Local Food Systems Strongest with Local Leadership

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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.