Local Food – A Conversation for all Regions

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“Do you eat food?”

This was the question posed by Jim Embry, Director of the Lexington Sustainable Communities Network and local foods “jedi” (according to those in the local ‘food-know’) at the beginning of the Fourth Annual Local Foods Summit held last week in Lexington, KY.

“Because if you eat food, you’re part of the food system”

And thus began the three day event bringing together local and regional government representatives, small business owners, university students, farmers, chefs, authors, members of faith groups, healthcare workers, community members, and media personalities.

I had the pleasure of participating in the summit as a speaker on the roles of local government in creating and enabling healthy, sustainable food systems. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at a range of issue areas within the broad, sometimes abstract field of sustainability, and continually searching for ways to illuminate the interconnections among social, economic, and environmental factors in clear, compelling, and concrete ways, the topic of food is particularly exciting.

Photo credit: Michigan Good Food; http://www.michiganfood.org

As Jim Embry’s introductory question simply states – we all share in and have a personal connection to the food system. The production, processing, distribution, sale, and even eventual disposal of food all directly relates to and I believe are emblematic of the tangled web of sustainability. These components, are all part of the food system (see image) which affects and is affected by a number of other systems: energy sources; water availability and resulting water quality; nutrient cycles; transportation and infrastructure for distribution and processing; local economies through the support of small business, public health and more.

Looking across the various components of the food system, opportunities for local governments to directly or indirectly contribute become increasingly evident. And even more encouraging is the growing interest and the level of local engagement in recent years around the topic of food. Community gardens, farmers markets, healthy corner store initiatives, changes to zoning codes, and – a source of numerous city council debates – urban chickens, bees, and goats, have all been at the center of many urban sustainability discussions. As discussed in the NLC guide “Developing a Sustainable Food System,” several cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, Seattle, Wash., and Minneapolis, Minn. have been strongly involved in facilitating urban food production and access to healthy foods.

While the work currently happening within cities and towns to facilitate food access and promote smaller-scale production is vastly important, too often these conversations and plans are not fully connecting with the larger-scale food producers, processors, and distribution centers in rural communities. A particularly important insight I took away from the summit was the need and important role that local and regional government engagement can have in connecting-the-dots across urban and rural landscapes to address, support and strengthen all aspects of the food system.

At a roundtable discussion on regional food planning, farmers, processors, and local businesses discussed challenges they are facing in maintaining local production in rural areas. Topics ranged from lack of connected aggregation, processing and distribution infrastructure, to conflicts in balancing “true cost” against affordability, and issues of public engagement, awareness, and support for local food systems (just to name a few).

While the discussion raised some difficult and complex issues, several take away messages and recommendations also emerged that may be helpful for other communities to consider:

  • Recognize that local food really depends on regional food systems. Regional and local governments, planning agencies, and other decision making bodies should be engaged together in understanding the complex interdependencies of the food system. Recommendation: Incorporate food systems as part of a comprehensive, regional planning effort as well as part of local economic development and sustainability strategies.
  • Begin where you are by knowing where you are. A regional assessment or inventory can be critically important for a community and region to understand the range of resources already available.  Recommendation: Develop (with broad community involvement) an inventory of assets such as local producers, aggregation facilities, processing facilities, food hubs or distribution channels, local businesses (stores/ restaurants/ markets), and institutions that serve large quantity of meals that could source locally (i.e. schools, hospitals, jails, senior centers). In many cases the use of GIS mapping tools can be highly valuable here.
  • A social connection to food and agriculture is falling out of many communities’ cultural heritage. The seemingly endless availability of inexpensive, pre-packaged foods that permeate our food landscape has contributed to a loss in appreciation and recognition for food as a social and cultural resource. Furthermore, younger generations are not pursuing traditional agricultural careers in adequate numbers to maintain cultural heritage and local economies depending on these trades. Recommendation: More direct education, awareness, and support channels to promote  opportunities (traditional and entrepreneurial) for food-related careers. Communities should also consider engaging resources such as local media as partners to foster a community conversation around food (disclaimer: Sunny Side Up Radio in Lexington had invited me to attend this summit; they have been doing terrific work in making food FUN through a weekly program dedicated to local foods).
  • Local and regional governmental bodies can be enormously helpful in supporting and strengthening healthy food systems – but they cannot and should not act alone. Recommendation: Addressing any and all pieces of the food system will require broad community support and engagement. Local governments can be especially helpful in convening stakeholders and facilitating dialogue and are encouraged to maintain an open process by which all groups can contribute and be heard throughout any decision making process.

I thank Sylvia Lovely from Sunny Side Up Radio and Jim Embry for their kind invitation to participate in this Summit and salute the terrific work that is happening throughout Lexington and the surrounding region to promote healthy, strong, and sustainability local food systems!