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

Healthy urban food systems seeking committed local leaders

In celebration of Earth Day, Grist magazine highlighted 40 people working to “redefine green” in their communities. The list contains a diverse range of entrepreneurs, community activists, scientists, and venture capitalists yet what is perhaps most striking is that a third of the people featured are “altering the green landscape” through food. One of these individuals even ran for and was elected to public office to expand access to urban agriculture in the Town of Carrboro, NC.

Issues of food access and quality have been receiving a lot of attention in the past few years, and more recently have been bolstered by First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on ending childhood obesity and reality shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. This burgeoning interest in locally produced food has already expanded beyond community gardens and farmers markets to include urban livestock. Chickens, bees, even goats have been making their urban debut in a small but growing number of cities.

With this growing interest in healthy, fresh, and locally produced foods, there is a clear opportunity – in fact a great need – for local leaders to become more actively involved in community food systems. It is curious however, as the American Planning Association has pointed out, given the level of government intervention in other basic needs (i.e. housing, public safety, education) and role in ensuring quality and access to clean air, water, and soil – that a similar priority has not yet been given to the safety and availability of healthy foods.

Even though community food systems directly contribute to issues important to cities, such as public health, community and economic development, food security, and environmental integrity, it is an area that has largely fallen to community advocacy groups, concerned individuals, and small businesses to support and maintain. And while the commitment and vision of community members can have a transformative impact, rarely is a local food movement able to thrive without the involvement and support of the elected leaders who can remove barriers and increase opportunities particularly in regards to production and distribution.

Certainly there is not a dearth of local leadership: Cities such as Cleveland, Boston, and Escondido, CA have facilitated the creation and expansion of urban agriculture by amending zoning codes, creating policy, providing incentives, or adopting ordinances favoring this type of land use. Many other cities have begun to sponsor local farmers markets and some are even targeting small business development programs to support local food entrepreneurs. Few however have formally incorporated a commitment to food access, quality, or security into their long-term planning.

In addition to local benefits, food systems present an excellent opportunity for regional collaboration and appear to be capturing the attention of investors. Urban agriculture has been discussed as a possible revitalization strategy in shrinking cities such as Detroit, and is being floated as the next “green” frontier among venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. While the prospect of mass-produced urban agriculture currently raises more questions than answers, it seems likely that the cities with experience in local food systems will have an added advantage in this potential new marketplace.

As cities’ commitment to sustainability continues to grow so too will the need for leadership surrounding community food systems. While some cities have gotten an early lead, there is still much work to be done and endless opportunities for cities to alter their own green landscape.