Local Food Lab – Permaculture of Community

June 3, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed
Local food sign image via ugacommunications/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

How can communities take hold of their food destiny? How can people-in-community even understand themselves as part of a food system (a permanent culture) they might care about – and reclaim?

Given my background in personal finance, dialogue and now local food, I’m developing one answer I think might help: the Local Food Lab. It’s a one-day to several day facilitated workshop for people with diverse roles in a food system to educate, inspire and motivate participants towards new enterprises, alliances, ideas, courage, opportunities. In other words, to accelerate the pace and success of their work to reclaim their food economy. A Local Food Lab doesn’t solve problems – it reveals the state of the system, the problems that are ripe for solutions and the potential partners for businesses and non-profits.

Every since I heard a few chilling statistics, I’ve been on a hunt for answers to the “food destiny” question with some urgency.

If there were disruptions in transportation – vivid when you live on an island – grocery store shelves would be quite bare in just a few days. When you ask people where food comes from, they will say “the store”. Of course. That’s where food is for most of us. The store, though, is the end point of a global, corporate, industrial system. Not just the boxed, canned, packaged and frozen foods. The produce, breads, bulk bins, meats… everything but a few local products that have worked through the regulatory and scale issues required to earn shelf space. Unless you’ve figured out how to feed your family through home production (growing, tending, canning, freezing, etc. enough for a year), you depend on these global supply chains.

With current production, processing and consumer preferences, few communities produce more than 10% of their food locally (call that within 100 miles). By production I mean:

  • land zoned for agriculture that is still available for agriculture.
  • crops that grow well in each micro climate and soil profile.
  • preferences of land owners for what crops to plant and where to sell them

By processing I mean everything involved in moving food from field to the fork: harvesting, washing and packaging produce, slaughter, butchering and packaging of animals, transporting and shelving these products.

By consumer preferences I mean what we want to eat, based on:

  • advertising
  • culture
  • flavor
  • convenience
  • cooking skills
  • status
  • rituals of belonging
  • habit
  • addictions

See what I mean? The industrial system is a miracle of logistics (as well as of political clout), and this includes organic industrial. Local, while a rising star, is a marketplace baby. No, maybe a first term fetus in a womb of people who care.

Why local matters

Beyond the personal joys of buying beautiful food from local farmers, delivered to your door or bought at a market where you socialize with friends, there are community reasons to really really care about systematically shifting back to more abundant and prosperous local food system.

Safety: local food is largely antibiotic, GMO free. If it organic, it is largely herbicide and fungicide free. Farmers who want to stay in business need to increase the fertility of their soil (meaning more nutrients in the food) and eliminate any possibility of sickening their clients. Trust is a big reason why people are turning to local food.

Security: with the proverbial 3 days of food in the store, we certainly need more food close at hand. The Mormons are advised to store a year’s worth of food, which many do, but few of us even have the recommended week’s worth of food stocked in case of emergency. A wonderful place to store food is in the ground. roots can stay there til needed or can be stored in root cellars. With greenhouses, greens where I live grow nearly 9 months a year. Locally raised animals can fill freezers, or canning jars, or be dried. Not everyone has to do this. In fact, it’s not desirable. Better is to have more farmers with more fields in production with more customers more of the year. A prosperous food economy provides greater food security.

Sovereignty: it’s hard to have a felt sense of why we want to “own” our food supply rather than it being owned by corporations. Peasants in the rest of the world, though, know the perils of becoming “banana republics.” Control your food supply and you can better control your destiny. Global trade agreements have had perverse effects on subsistence farming communities. The current negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership are even more disturbing than NAFTA or the WTO because they are discussing the right of corporations to sue communities if local laws prevent them from prospering from real estate they own, be it farming or manufacturing (note: these facts need to be checked as they say on wikipedia). Could my little island become a banana republic? I have no idea but I realize now that “local food” means paying attention to global trade issues as well as the Farm Bill.

I’m not an advocate of swinging the pendulum too far too fast. We all love what shows up on our plates from the industrial system. It has the logistics and scale to deal with disasters and famine. We all depend on it. Very few are ready to commit to a local diet. It makes more sense to think in a more nuanced way about supply chains. Home gardens can provide food, including eggs. Local (neighborhood to regional) is more reasonable sources for fresh foods in season, honey and some dairy, eggs and meat. Perhaps further afield we get the grains and beans sufficient to fill our bellies (and make our booze!). Then there are what I call exotics, which for me are spices, citrus, all foods from the tropics, oil, caffeine, chocolate, nuts… and the list goes on.

I’m an advocate for reclaiming our food safety, security and sovereignty by bringing our eating closer to home.

Yes… but how?

Who is responsible for bringing our eating closer to home? All of us.

  • As eaters we can educate our palates as well as increase our skills (growing and cooking) and develop a taste for local i.e. welcoming the relational part of eating, the connections to soil, farmers, farms, forests, waters, and the sense of belonging and rootedness that comes from local living. And we can do our economic part: chose local over frugal, at least part of the time.
  • As people-in-families we can nourish our children through serving whole, healthy food and helping them grow, harvest and cook enough to love real food.
  • As people-in-workplaces we can use the scale of the workplace to buy food in bulk – in cafeterias, as CSAs delivered to the workplace.
  • As people-with-money-to-invest we can lend to local food enterprises.
  • As people-in-non-profits and agencies we can work on consumer education and policies that help the shift.
  • As people-who-control-purse-strings we can tilt budgets towards favoring local production.
  • As small and mid-scale farmers we can develop our skills and increase our land’s capacity to meet consumer demand for healthy local food.
  • As entrepreneurs, we can look to food-related businesses as opportunities, from restaurants to stores to processing.
  • As educators we can develop curricula, workshops, messaging and more to wake eaters up.
  • As grocers and procurement agents for institutions we can develop ways that local food can enter the supply chain.
  • As artists and story tellers and dreamers we can awaken our imaginations.

A Local Food Lab brings as many of these actors as possible to be in a focused, structured, sustained conversation about what we have, what we want, what’s missing that if it were there would make a real difference and – the tough stuff – what we each care about enough to jump through the hoops of finance, compliance, human cussedness and business start-up/expansion risks to make new enterprises work.

Next post: Ta-da! The Food Lab itself!

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: alternative food systems, building resilient food systems, community-based food systems, food culture, permaculture