Act: Inspiration

What Will It Take to Move the Local Food Revolution Forward?

January 16, 2020

The spectacular growth of the local food movement over the last fifteen years has slowed in recent years.  Growth in farmers market sales apparently has leveled off.  Here in Mendocino County, California a slump over the last four years is slowly turning around, with sales just beginning to reach 2015 levels in most markets.  More local food is appearing in grocery stores and restaurants and even schools, thanks to a growing number of “food hubs”; but it is a drop in the bucket still, compared to the food that is trucked in from afar.  What do we need to turn this around?   At least four things, each with practical and policy implications.  The biggest and most daunting of these comes first:

Overturn Our Cheap Food Regime

We have cheap food because government policy has persistently favored over-production rather than quality production.  Since the 1960’s American agriculture has been producing consistent surpluses of commodity crops like wheat and corn, milk, and meat.  Policy changes in the 1970’s reversed traditional efforts to rein in surplus production (and preserve farmland from erosion) and established incentives to keep on producing more and more, despite falling prices.  One result is that millions of farmers have gone under, while those that remain struggle to maintain a living, mostly by producing more and more on larger and larger acreages.  Another is dependence upon exports, evident in the pain inflicted on American farmers by the recent trade wars with China.  But perhaps the most pernicious result of cheap food policies has been the cheap food itself.

Here’s how it works.  Overproduction of grains drives down prices and prompts businesses to try to find profitable ways to use those grains.  One route is processed foods, which use cheap grains to produce everything from high fructose corn syrup, lecithin, food coloring, and highly processed flours to the Twinkies, Doritos, and SuperSodas that absorb those ingredients.  Our culture’s obesity epidemic is a direct result.

Another route is to feed them to animals.  The nation’s poultry and pigs are traditional grain consumers, though they need much more than that to maintain their health.  Industrial animal production gives them a mainly grain diet because, well, grain is so cheap.  But the biggest consumers are cattle, whose digestive system was never designed for grains.  It is true that grain was traditionally used to fatten cattle at the end of their lives and stimulate greater milk production; but grass was their feed of choice, and it was once cheaper and more available than grain.    Today cattle are finished in enormous feedlots on a high grain diet, prompting illness of all sorts; nevertheless, they develop that “marbled fat” that consumers are supposed to want.  (That fat also contains a great deal more of the “bad cholesterol” than the good, the reverse of the pattern with a grass-fed diet.)  The consequence is a glut of cheap, unhealthy meat.

But wait!  there’s more.  Grains have also become the diet of choice for the nation’s dairy cattle, raised by the tens of thousands on desert ranches (where parasites are as scarce as grass).  Bloat, mastitis, and short lives are routine effects, as is a milk of reduced nutritional value and, given the scale of production, requiring pasteurization to even approach food safety standards.

Cheap processed foods, cheap meat, cheap dairy products don’t just add up to a national nutritional emergency.  They also make locally produced food, sanely produced food look awfully expensive.  The only way folks can be persuaded to eat their veggies is to find the ways and means to make them very cheap, too.  Local producers struggle to keep up.

It is hard to imagine what the local food movement can do about all this except agitate to change the policy.  At its base, luckily, is an enormously expensive subsidy program which supposedly fiscally conservative Republicans lamely defend.  They are vulnerable.

But so are we.  If we advocate (not to mention win) the end of cheap food, we must be answerable to all those folks who already think they spend too much on food, including people who are genuinely hungry much of the time.  What do we have to offer?  Microgreens at $2 an ounce?  So part of the battle will be preserving food benefits to those who need them.  But a bigger part, I imagine, will be convincing the folks around us who are struggling to make ends meet that we really want to feed them, too.  Food justice is not just about race, not even mainly about class.  It’s also about giving farmers a living return on their work, as they give back to their communities in every way they can to feed the hungry.  Food stamps and market match arrangements help.  Contributions to food banks and feeding programs help.  But we need much more to revolutionize the food system.  Agricultural economist John Ikerd goes so far as to suggest every community set up a “food district” on the model of fire districts and library districts and school districts and tax themselves to pay farmers to grow their food.  That might be an idea worth exploring.  In the meantime, we also have policy work to do.

Where’s the Beef?

If we are going to convince people to eat local, we will have to provide a lot more of what they want to eat at affordable prices.  That includes meat and, yes, beef.  The trouble is that federal rules once meant to protect the consumer now protect a narrow handful of meat packers with giant plants and miserably paid work forces.  Local slaughter houses, local butchers, local meat processors have disappeared by the score, and every year seems to see the closure of another facility.  Local producers have to travel sometimes hundreds of miles just to get their animals processed.  And they can rarely choose the conditions under which they are slaughtered, dressed and butchered.  Even this level of service is enormously expensive, and any effort to do better (through custom products like bacon or sausages) just adds to the cost.  Local meat is necessarily expensive if producers play by the rules.

Making local food stick will mean that we will have to shirk the rules or change them.  Poultry producers actually have rules that favor them, permitting on-farm slaughter and processing for a limited but sizable number of birds.  They are vulnerable to the whims of county officials here in California, but mostly they are able to serve a local market.  Not so producers of meat from goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, and other large animals.  There are workarounds, like the option of selling the animal “on the hoof” and allowing the buyer to contract slaughter and butchering services.  But the rules are tight, and not many want to risk prosecution.

Which leaves policy again, but few farmers’ organizations have taken up the challenge; and they face an uphill battle against a USDA and Congress subservient to the big processors.  In Colorado and western Kansas, rebel ranchers have created their own facilities and linked to the local food movement, while continuing to lobby the USDA to enforce the anti-monopoly rules that are supposed to govern meat production.  It’s rare to find that level of organization or sophistication in our local food movements.  We need a lot more of it.

Where’s the Milk?

Local milk is even scarcer than local meat.  For many consumers it’s impossible to find.  The same is true of dairy products, with the exception of high-end cheeses.  Talk about an elite market!  We didn’t choose not to have milk and milk products at market, however.  State and federal policy destroyed local dairy in much of the country and has gone on to make it a black market commodity.  If we are going to have a viable local food economy, we are going to have to defy or change those policies.

I’m not just talking about the campaign against so-called raw milk (real, fresh, local milk), a vital ingredient in the best cheeses and a tonic for those who think they can’t digest dairy.  Yes, this has taken an enormous toll.  But alongside it and deepening the crisis have been a series of policies that have ruined the vast majority of the family dairies that dotted our countryside as recently as fifty years ago.  Federal price “supports” contributed a large share, promoting (again) over-production and the consequent race to giganticism in the dairy farm.  State or federally managed regional “pooling” schemes adjust prices paid to producers based on averages among all the uses of the milk, “supporting” prices while encouraging both over production and industrial uses of milk.  The managed system has encouraged the largest dairies to expand and led smaller dairies to shut down everywhere, especially ones devoted to the local market.

The cost of setting up and operating a permitted dairy, moreover, has grown exponentially over the years, and many have closed because they were unable to afford the required upgrades.  Where once a large proportion of the milk and butter consumed, particularly in rural communities, came from farmers with just a couple of cows, now such an operation has been rendered impossible (or rather, illegal) thanks to facilities and equipment requirements, not to mention licensing fees.  The chief workaround among very small scale dairy producers is the dairy share or herd share.  That option is illegal in some states, tolerated but not officially sanctioned in others.  And it means that dairy still can’t be sold at your local farmers market or grocery store.

Public health officials are almost uniformly under the impression that current facilities, testing and licensing requirements, along with pasteurization, are responsible for the end of the outbreak of milk-related illnesses that plagued urban centers at the end of the nineteenth century.  But those outbreaks ended long before pasteurization and the rest became general policy.  Clean water, the closing of the disreputable “swill dairies” connected to breweries, and a “clean milk campaign” among farmers made milk safe for urban consumers early in the twentieth century, as it generally always has been for rural folk.

If we are going to have a local food revolution, current policies, from the complex price support system to the campaign against small-scale, raw milk production, will have to be reversed.  In the meantime, we will continue to have a vibrant black market in raw milk and dairy products.  But it will not be enough to grant us the sort of local food scene we need.

When Can We Just Cook?

The public health profession seems to have an abhorrence of the home kitchen.  Though the statistics make clear that when it comes to prepared foods most all outbreaks of food-borne illnesses come out of permitted kitchens – restaurants, delis, licensed processing plants – regulators prefer to see those stainless steel tables and appliances behind their food.  Judging from the inspectors I’ve dealt with, moreover, I’d have to conclude that few know much about cooking; but they have a lot of discretion in interpreting the code.  And policy is based on laboratory experiments designed to see just how many pathogens you can generate while preparing food, not on real-world numbers about what happens in actual cooking settings.

The result is that our efforts to provide fresh-cooked, canned, fermented, and nutritionally dense prepared foods on a local level run up against obstacles of all sorts, starting with the permitted kitchen.  It’s true, there are “cottage food” and even “farm food” programs in many states, allowing food preparation for market at home.  But these are generally restricted to “non-potentially hazardous” foods; in California you can’t even make pickles in a “cottage kitchen”.  And specifications abound to block our attempts to cook healthy food.  Like the California requirement that home prepared jams and jellies contain at least fifty percent sugar.  So much for public “health”.

There are, of course, real dangers in food preparation, requiring training, testing and monitoring of those of us who prepare food for the public.  But we don’t need draconian regulation administered with lots of bureaucratic discretion.  The Centers for Disease Control touts an enormous figure for food-borne illnesses – in the realm of 48 million a year.  But if you look closely, you find that these are mostly tummy aches, the sort of event that helps provide immunity for the next round.  By CDC estimates there are perhaps 125,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually.  Contrast the stats for auto accidents (40,000 deaths; over 4 million serious injuries annually).  Any fool can get a license to drive.  And insurance.  Getting a license to cook, on the other hand, can be a major obstacle for entrepreneurs at the local level.  Training to meet certification standards is often hard to get and expensive; and it has very little to do with real-world cooking.  Licenses multiply as soon as you attempt to diversify.  The costs of renting a permitted kitchen can be steep and especially steep if you are cooking something that requires long gestation, like bread or bone broth or dried fruit.  And the insurance requirement is another obstacle to the local food entrepreneur or the poor farmer just there at season’s end to get some added value out of a surplus of apples.

There have been valiant attempts to break the logjams.  Like community kitchens, sometimes USDA funded, built to accommodate farmers doing value-added processing and start-up food businesses.  But the public health measures and their enforcers, not to mention the insurance companies, have always to be reckoned with, as they do in the dairy business.  It will take some serious simplifying of the code, and a major re-education campaign for the profession, to make locally prepared foods widely accessible.  Such a project should start with a major reversal of the bureaucratic purpose:  from prevention and prohibition to encouragement and aid.

As these remarks suggest, we will also have to reorient the public policy process.  We cannot continue to allow “professionals” and “experts” to set the standards.  The liberal conceit of a “science-based” policy making is not only undemocratic; it stumbles on the problem that the “sciences” involved, as Michael Pollan so delicately expressed it regarding “nutrition science,” are “in their infancy.”  No, public policy should be citizen-driven, if informed by the opinion of the researchers.  That, of course, cannot happen unless the public wakes up from the torpor of our managed society and takes action on behalf of local food sovereignty.


Teaser photo credit: By Pattymooney – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Michael Foley

After twenty years in academia, Michael Foley began farming first in southern Maryland, and then in Willits, California, where he, his wife, and oldest daughter currently operate the small, diversified Green Uprising Farm. Foley is cofounder of the School of Adaptive Agriculture and currently manages his local farmers market. He has also served as vice president of the Mendocino County Farmers’ Market Association and president of Little Lake Grange.  His new book is Farming for the Long Haul (Chelsea Green Publishing, February 2019).

Tags: American national food policy, Building resilient food and farming systems, food policy, local food, sustainable food movement