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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Farmers and food security: how can we make food distribution equitable?

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As I discussed in my last post, local food systems rely on community connections to farmers and fresh food. Food distribution must be equitable and address all populations in need. Farmers Markets provide a public setting for the local food movement that can incorporate any income and cooking ability. These markets are the fastest growing direct to consumer food enterprise. Markets have tripled in number over the last 15 years and over 25% of farmers acquire a majority of their income from farmers markets (Young, Karpyn, Uy, Wich, & Glyn, 2011). Farmers markets link the urban and rural food systems and express the need for healthy, affordable food for all.  Farmers can accept food assistance credit and provide key knowledge to consumers about buying and preparing fresh food through farmers’ market stands or community supported agriculture (CSA).

There are a number of programs in place to make farmers’ markets more accessible for low-income individuals and families. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a national hunger safety net that offers financial assistance to people who are food insecure. Food security is a term to describe one’s access to safe and nutritious food that promote an active lifestyle (WHO). Under SNAP, there is the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) for Women Infant and Children (WIC) and seniors (SFMNP) (Owens & Veral, 2010). These are often transferred through the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system. FMNP coupons and SNAP credit can be redeemed at farmers markets, which enhances equitable access to healthy food. In 2008, over 28 million people in the US were enrolled in SNAP (49% of which are children), which equates to $35 billion dollars in nutritional benefits (Owens & Veral, 2010).

Farmers market programs have undoubtedly increased fruit and vegetable consumption for low-income women, seniors, and children (FRAC, 2013). However, there is always room for improvement. SNAP redemptions at farmers markets made up only 0.01% of the $64.4 billion total redemptions in 2010 (FRAC, 2013). There needs to be more authorized retailers and fewer barriers for low-income or working families (FRAC, 2013). Farmers markets should work on outreach, education, and transportation for SNAP recipients (FRAC, 2013).

Farmers markets can even advertise for CSA programs that accept SNAP/EBT to connect the movement between enterprises. CSA members, or “share-holders” can receive weekly packages of fresh produce supplied by a local farmer (FRAC, 2013, p. 10). These can be delivered or picked up at a convenient location. CSA farmers can accept SNAP or provide subsidized membership fee for low-income families. It is crucial that food venues reach out to nutrition program recipients to make the benefits and availability known.

Market access for farmers and healthy food access for consumers are interconnected requirements for a fair food system. Public food venues that are dedicated to fair food demonstrate that the state and future of what we eat is bound with a whole community, not an individual. In my next post, I will describe more ways that equitable food outlets have taken root in communities.

Food security. World Health Organization. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/ 

Owens, N. & Verel, K. (2010). SNAP/EBT at your farmers market: Seven Steps to Success. Project for Public Spaces & Wholesome Wave. Retrieved from: http://www.pps.org/pdf/SNAP_EBT_Book.pdf

Young, C., Karpyn, A., Uy, N., Wich, K., & Glyn, J. (2011). Farmers markets in low income communities: Impact of community, environment, food programs, and public policy. Journal of the Community Development Society, 402, 208-220. doi: 10.1080/15575330.2010.551663

(2013). A review of strategies to bolster SNAP’s role in improving nutrition as well as food security. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Retrieved from: http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/SNAPstrategies.pdf

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 are Community Food Systems?

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In the previous post, I discussed the conflict between industrial agribusiness and healthy food accessibility in our nation. However, this issue has not gone unnoticed by communities. Many regions, cities, and towns across the U.S. are beginning to create community food systems through the work of a group of dedicated individuals. These systems enhance the sovereignty of the communities’ food. Food sovereignty is the right for people and communities to define their own agricultural and food policies that are self-reliant, equitable, safe, sustainable, and appropriate (Grassroots International). Food policy councils are rising as a solution to empower local food production and distribution in order to improve economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and equitable access to fresh food (Garrett & Feenstra). 

         These councils and coalitions are facilitators and catalysts for food system reform. Typically they aim to create support for family farms, enhance marketing and processing of local food, help create new food businesses and jobs, and improve working conditions for food and agriculture workers (Garrett & Feenstra). They typically have a connection with local government and work within existing frameworks of organizations and businesses (Shiff, 2008).

Food policy councils coordinate, network, and implement goals and projects (Shiff, 2008). Therefore, they must strive to be as diverse as possible to enhance political capital and the capacity to move forward (Shiff, 2008). Councils should elected leaders, agency representatives, public health workers, food retailers, farmers, food retailers, anti-hunger advocates, community members, and any other people that are invested in the issues (Garrett & Feenstra). The more diverse the group, the more effective they will be to leverage resources, spread the work, find funding, and work along with community voices and opinions (Garrett & Feenstra).

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Figure 1 (Garrett & Feenstra).

Another important component is the community food assessment. Food policy councils should fully understand the condition of their food system before developing goals and policies. Food policy councils should identify existing resources, leadership opportunities, community needs, market openings, and deprivations. For example, the Portland Food Policy Council partnered with Community Food Matters in order to assess the “barriers and opportunities to the use of regional and sustainable food products” (Pierson). This way, the council can target the most important needs first and place them in a better position to evaluate their projects and goals (Garrett & Feenstra). Portland created a number of informed objectives that could increase purchases of local and sustainable foods in the area (Pierson).

The work of community food systems and policies is crucial to combat corporate power and political clout. Communities can create their own solutions to improve the wellbeing of members and give a voice to consumers and farmers. They are incredibly important to build market opportunities for fresh, local food and create jobs and economic empowerment for all. In my next posts I will provide more examples of these systems in action.

 

“Food Sovereignty”. Grassroots International. Retrieved from: http://www.grassrootsonline.org/issues/food-sovereignty

Garrett, S. & Feenstra, G. Growing a Community Food System. Partnerships in Education and Research. Retrieved from: http://smallfarms.wsu.edu/wsu-pdfs/WREP0135.pdf

Pierson, T. Barriers and Opportunities to the Use of Regional and Sustainable Food Products by Local Institutions. Community Food Matters. Retrieved from: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/116839

Shiff, R. (2008). The Role of Food Policy Councils in Developing Sustainable Food Systems. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, 3, 206-228. doi: 10.1080/19320240802244017

 

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.