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Foodshed as New Democracy

Citizen advocates of the “right to food” are using democratic roots to create local food security.

As the local food movement, or, more properly stated, local food movements have taken root in the U.S. during recent years, advocates have discovered the need to express this evolving “locus focus” in new ways.  Despite its multiple uses and fuzzy boundaries, “foodshed” is a valuable part of our lexicon in moving forward. It can provide vision and cohesion; in fact, it may be less a geographical entity than a form of civic action. 

From Farm to Plate

Local food systems in the US - including diversified, appropriately-scaled agriculture, as well as much of the processing and distribution infrastructure that links “farm gate to dinner plate” - have been largely dismantled by the increasing domination of highly consolidated agribusiness interests over the past two-three generations. Canneries, local slaughterhouses and butchers, and even tractor dealers and farm supply stores – these are but some components of the infrastructure that support moving food products from farm to plate while also providing farmers with at least some leverage in ensuring fair prices for their products.

The collaborative act of defining and rebuilding a foodshed is a reclaiming and a renaming of what was, while simultaneously adapting to current realities on the ground and in the marketplace. Geography and identity both have an important role to play in tackling this kind of systems-based change, so the idea of a foodshed is helpful not only in identifying an area of focus, but also in analyzing it for baseline production and consumption data and estimated potential growth in both sectors.

That’s not to say that defining a foodshed is an act of total precision or perfection. In fact, the term has morphed since it was first coined by Walter Hedden in 1929 in response to a series of rail strikes and their potential impact on New Yorkers’ food security. Hedden, the chief of the Bureau of Commerce for the Port of New York Authority, invented the term “foodshed,” a parallel to “watershed.” He emphasized the need to understand the economic forces that controlled the movement of food in and out of regions, just as certain barriers impact the movement of water through a region.

Civic Vision

The term lay latent for many decades after that, but Arthur Getz gave it new life in a 1991 essay in which he proposed protecting foodsheds, the sources of our food, as we do watersheds. He proposed thinking of a foodshed as “the area that is defined by the structure supply.” Kloppenburg, Hendrickson, and Stevenson took the concept further in their 1996 article, “Coming into the Foodshed,” in which they proposed that “the foodshed can serve us as a conceptual and methodological unit of analysis that provides a frame for action as well as thought.” In other words, the concept of a foodshed could be put forward as a civic vision, not just a geographic delineation.

No matter how we define it, we have to recognize that foodshed boundaries are both pliable and porous. In other words, there is some shape-shifting that is inevitable, and food products will go in and out no matter the “final” iteration of a local or regional foodshed. In fact, it generally makes more sense to sketch foodsheds rather than define them. What lies at the center is ultimately more important than the boundaries.

I have begun to think of the term “foodshed” slightly differently over the course of the past six months while traveling across the US, discussing my new book, Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems, with vastly different communities in places such as Arizona, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, and the Carolinas. In those communities and all across the nation, citizens – note that I did not say “consumers” – are banding together to try and effect positive change within a rather discrete area, what one might call a foodshed. Typically, those efforts have a predominately local focus, and when they are at their best, they become “community-based food systems.” As they mature and evolve, the focus often becomes a bit more regional, a perspective that begins to link together the different local food systems initiatives in a shared geographical area.

In some places, citizens find themselves facing tentative, if not antagonistic, government entities, a lack of diversified agriculture, an absence of localized processing and distribution systems, and antagonistic agribusiness interests. In many parts of the country, change on behalf of the many is interpreted by the few (the powers that be) as a threat, if not a regression. As the “local food” craze began to catch fire more than a decade ago, I suspect most of us were thinking of it as more culinary than political. Yet, some describe it now as the “civil rights” issue of our time. Is that simply hype and hyperbole? I don’t think so. In fact, I think this momentum provides a key opportunity to imbue “foodshed” with new meaning, new possibility for democratic action.

Rescaling Expectations

I believe that a foodshed is best conceived as the periphery of our collective influence to efficiently and effectively create positive change within our food systems. Envisioning a foodshed is ultimately a rescaling of our expectations. While we cannot and should not ignore the necessity of effecting change at the state, national, and international levels, we also cannot depend upon those governmental scales to foster local economic development surrounding our food systems, much less rectify gross inequities in food access, malnutrition (“mal” meaning inappropriate as well as inefficient, in this case), fair wages, and safe and just working conditions. Rebuilding the foodshed becomes civic action at this point. If it is embraced by numerous individuals and a broad cross-section of community sectors, then foodshed becomes a new form of democracy, founded upon the most central of all inalienable rights - the right to healthy food.  

Foodshed, in this case, is more a process than an entity: it becomes the collective will of the majority of people within a given area envisioned and implemented.  It is a call for a more democratic food system, one in which broad-based participation begins to supplant single-minded representation by large agribusiness interests or their in-pocket policymakers. If a foodshed is truly a systems-based approach to fostering positive change, then there is not the opportunity to determine what or whom to leave out of the equation. Rather, everyone has a voice and a role in the vision and the implementation. The transparency of the close-to-home scale means that special interests are more readily “outed.”

What geographical scales make sense as a starting point? Ultimately, it is hard and probably unwise not to begin thinking about change at the county level, if for no other reasons than data and governmental structure. Any assessment of agricultural production, food-related economic activity, land use, income, nutrition, disease, etc. typically relies heavily upon county-level data, and county officials often have a vested interest, or at least localized pressure, to bring about positive change.  Ambiguous as it may be, the foodshed can be a collaborative process yielding a common vision, one which moves us from the individualism of the voting booth to a collective openness that transforms rhetoric into dialog and ideas into action. In essence, rebuilding the foodshed is founded more upon personal and community investment than the uncertainties of democratic representation. 

Right to Food

All of that is not to say that we – advocates of community-based food systems – should become too parochial or even myopic in our efforts. Few if any regions of the country will ever be entirely self-sufficient in food production. We should think of foodsheds not as individualistic atoms but rather as healthy cells that form the basis of healthy tissues, organs, and fluids: living components of interchange that comprise what should be healthier and more equitable regional and national food systems. 

As 160 countries around the world edge toward embracing and even ratifying the “right to food” as a basic human right, the US appears immobilized if not recalcitrant in our current retrenchment on the issue. Caught between conflicting views on the US Constitution and the role of government, the question of whether the foundational elements of our democratic form of government provide citizens with a right to food is all the more ironic in a nation often recognized for its international human relief efforts. Yet, the US stands virtually alone in our inability to acknowledge the existence of such a right.

Perhaps we first have to embrace and implement the “right to food” at the foodshed level and thereby build it to the point of inevitability at the national level. Indeed, it is ironic to consider how many immigrants came to the United States not for the somewhat abstract ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but simply to escape starvation. Rebuilding our foodsheds reminds us that we should not confuse liberty with the freedom to ignore, the pursuit of happiness with mindless trampling, or life as a mere biological threshold of tentative sustenance.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Editorial Notes: This article is gratefully reposted from Fair Observer with their permission. Image via shutterstock Reproduced on Resilience.org with permission.

Find out more about the book Rebuilding the Foodshed, by Philip Ackerman-Leist
How can individuals and local organizations and institutions build the food security of their communities? 

Watch the Community Resilience Chat: Rebuilding the Foodshed on the themes of the book with Philip Ackerman-Leist

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