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An Instruction Manual for Fixing the Food System

For years people and organizations from Frances Moore Lappé to Slow Food have sought to repair and restore our broken food system, making noticeable but still negligible progress. Surely more people today are aware that there’s a problem, and admitting that is the first step, as they say.

Thus far, all of these wise, talented and dedicated people have been navigating by the stars in an endless sea of industrialization and fake food. Despite hundreds, perhaps thousands of books and essays and dissertations and lectures on the subject, there has been no guidebook, no specific “set of instructions” on how to fix our broken system. To the rescue comes Phillip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont, with Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable Food Systems, a part of a series sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute called “The Community Resilience Guide Series.” Other books include one on locally-targeted financial investing and another on creating local energy projects.

A dense and scholarly work, Rebuilding the Foodshed is no end-table reader. This is a serious instruction manual that lays out in detail where we are, how we got into this food mess, and what we need to do to fix it. Ackerman-Leist analyzes the problem in depth, dividing it into three parts: first laying out the dilemmas; then scrutinizing the “Drivers for Rebuilding the Local Food Systems” such as energy, environment, food justice, biodiversity and more; then offering “New Directions,” including a very important section on “Bridging the Divides,” because surely no progress is going to be made until the animosity between urban and rural, between small scale and large scale, between all or nothing.

The destination is one we all understand, even if we can’t quite see it. It’s a place where, as Slow Food likes to say, our food system is “Good, Clean, and Fair.” By “good,” we mean that the food is good tasting, good for you, and good for the environment. “Clean” means there is nothing the food that isn’t food (and if it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it isn’t food now). And by “Fair” is the idea that that the people who produce the food are to be justly compensated for their efforts while the prices at the market are still approachable. While nearly every organization and prominent individual in the global effort to rejuvenate our food system gets at least passing mention, the author singles out Slow Food’s Terra Madre gatherings for special attention:

Slow Food International has probably set the bar for the most creative and celebratory integration of “grassroots” and “global” through its biannual gathering of food communities and producers. Dubbed “Terra Madre,” this enormous gathering highlights, celebrates, and fortifies the cultural centerpieces of community based food systems around the globe. Slow Food’s dual emphasis on local economy and global exchange is exemplary in a polarized era of local versus global.

That polarization is perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome, mostly because while the forces on the side of “local” have the passion, it’s the globalized food industrial complex that has the power. Still these are ideas that bridge virtually every political, societal or religious boundary. They are ideas of ownership, of responsibility, of caring for each other and the land.

One of the solutions Ackerman-Leist says is vital is the understanding that a healthy Foodshed is not an all/nothing, either/or proposition. Too often we get so caught up in our belief systems, our views on how something must be, that we tend to vilify any obstacle as deliberate blockade put in place by adversaries (Surely I am as guilty of this as anyone). He quotes geographer Nathan McClintock:

“Ultimately, it has to be a ‘both/and’ resolution. The concept of food miles is breaking down. Fetishizing local for some for some spatial consideration is problematic. It’s a naïve way of understanding the food system…. Let’s reframe it in terms of supporting local economies, creating jobs [and] educating about food, health and nutrition. There is something important to the resilience concept in this regard – we diversify our financial portfolios, so why not diversify the food system?”

The key idea here is indeed resilience, the capacity to survive change. How do we adapt our culinary traditions and our cultures to deal with the fluctuations that come with massive population, food insecurity and justice, and global climate change without compromising identity and authenticity? Using Rebuilding the Foodshed as a text book, we can at least chart a course.

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