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The power of a regional food commons

Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live.  And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.

A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality.  It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons. 

By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.

Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:

“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food.  This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one.  A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food.  Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”

Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran.  Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years.  Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.

In 2012, Larry Yee told me in a phone conversation, the leaders of Fresno’s business, academic and social justice communities invited the Food Commons to develop its first prototype/proof of concept in Fresno.  Fresno leaders see the idea as a way to foster economic development, create jobs and provide access to healthy foods -- this in a region that has the most impoverished congressional district in the nation, along with all the nutritional deficiencies that this entails. Last November, the Food Commons Trust in Fresno finished its business plan; it plans to launch the first phase of Food Commons business operations by 2014.

Strictly speaking, Food Commons is not a commons – it is a project that seeks to launch and support regional food commons, which it defines as an integrated regional structure of production, governance and distribution benefits everyone.  As the project’s website puts it, “Food Commons is developing a new physical, financial and organizational infrastructure for localized food economies that are fair, just and sustainable for the health and well-being of our people, our communities and the planet.”

The project consists of three components:

Food Commons Trusts is a nonprofit “quasi-public entity to acquire and steward critical foodshed assets such as land and physical infrastructure.  It holds those assets in perpetual trust, which are then used to benefit everyone.  The Trust would lease land and facilities to participating small farms and businesses at affordable rates, giving entrepreneurs opportunities that they might not have in more concentrated markets.

Food Commons Banks are community-owned financial institutions that provides capital and financial services to all parties in the regional food chain.  This would allow eco-minded farmers and specialty agriculture to obtain the financing that they might need to succeed.

Food Commons Hubs are locally owned, cooperatively integrated businesses that help deal with the complex logistics of aggregating and distributing food and the various players in the regional food system.  The Hubs would also help small food businesses “achieve economies of scale in their administrative, marketing, and human resources and other business functions” and provide technical assistance and specialized vocational training.

The stated goal of the project is to build “a networked system of physical, financial and organizational infrastructure that allows new local and regional markets to operate efficiently, and small to mid-sized food enterprises – from farms to processors, distributors, and retailers – to compete and thrive according to principles of sustainability, fairness, and public accountability.”

As a sign of its values and ambitions, Food Commons invokes the democratic and cooperative models of the Mondragon Co-operative network in Spain, the Organic Valley Co-op in the U.S., and the VISA International financial services network. To fulfill itsvision, Food Commons has set up a governance structure revolves around two core principles: 

Preservation of common benefit along the value chain.The governing boards of entities within the Food Commons system will be tasked with balancing the needs of the whole system, from the environment, to workers, to farmers and fishers, to aggregators/processors, to retailers, and to consumers.

Sustainable, steady-state profitability.  The governing boards will establish goals, incentive structures, and checks and balances that drive efficient use of resources and sustainable positive economic value creation, not unlimited growth and maximization of shareholder profit at the expense of other stakeholders, including future generations.

The watchwords of the new system is “accountability, economic viability and social equity.”  The Fresno project aims to be "a proof of concept and as an engine for economic development, job creation, and healthy food access in a region characterized by the paradox of great wealth and agricultural resources existing side by side with entrenched poverty, food insecurity, and diet-related chronic disease.” 

Besides Fresno, another regional Food Commons project is underway in Atlanta, Georgia, both at the largest regional scale as well as in neighborhood-scale community food systems, which the project calls “Fertile Crescent.”

In Auckland, New Zealand, Food Commons has been developing a third project – an online marketplace “where food growers and producers of any scale can sell directly to customers online via a super low cost distribution system.  The idea is to short circuit the standard long supply chains so that the growers are paid more and the customers pay less.”

One cannot help but be impressed by the ambition, rigor and scope of the Food Commons project.  If you’d like to learn more, download a pdf file of its 2011 annual report.

Photo credit: Southwest Atlanta Fertile Crescent Facebook page

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