected official who spoke up in these sessions had something to offer and was looking for something new for their communities. It reassured me that those who are thinking about food issues in their municipalities are striving to understand what other communities have done to help alleviate a difficult situation and how a solution goes beyond food to mean community benefit.

We in the Sustainability program at NLC need these stories!

A Sustainable Food Systems section is scheduled to launch in early 2013 on the SCI website, including tools such as classroom content, case studies, reports and guides, model policies and more. As we continue to develop these resources, we want to hear from you: what resources, tools or topics would be most helpful to assist your efforts in developing a strong, sustainable and healthy food system in your community?

Send feedback, ideas, successful practices or questions to David DeVaughn, NLC National Urban Fellow, at devaughn@nlc.org.

For more information on the Sustainable Cities Institute visit http://www.SustainableCitiesInstitute.org and follow us on twitter @SustCitiesInst