The era of political battle over the value and meaning of local food is over.
AGree’s recent paper titled Local Food: Revitalizing Community-based Food Systems encapsulates the agreement growing around local food. The paper’s consensus recommendations suggest how federal agencies – USDA and many others, along with foundation and private sector partners – can strengthen and revitalize local and regional food systems to bring communities together, invigorate local economies, and support livelihoods.
Today, the discussion is no longer about whether local food is here to stay, but rather about its rapid expansion. The challenge is how to best maximize the benefits of local food for farmers and communities.
Locally focused food enterprises are found in every state and include all kinds of agriculture – from small to large sized operations producing everything from produce to livestock and dairy, and using a variety of methods along the continuum from organic to conventional production. Many young people coming into farming find producing for local markets a critical strategy as they learn their trade. Conversations around local food need to be about creating an equal playing field with the aim of responding to consumer demand, encouraging healthy eating, and creating a more diverse and resilient food system.
AGree’s paper focuses on the actions needed to create the conditions for local food enterprises to thrive. Data collection and information sharing are a major gap. Without information on what is happening in the local food sector, it is challenging to support successes and learn from failures. Growth requires investment. Funding for research and analysis on demand dynamics along with local food’s economic, environmental and social benefits can help to spur and direct investment.
However, understanding the food system is inadequate without a framework for success at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must take an active role to ensure programs are also serving producers growing for local consumption. Programs, such as food safety regulations, were not designed with small scale production in mind. Effort must be spent to align regulations with what is practical on-the-ground, while ensuring public health and safety.
Local food actors require support at all levels of government, and also across sectors. Efforts surrounding local food must be linked to economic development, environmental protection, regional planning, and community health and wellbeing programs. Not only is USDA vital, but also agencies as far reaching as the Departments of Commerce (e.g., the Small Business Administration), Transportation, and Health and Human Services.
I saw firsthand the innovation and growth taking place in these local food systems when I participated in AGree’s DC Local Food Tour on September 18.
We saw Union Kitchen’s gleaming new facility where hundreds of DC residents are working to create local food businesses. Founder Jonas Singer noted that these businesses provide local opportunity - as builders of culture and economic development.
We were also inspired by Arcadia’s Mobile Market that brings healthy food to underserved communities in DC. The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture (an initiative of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group) grows food as well as aggregating it from 17 local farmers and ranchers. Arcadia also runs agriculture programming for school children and is launching a veterans training program. Groups like Arcadia are working around the country to connect farmers with markets, provide healthy food, and inspire new generations about the connections between agriculture, food, nutrition, and health.
Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of Let’s Move and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at The White House (and a former AGree Advisor) hosted us in the White House garden, noting that local food, nutrition, and healthy eating have become a national movement because of public participation. With so many consumers, schools, and hospitals voting with their wallets, local food can no longer be ignored. Looking forward, it is critical to this movement’s success that support comes from all sectors of society and government, and involves the investment of time and resources to ensure our nation’s communities can take full advantage of the benefits of local food.
Kathleen Merrigan is an AGree Co-Chair and is Executive Director of Sustainability at the George Washington University (GW), where she leads the GW Sustainability Collaborative, GW Food Institute, and serves as Professor of Public Policy.