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Local Food is Not a Local Food System

My 2010 10-mile diet turned into a blog, then a book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us, and now a passion not just for promoting “local” as a way to belong and to be well-fed, but “local food systems” as an important focus for communities to counteract our dependency on a global corporate industrial food system that is actually overproducing undernourishing and often chemical saturated food and pumping these foods into the American-style diet with alarming results (obesity, diabetes, eating disorders, diseases).

More and more people now want local food, and quite a few are willing to hurdle the barriers of cost and convenience. Every week our local farmers bring us beautiful fresh produce via Farmers Markets, CSA weekly boxes for members, roadside stands, U-pick. Those in towns and cities where these direct sale outlets are available can be what I call “relational eaters” – have a direct connection with regional fields, farms and farmers. This abundance, however, is an very small sliver of the overall food pie. It’ more like a base camp for local food systems where good, clean, affordable food, grown by people you could know, is readily available to anyone willing to pay a bit more, eat a bit less, try new foods and relearn how to cook.

Sound like a tall order? It is. And it’s also common sense. Most humans through all but the last few decades of human existence sourced most of their food locally. Currently, however, few communities source even 10% of their food from their region.

Eaters for whom health and ethics are important can use standards like “organic” and “fair trade” and “grass fed” and “GMO free” and “pastured” to pull back the curtain a bit on their food. Invisible, though, are:

  • the fossil fuels used to produce and transport their food,
  • who grew it and if they make a living wage,
  • the quality of the soils and therefore quality of the food,
  • the regulations that affect the cost and quality of the food and all the middle people and processes that move food from field to fork.

All these unknown links in the industrial food system mean almost all of us are still dependent and in the dark.

To rebuild a thriving local food system, we need to understand and address these invisible factors.

Why would we want to do such hard work?

  • Sovereignty - we want to have control over our food supply!
  • Safety - we want to verify – as eaters-in-community – the wholesomeness of our food.
  • Justice - we want the people who grow and process our food to have a fair wage and a good life.
  • Prosperity - we want to build our local economies, to have living wage jobs in our communities, support local businesses.
  • Empowerment - Even if you’re busy, tired and strapped, it’s worth it to take back some of your power from the corporate industrial system by growing a little or cooking from scratch or learning more about our food. Wouldn’t you like to know how to whip up yummy dishes from whole local ingredients, how to turn turnips into soups and carrots into cakes? Wouldn’t you like to at least have some herbs and greens to pick fresh? Wouldn’t you like to be able to know a thing or too about growing and cooking food?
  • Disruptions - we do not know how the global industrial systems will adapt to climate change, resource constraints, environmental refugees – so we want to source more of our food nearer to home.

Changing eaters

This is not easy. Habit, comfort, control and convenience have wired us into the Borg of an industrial food system. We think we must have toast in the morning, strawberries for our cereal, avocados for our salads, tater-tots, frozen pepperoni pizzas, microwave dinners and salad dressings in a jar. No one wants to go cold turkey – which is also a nice gift of the industrial food system. In Blessing the Hands that Feed Us I give eaters a lot of good ideas about how to change from industrial to relational eating. Bit by bit, bite by bite, skill by skill, choice by choice. I also help eaters solve some of the cost issues through clever choices and reasonable portions.

Changing eaters, starting with ourselves, is a necessary first step to reclaiming our capacity to eat foods grown closer to home. Farmers, butchers, delivery services, markets and restaurants all need more customers to maintain and expand their businesses. We don’t buy local, we don’t have local (say that with an Italian accent and it reads better). We have Amazon and Costco and behind that Monsanto and Cargill and other corporations you’ve never heard of but who buy your politicians and bring you your food.

So get going. Try something. One food. One recipe. One home-cooked meal a week. Try Meatless Monday or how about 10-mile Tuesday (food sourced within 10 miles of your home). Or try the 10% rule. 10% more or 10% less. 10% more of your produce budget for locally grown, 10% less meals with boxed, packaged or processed ingredients.

Changing the system

The other part of this local food shift is changing the food system. Many people are now familiar with the phrase “farm-to-fork” but most of us haven’t a clue about all the steps in between. Talk to food system activist – as I have in Corvallis, Nelson BC and elsewhere – and you quickly learn what’s missing.

Can you guess what the two biggies are?

  • Distribution (how does it get from farm to fork?) and
  • Processing (how does it get from cow to beef or pig to pork or tomato to catsup?).

Those more in the know will cite three other factors. Can you guess what those are?

  • Laws that level the playing field, allowing smaller-scale farmers to compete with the not-so-jolly, not-so-green giants.
  • Financing for farmers to buy land and equipment and for activists to convene and lobby.
  • Training for new farmers (mostly young people, vets and under-dogs) so they can succeed and so they can supplant the aging, diminished population of long-time farmers.

Everywhere along this invisible chain are people who need a living wage. This is no longer the work of volunteers and wild-eyed do-it-for-nothing-cuz-it’s-right s/heroes. What we’re aiming for is a local food economy. Local food being an engine of prosperity for towns and cities around the world.

Is this easy? Absolutely not. It’s the work of generations. It’s an uphill battle. And we need to do this yesterday… without getting frantic, angry or stressed.

Seeds of this prosperous and abundant local food future are sprouting around the world. Subscribe to Slow Food or Food Tank. Pay attention to the co-op movement.

Who will do this work?

This isn’t the work of farmers. They are busy farming. This is the work of eaters-in-community. Said eaters could be in government, corporations, hospitals, schools, NGOs, law offices, grocery stores, restaurants, homes and more. In other words, everyone eats. Everyone has a role.

From my work on Whidbey Island and my visits to Ashland and Corvallis Oregon and Nelson BC I am developing a list of the kinds of actors that together get this work going. If you have a different list, let me know – this part is a work in progress:

  • Spark plugs - innovators, tinkerers, creative thinkers, Pied Pipers, conveners (moi)
  • System makers - people who operationalize good ideas, turning them into effective enterprises, who write apps, develop websites, hire-and-fire, administer, execute, build.
  • Money-people - personal lenders, venture capitalists, government programs, bankers, fundraisers, business coaches, customers
  • Educators - K-12 teachers, professors, vocational instructors, mentors, marketing to consumers, writers (moi), speakers (moi), home-ed teachers, workshop leaders
  • Policy-makers - elected officials, executives, lobbyists, NGOs, Think Tanks
  • Anchor institutions with a local food agenda – co-ops, land trusts, food banks, banks, prosperous established businesses, advocacy organizations, clubs, associations
  • Activists willing to march, write letters, speak at city council meetings, run for office, engage in civil-disobedience, go to jail, monkey-wrench.

These together are the drivers of change. Transformed eaters, transforming the systems that feed them.

What’s your 10-mile diet?

How do we accelerate this process. Where does the energy for change come from?

I believe that if you want to get from here to there you need to know what’s here and where’s there. You need to assess your current state and then set a measurable goal for the state you want in the future. Also helpful are “indicators” – check points that help you know if you are on course.

Eaters and eaters-in-community can set goals to generate will and motivate action. I did this with my month-long 10-mile diet. The month was enough time to go through a change. I’ve met others who’ve done similar experiments – backyard to 100-mile – and they all go through the radical awakening my diet pushed me into. In Brazil where we did the Local Food Lab the cooks set a 30 mile radius – the distance from the retreat center to the center of Rio. They even found coffee. Motivation was very high for caffeine.

At the Town Hall in Corvallis 300 people set a personal goal of 40% local (6 county region) for 2014. By 2020 they made a commitment that 40% of all food eaten in Corvallis would be sourced within that 6 county region. The Local Food Shift in Colorado has set a 10% goal. At the Farm Food Fork event in Nelson they thought that 20% Kootenays grown might be a good goal.

With a shared goal you don’t have to micro-manage all the actors in the system. You know you are each and all headed to the same point on the horizon and will naturally align, collaborate, form coalitions and perhaps even compete in a friendly way.

For starters… what’s your 10-mile diet? What will you do religiously to align your life with this vision of thriving regional food systems? Religiously is a good term. It’s like Lent. It’s a time to examine yourself and wake up to the beauty and resources all around.

Everyone eats. Everyone has a role. The work is big because of how far we have to go and how mysterious it is how to get there and how crucial it is that we do.

Maybe it’s a bit cheesy but I want to end by quoting an old Osibisa song:

We are going, heaven knows where we are going,
We’ll know we’re there. _
We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there,
We know we will._

It will be hard we know
And the road will be muddy and rough,
But we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there,
We know we will.

We are going, heaven knows where we are going,
We’ll know we’re there.

Milkshed teaser image via streamishmc/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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