Reclaiming our food sovereignty

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With this blog, I have explored the myriad variables that influence how and what we place on our tables. Food is a key part of our day, our lives, and our connection with each other and the planet. We cannot afford to sacrifice quality, natural products for corporate gain and convenience. Processed and fast foods are much more expensive than the “everyday low price” that they claim. We are spending countless dollars to treat our malnourished bodies and land.

Communities have the power to create their own food sovereignty. Local food production liberates people from the tight grip of addicting processed foods. We are all capable of growing food, of taking control of our diets, and demanding fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables.

Nutritious food is a right and it should not have to be expensive or special. We rely on the federal government to supply the nutritional assistance programs but it is up to cities and communities to produce properly diverse and beneficial food supplies.

When we grow in cities and support small and mid-size farmers, we are supporting the future of food. These are the farmers will grow crops over than corn, soybean, and wheat. They will care about the impact on the land and about their consumers.

Local food systems address the needs of a community and provide the nutritious food necessary to lead a productive life. When residents get involved and collaborate, amazing new innovations occur. We create more safe, fun, and green places that empower populations to control their own fate. Food is revolutionary by nature. The more we come together with resources and ideas, the more power we will have over our food choices.

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How is food waste integrated into the system?

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I have discussed policy, production, distribution, and marketing of food in a community. Another key component to a sustainable food system is waste management. Wasting food is a huge problem in the United States; about 40% of food each year goes uneaten, which equates to about $165 billion in food that is thrown out (Plumer, 2012). Large, industrial farms are one reason. The longer distances our food travels, the bigger the chance that grocers will overstock or that food goes bad quicker and gets thrown away earlier.

Community food systems are more efficient for waste management. Composting can greatly decrease the amount of methane given off from discarded fruits and vegetables (Plumer, 2012). In turn, urban farmers can use the compost to fertilize their soil.

Reducing food waste can also tie into strategies to reduce hunger in communities. The Interfaith Food Shuttle, in North Carolina, recovers food from food retailers before it is thrown away and uses it to make free hot meals for anyone in need. In 2011, they recovered 7.1 million points of food from over 350 donors. They also have urban agriculture, nutrition, and job training programs to address hunger from a variety of levels.

Doug Rouch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is starting a store called Daily Table that will prepare food that is past its sell-by date and sell the meals at junk food prices (Reeves, 2013). Rouch demonstrates that our food does not have to be perfect to eat. The closer the connection to our food, the more we will appreciate the intricate steps it takes to get to the table.

The issue of our food system is not the amount that we produce, it is the way we grow it and the way it is distributed to various populations. Each level of the food system is interconnected; our health and environment is dependent on these processes.

Plumer, B. (2012). How the U.S. manages to waste $165 billion in food each year. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/08/22/how-food-actually-gets-wasted-in-the-united-states/

Reeves, H. (2013). ‘In the old days, you’d smell the milk’ Doug Rouch wants to sell outdated food at junk-food prices. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/magazine/doug-rauch-wants-to-sell-outdated-food-at-junk-food-prices.html?_r=0

How is local food distributed?

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Urban agriculture provides us with locally sourced, fresh produce. However, local food would be much less valuable without a solid infrastructure to link farmers with institutions, businesses, and food markets. Small to mid-size farmers often have difficulty fitting with the large U.S. food infrastructure and regulations. Without the marketing and processing tools that large producers have, farmers lack access to the commercial markets they need to earn a living wage.

Food hubs have become the essential tools to develop local food infrastructures within regions and cities. Food hubs are a central component of the food value chain; a collaborative business network of all levels of the food system that coordinate activities to meet common financial, social, and environmental goals (Barham et al., 2012). Not only do they provide key distribution for small and mid-size farmers, they can create strategic alliances, process and store produce, increase sales, and provide security for farmers (Cohen, 2012).

Local food hubs are central to sustainable food systems and they are well-connected businesses that promote local buying to consumers and institutions. More importantly, they represent visible and active advocates for farmers. Support for farmers is arguably the most important part of a food system because if there are no farmers, there is no food. East Carolina Organics, in North Carolina, calls the growers after orders are placed so they know exactly what to harvest. Each year, they collaborate with customers and farmers to tailor their businesses based on local market demand. They also educate the public about the benefits of buying local, organic, and seasonal produce. Just by looking at their homepage you can get a sense of what food hubs are all about: a close and fair connection between the farmer and our table.

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 Food hubs connect the key sectors of local food systems. They provide restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, and schools with much needed fruits and vegetables. They boost local economy by providing crucial services. Also, a full capacity food hub could create 400 jobs and 60 million dollars of revenue for local economies (Barham et al., 2012). Accessible markets provide flexibility and security so that farmers can improve and thrive.

Barham, J., Tropp, D., Enterline, K., Farbman, J., Fisk, J., Kiraly, S. (2012). Regional food hub resource guide: Food hub impacts on regional food systems, and the resources available to support their growth and development. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5097957

Cohen, B.R. (2012). All praise the civics of food hubs. Civil Eats. Retrieved from: http://civileats.com/2012/09/07/all-praise-the-civics-of-food-hubs/

What are urban farmers doing for their communities?

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Urban agriculture is not all about food; farms can harvest rainwater, use compost, develop leadership and job skills for participants, provide valuable knowledge about nutrition and the environment, economic opportunities, and create safe, green public spaces for communities to grow (Design Trust for Public Space, 2012). In my last post, I explored the impact of urban farms. Here, I will provide some examples of cities and people that are creating innovative new ways to contribute to the urban agriculture revolution.

Growing Power is one of the leading urban agriculture organizations; Will Allen started Growing Power as an opportunity for teens to work in his greenhouses to benefit the landscape of Milwaukee. Now, Growing Power is a national organization that incorporates a huge variety of agricultural and community projects such as worm soil composting, aquaculture, bee keeping, and permaculture. They sell produce to neighbors that have low-access to fresh food and engage hundreds of youth and students with seminar and volunteer opportunities (Mukherji & Morales, 2010). They are currently working on a program to provide healthy snacks to Milwaukee public schools (Mukherji & Morales, 2010).

In Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development’s Green Healthy Neighborhood Initiative aims to transform an old railroad into a trail that connects a number of urban farms and parks (Rotenberk, 2012). The railroad goes through the South Side of Chicago, an area suffering from divestment, population decline, and abandoned lots.

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The new ERA (Englewood Rebuilding America) trail would provide the neighborhood with real food and jobs. This project also raises the opportunity to break down racial barriers and preconceived notions about “health food”. One neighbor said, “Urban farming is a white, liberal, hippie movement that found itself in the black community,” but, “the black community is seeing the opportunity,” (Rotenberk, 2012). Farms such as demonstrate that the food movement is our way to take control of our food and future.

In Durham, North Carolina, another impressive innovation for urban agriculture has sprouted. The Farmery is an urban market that grows food and sells food in the same place. Indoor agricultural systems can grow a variety of lettuces, mushrooms, herbs, and other produce. Customers pick their own food and buy it right from the source. The Farmery consolidates the food system and provides a new way to connect with the food we buy and eat (Greene, 2013).

There are also a number of mobile farms that can transport the freshest food to any location in need. These operations demonstrate that the food system does not have to be cut and dry. When we stimulate the local food economy, amazing, new things can happen. It is the responsibility of local governments to establish clear policies about urban agriculture. Zoning policies should describe clear regulations about land use, bee keeping, and livestock use for urban farms (Mukherji & Morales, 2010). Cities have the power to facilitate the productive use of abandoned lots and express a commitment to food sovereignty and sustainability.

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Greene, Benjamin. (2013). The Farmery. Planet Forward. Retrieved from: http://www.planetforward.org/idea/the-farmery

Metrics Framework. (2012). Design Trust for Public Space. Retrieved from: http://www.fiveboroughfarm.org/about/

Mukherji, N., & Morales, A. (2010). Zoning for Urban Agriculture. American Planning Association, (3). Retrieved from: http://www.planning.org/zoningpractice/2010/pdf/mar.pdf

Rotenberk, L. (2012). Chicago’s urban farm district could be the largest in the nation. Grist. Retrieved from: http://grist.org/food/chicago-urban-ag-farm-district-could-be-the-biggest-in-the-nation/

What motivates the urban agriculture movement?

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Americans are building development projects over farmland. According to the American Farmland Trust and the 2007 National Resources Inventory, 4,1324,800 acres of rural land were converted between 1982 and 2007. As I stated in a previous post, a majority of healthy foods are grown in vulnerable areas for development. Therefore, sustainable land use is central to the healthy food revolution.

Urban populations are growing rapidly and many communities are at risk for low-access to fresh food. Conveniently, there is land that can be un-developed; in 2001, 15.4% of urban lands were vacant (Schless-Meier, 2013). Vacant lots often represent economic decline; they are desolate and unproductive. High concentrations of abandoned lots inhabit low-income communities, which must deal with the depreciated property values and crime that the vacant lots promote (Schless-Meier, 2013). The most logical, beneficial, and transformational thing to do with these properties: grow on them.

There are a number of ways to operate urban agriculture. Commercial farms are owned by a farmer that sells produce for profit. Institutional farms are operated by an organization or group  ; produce can be sold or used for other collective farming purposes. Farmers can use Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), so that consumers can “subscribe” to their produce on a weekly basis. Community gardens are usually maintained by a group of people that grow the food to consume for themselves or give away. Sometimes community gardens are organized by a group that rent out plots for individual use.

The suitable location for these changes is near urban centers. Urban agriculture has a number of benefits to a community’s environment, social interactions, health, and economy. Urban farming adds important green space that is depleted from urban sprawl. It reduces carbon emissions by growing food nearby, opposed to the thousands of miles food travels now (Howard). Farms reduce water runoff, create shade, and reduce the heat island effect in cities (Howard).

Urban agriculture also positively impacts the health of cities. Adults who live with someone participating in a community garden were 3.5 times more likely to consume fruits and vegetables five times a day compared to someone who does not (Alaimo, Packnett, Miles, & Kruger, 2008). Urban farms often offer cooking and nutrition classes that teach urban dwellers how to cook the food that they grow (Design Trust for Public Space, 2012). Where there is proximity for fresh food and the opportunity to grow our own fruits and vegetables, it will improve our connection to healthy food.

Urban farms can also improve local economies. Food is delivered faster because it is traveling very few miles. Therefore, stores can restock more often and waste less food. There are more opportunities to buy directly from farmers or to grow your own food, so the selections are mark-up free. One can receive six dollars worth of vegetables for every one dollar invested in an urban garden (James, 2012). Also, in local markets there is a deeper awareness of the supply and demand, the cultural preferences, and behavior of the consumers (James, 2012). Most importantly, the income stays within the community instead of a multinational corporation. And this income goes toward healthy food, which will save everyone money from medical costs.

Urban agriculture utilizes all the strengths of a community: collaboration, hard work, utilizing existing resources, and social capital. As our agricultural land depletes, we must begin to create our own green and productive spaces for the betterment of our towns and cities. I will explore some urban farm movements and their impact on cities in my next post.

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All from National Geographic: Urban Farming Is Growing a Green Future

Alaimo, K., Packnett, E., Miles, R.A., & Kruger, D.J. (2008). Fruit and vegetable intake among urban community gardeners. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 40, 43-101. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2006.12.003.

Howard, B.C. Urban farming is growing a green future: Green Gotham. National Geographic. Retrieved from: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/photos/urban-farming/#/earth-day-urban-farming-new-york-rooftop_51631_600x450.jpg

James, Adam. (2012). How urban farming can transform our cities – And our agricultural system. Think Progress. Retrieved from: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/29/491271/how-urban-farming-can-transform-our-cities-and-our-agricultural-system/

Metrics Framework. (2012). Design Trust for Public Space. Retrieved from: http://www.fiveboroughfarm.org/impact/

Schleiss-Meier, Adrien. (2013, July 26). K(no)w Vacancy: From NY to PA, urban land maps support reclaiming abandoned lots. Civil Eats. Retrieved from: http://civileats.com/2013/07/26/know-vacancy-from-new-york-to-philadelphia-urban-land-maps-support-communities-in-reclaiming-abandoned-lots/

What’s happening to our farmland?. American Farmland Trust. Retrieved from: http://www.farmland.org/resources/fote/default.asp

Introduction to the food system

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Take a minute to consider all the things you have eaten today. What were some of the ingredients and where were they sourced? How was it made? What companies were involved?

Some of these questions may be difficult to answer, even after checking the label and various websites. Food and nutrients are intrinsic to our culture, daily life, and wellbeing. Yet, many of us accept our food sources at face value. It can be overwhelming to consider all the implications and sources of every pre-packaged meal and snack.

A “food system” is a term used to describe the processes to produce, package, transport, distribute, consume, and dispose of our food. The system also includes a variety of inputs from consumers, policies, businesses, and communities. National policies heavily influence the amount of support and subsidies that certain parts of the process receive.  Investment has a significant impact on federal agencies that develop the policies, such as the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The imbalance of power in the system is rapidly increasing the gap between food and people, both physically and cognitively. Large corporations are gaining far too much momentum without the consideration of the environment, communities, and health.

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The Food System – Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Social Issues Team and Elliott Kuhn (graphic artist), 2004.

The absurdly high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and food insecurity are a direct result of their policies. In 2012, 14.5% of households were food insecure, which means 49 million Americans are going hungry (Colman-Jensen, Nord, & Singh, 2013). In addition, the annual medical cost of obesity in the US is about $147 billion (Finklestein, Trogdon, Cohen, & Dietz, 2009). The issue is not with production, but with the distribution, access, and marketing of the wrong types of food. The “Value Menu” causes detrimental, hidden costs on all levels of the system.

Positive change must begin through the empowerment of farmers, consumers, and community initiatives to change the food culture of our nation. Local and regional markets of healthy produce help farmers diversify their supply. Building infrastructure that connects farmers to consumers will expand access to affordable, fresh food. Then, with real evidence and demand from around the country, we can change destructive food policies.

References:

Finkelstein, E. A., Trogdon, J. G., Cohen, J.W., & William Dietz. (2009). Annual Medical Spending Attributable to Obesity: Payer-And Service-Specific Estimates. Health Affairs, 28(5). Retrieved from: Health Affairs.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., & Singh, A.. (2013). Household Food Security in the United States in 2012. USDA ERS. Retrieved from: USDA ERS.