Wayne Roberts looks at all the ways local food webs are already growing, ready to become the Next Big Thing in creative disruption.

Several weeks ago, I went to and wrote about an exciting international conference in Montpelier, France, on sustainable “agrichains” — which is geekspeak for food supply chains that are socially, economically and environmentally responsible.

I now want to propose the idea of going beyond the one-way and linear supply chain thinking of agribusiness, and make the case instead for civic food webs — based on partnerships among local governments, local public and community institutions (universities and co-ops, for example), social movements, citizen groups (such as the marvelous Equiterre of Montreal), community-oriented businesses, neighborhood groups, and engaged individuals and families.

Eaters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your food chains!!

First, let me outline how I think we got to where we are now.


Nature abhors a vacuum, but global corporations seize upon them.

There was a food infrastructure vacuum in the cities of the 1800s and 1900s. It arose most obviously in Europe as a result of the lack of organic or community-based connections between city food consumers seeking to buy foods from around the world and food producers seeking to sell to them. Technologies, such as refrigerator ships, trains and trucks, were available to move food huge distances. As well, technologies, such a sewers and electrical utilities, were available to make large cities livable and attractive. But in the absence of community-based or government-based mechanisms to sponsor the necessary logistics, what were then called multinational corporations took over this “middleman” infrastructure function of bring food producers and consumers together.

Image Removed

food chains stop & start, but the life cycle doesn’t

More often than not, the vacuum was created by two forces that sucked the air out of direct relations between communities. One is called market failure, and the other is called collective action failure.

Today, however, community groups, civil society organizations and local governments can access the technology, skills, policies and social capital to launch the necessary food infrastructure. That change means we should go back to the drawing board, and design a web-based food system.

I want to propose some projects to policy entrepreneurs and artists who will come to the drawing board. My ideas, which came together for me at the Montpelier conference, draw on the thinking of Tom Lyson’s prophetic book Civic Agriculture, and Henk Renting’s game-changing article on Civic Food Networks.

I mainly want to flesh out how such a new food web might be started. The dominant corporate system, as innovative as its technology was 100 to 200 years ago, is a product of the old bricks and mortar economy that’s being disrupted by new socially soft and software technologies everywhere — except for the last bastion in the food system.

It’s time for the food sector to catch up with the rest of the economy, and to take better advantage of the urban advantage and of new social technologies and newfound abilities.

The best-known urban advantages, wonderfully explained by Jeb Brugman’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution, have to do with city abilities to concentrate people and ideas and bring the costs of collaboration down to near-zero — five people with a wide range of skills can meet at a coffee shop to launch a new enterprise, without worrying whether parents or neighbors or local elites will frown upon them.


Image Removed

import replacement is one of the major and earliest functions of cities

Behind that is the simplest urban advantage, explained to me by my friend Phil Groff, head of Sustain Ontario: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming.

“From the very start,” Groff told me while driving me to a meeting a few hours away, “cities have been about import replacement.” Instead of one of the world’s first farmers buying tools from a peddler who wandered around the countryside selling tools, he or she went into town and checked out a tool shop that hired local tool makers. Instead of the toolmakers ordering food from peddlers who walked or rode animals thousands of miles from their home farm, shoppers bought their food at the local farmers market, just outside the city gates.

The reason why cities and agriculture co-evolved from the start — the marvelous theme developed by both Jane Jacobs and Carolyn Steel — is that they need each other as customers so people are free to go about their best work and enjoy each other’s company (a word that descends from Latin roots for with and bread) after work is done, and talk about ways of working smarter.

The industrial revolution upset that import replacement applecart, replacing it with impersonal trade that had little to do with proximity or logic or social interaction, but had mostly do with specialization — leaving us with cities where workers made certain metallic widgets for export to distant markets, while farmers in nearby countrysides grew food widgets for distant markets, and both lived and worked in parallel but separate universes.

The new food webs will bring sense back to food and other economic relationships, and revive the ancient function of city-countryside relationships growing from place-based import replacement.

Image Removed

One reason why placed-based import replacement makes so much sense in a world suffering from ecological crisis is that place-based economies are suited to circular economies that internalize their waste and problems in each region, where they can be dealt with promptly. By contrast, the linearity of chain economies inevitably ends up externalizing waste and other problems faraway, where it is hard to deal with. The food chain only travels from farm to fork, while the food web goes full-circle from soil and farm inputs to post-consumer compost and humanure. To deal with waste and externalities, we need to go from beginning to end of a cycle, not just beginning to end of a producer-consumer commodity chain.

In this era, the lack of circularity in linear supply chains is a fatal flaw for any industry — disastrous for both the supply chain and the planet. That’s why moving to a place-based web is both essential and urgent.

Here are some ways that the disruptive innovation known as the food movement can and already does enable direct connections that used to be controlled by corporate intermediaries, just as Air B & B disrupts global hotel chains.

1. UNIVERSITIES: Universities are very much in the avant garde when it comes to organizing purchases from local and sustainable (as well as global and sustainable) producers. Several universities — most notably University of Toronto, with the largest student body (over 80,000) in North America, and Nottingham Trent University in England (analyzed here ) — already manage relations with producers without any support from major global corporations. Many of these universities feed populations larger than is found in important towns and small cities. University bulk orders are often large enough that the university can offer to receive deliveries from a hub, that can also service nearby retail and social service outlets.

2. ENVIRONMENT GROUPS: Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), such as Montreal-based Equiterre, sponsor direct Community Support Agriculture (CSA) relations between over 100 farmers and over 15,000 families (40,000 eaters), in Quebec and New Brunswick. In Italy, as reported in a book on food policy in Turin, community-based organizations such as Solidarity Purchasing Groups and Collective Purchasing Groups orchestrate direct relations between farmers and over 2300 families.

Image Removed

See how doable this is, and how quickly the numbers can add up?

I don’t want to be accused of cherry-picking a couple of unusual examples, so let me give some other examples of how this trend toward civic food chains is already bursting out all over. Good news travels fast, and these best practices can be handily replicated in other locations — replication and adaptation, not duplication by central headquarters, being the method by which such community-based food systems expand.

3. THE UTILITY MODEL: Local public services can play a pivotal role, identified in an excellent article by Paula Daniels. She argues that renewable energy made its remarkable breakthroughs, far beyond what we’ve been able to do with “renewable food,” because of directives requiring power utilities to buy a certain percentage of power from renewable producers. Brazil adopted the same approach to public school purchasing, requiring them to buy 30 per cent of their school meals from small local farmers, Daniels shows. This practice — which could easily start by requiring a minimal 10 per cent local and sustainable purchase, gradually moving toward 30 per cent and beyond, as capacity builds — could be more widely adapted by all local public institutions, such as schools and hospitals. The Toronto-based organization Real Food for Real Kids provides a best-practices example of how local, sustainable, healthy, delicious and well-priced foods can be delivered to nursery and elementary schools in this way. The Los Angeles school board offers another leading-edge example.

4. HUBBA HUBBA: Hubs are a pivotal piece of infrastructure for small for-profits, and small- and medium-sized non-profits and public institutions, because the buying power of all can be aggregated and the common overhead and labor costs shared. There are 400 such hubs in the US, where the USDA has supported them. About 30 per cent of them are non-profits, according to leading nutritionist and food system analyst Fern Estrow. She provides this link to a critical study. The Toronto Public Health department, where I worked for many years, offers a version of this hub function, which centralizes purchases for non-profits and food banks, allowing members to order local foods whenever appropriate. I wrote about this and related programs here.

5. CO-OP NATURALS: Many cooperatives, especially in rural areas, developed during the 1800s and early 1900s in locations where working people were isolated and established firms couldn’t be bothered servicing them. People had no choice but to organize their own stores and buyer clubs, or their own processing or distribution centers. Some of these early co-ops remain major forces in both retail and producer operations today.

Image Removed

Since the 1970s, some producer and consumer groups have opted for new generation co-ops or second-wave co-ops, as ways to buy, sell and add value to products, and also to express shared beliefs. For example, Ontario Natural Food Co-op, out of Mississauga, sells $50 million a year worth of packaged organic foods to buyer clubs, health food stores and independent grocers. Though ONFC offers foods produced in several countries, it also strives to encourage sales of local organic and natural foods, and has its own private label line of Ontario Natural canned and bottled juices and tomatoes. ONFC has also helped fund LOFC, a group of emerging community-based co-ops serving both producers and consumers, often in smaller centers across the province. In such ways, co-ops can not only move goods to and from established customers; they can also grow the customer base and expand into innovative activities at several points along a supply chain.

6. What I stand for is where I stand on, is Wendell Berry’s famous statement on standing ground. Local governments can support and enable resident action to promote local food security and food sovereignty by classifying the resident’s right to grow food in relatively unobtrusive ways on front and back yards, or to set up a food stand selling produce from that home garden as as-of-right matters that do not require formal licenses or permission from civic authorities. (What is not illegal is legal (as-of-right) until an illegality has been committed. The as-of-right principles should be adapted to encourage citizen initiative in such cases as neighborhood and tenant groups making use of vacant lands and spaces for food production purposes.

7. The European principle of “subsidiarity” holds that power should reside “as low as possible, as high as necessary.” Enabled by high levels of public education and training as well as the Internet, local governments are able to accomplish many things without having formal jurisdiction or powers. As one example, some local councils (Hampstead in London, England, comes to mind) have purchased storefronts on busy and high-rent streets to ensure that grocery stores would always be able to locate there at a reasonable rent, thereby ensuring the neighborhood’s food security. This practice could be updated to specify that the renters of such space are expected to provide a minimum percentage of products grown, processed or prepared close to or within city limits.

Image Removed

Jane Jacobs profoundly understood cities and subsidiarity

8. While on the subject of “as low as possible” local governments can play enabling roles that help citizens take their own leadership of local food projects that do not require formal government intervention. In the much-beloved neighborhood where I live in Toronto, for example, governments allow the local community to decide whether it will be called “The Beach” or “The Beaches.” The same powers could be vested in residents to decide if there is a neighborhood or county or city “namesake food” endowed with cultural terroir. Canadian food analyst Lenore Newman calls these “foods of locality.” This is the case of the Chicago hotdog, for example, which could pass “mustard” as being reasonably healthy and as having a meaningful history relevant to the culture of the place. Needless to say, as much as possible of the namesake food would be grown, processed and prepared in the locality.

Image Removed

9. Civic museums and historical sites often have a board of directors made up of local residents, and can provide leadership in hosting a farmers markets, a gift store featuring food, books and kitchen items expressing a local history theme, and gardens showcasing food production methods during the time of the building’s full glory. One example of this in Toronto is Montgomery’s Inn — now near the heart of the city, but in pioneer days of the 1840s a stagecoach stop for travelers going west and a haven for runaway slaves from the US — which sponsors a year-round farmers market and a baking oven where old-time bread is made. Another example is Toronto’s Old Fort York, which defended the city from Yankee Invasion during the War of 1812, when Canadians burned the US capital building and forced it to be repainted as a White House. It features many food activities with a historical theme, serves vintage foods in its coffee shop, and has a garden replicating the one for the old fort — the kind of learning activities which virtually invite school history teachers to hold a class trip.

10. SHARING ECONOMY: When a city gets into food, it realizes that food is a “whole of government” as well as “whole of society” enterprise. Under the whole of government canopy, libraries can play a key role, and can lend the information stored in local heritage seeds in what is called a seed library . When libraries really get into the swing of things, they can also become leading members of the new “sharing economy” (explained to you, where else, to the best-known example of the sharing economy) and lend kitchen equipment and tool libraries for garden and other tools.

Image Removed

11. HUNDRED MILE BUSINESSES: Energetic entrepreneurs willing to invest in business relationships for the local and sustainable food economy can play a major role as distributors for restaurants, whose chefs don’t have the time to source their ingredients personally. In Toronto, the relationship basis of such companies is modeled by 100 Kilometer Foods, a valued part of the local food community, as shown here.

12. GOING GLOCAL OR LOBAL: We don’t live in a world that is EITHER local OR global, my way or the highway. The local and sustainable food movement is about ending unnecessary and redundant trade (carrots being imported into New York State, even as carrots are being exported from new York State) for a wide range of foods that can be available year-round almost everywhere. But it is decidedly not against trade that provides opportunities for jobs and community development, while reducing the total energy required to eat enjoyably. A strong case can be made that goods such as coffee, tea and cacao — which can be grown sustainably in forest garden environments, and actually store carbon in the soil, and which do not need to be transported in a hurry or with refrigeration — should continue to be traded globally. In such cases, attention turns to fair trade. That’s where cities come in again, thanks to the developing trend toward cities signing on as fair trade towns. If the city isn’t ready yet, usually churches, university and college campuses and a wide variety of coffee shops are keen to step in the breach.

So as not to overstay my welcome, I’m going to stop here, at an even dozen. Hopefully, people get the drift — that the opportunities to move the needle on a new food web are almost endless.

We do not need global food corporations which do not add social and ecological and health value as part of their business proposition.

We do need what international food scholar Harriet Friedmann calls a community of food practice designed to promote partnerships of all the agencies, groups, businesses and individuals needed to build, perhaps in league with food policy councils, the “collaborative infrastructure” of a new food economy. We also need city/county/regional economic development departments to identify food as a strategic and enabling sector for the new local and sustainable economy which can play a all-important role in addressing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.