Rick Morse is a School of Government faculty member.
By now most people have at least heard of the “local foods” movement. Thanks to Michael Pollan and his compatriots, terms like “locavore” and “foodshed” have made their way into our lexicon. The idea here is to create “more locally based, self-reliant food economies.” The argument is part of a larger one about sustainability, that “sustainable local food systems” are better for public health, the environment, and the local economy. Thus developing local foods systems can be seen as a strategy for sustainable community and economic development. This post discusses why this may be the case and offers several examples of how local governments and other community institutions can play an active role in developing local food systems.
First of all, the why. There are many arguments in favor of local food systems. First, local foods are fresher and less processed, and therefore thought to be more healthy. A major research effort at MIT recommends a reorientation toward local food systems as a key strategy in addressing an epidemic of childhood obesity. Local foods are also seen as better for the environment as less fossil fuels are consumed in transporting them. Furthermore, local food systems emphasize smaller-scale farms that employ more sustainable farming methods. The local food movement is also viewed as a way to strengthen local economies by supporting family farms and keeping money circulating in the community. Furthermore, the components of a strong local food economy such as farmer’s markets, community gardens, and grocery stores and restaurants that feature local foods can be seen as amenities attractive to the creative class.
Dr. Alice Ammerman, a professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Public Health, is currently leading a sustainable agriculture project that will, in part, empirically examine these assumptions about local food systems. Specifically, her team, according to the Daily Tar Heel, is examining “whether eating locally improves health and if local ‘food systems’ can address health, environmental and economic issues.” A blog has been set up for the project and includes many links to additional information and resources.
If community leaders, including community and economic development practitioners, want to take steps to promote local food systems, what kinds of things can they do? The following are few strategies to consider:
- Farmer’s Markets are perhaps the first and most obvious strategy. The USDA is making a big push to promote farmer’s markets and provides a lot of information about them on their website. NC State Cooperative Extension also provides resources on its “Market Ready” website.
- Developing Community Gardens is another strategy that is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in urban areas. Community gardens provide space for people to cultivate wholesome food and are also seen as a valuable tool to engage citizens and build social capital. The American Community Garden Association has an excellent website with lots of helpful information about community gardens as “a community building tool.” The Sustainable Cities Institute also has published helpful information for how local governments can help.
- Dr. Ammerman has found that a critical link in community food systems are facilities for processing and distributing locally produced food. Thus another strategy to consider is the development of processing facilities for local farmers. The Piedmont Food and Agriculture Processing Center in Hillsborough is a great example of a multi-county partnership aimed at filling this “crucial missing link in [the] local food chain.”
- Schools can also look to purchase locally-produced foods, providing a large, consistent customer for area farmers as well as providing more wholesome food for the children. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service includes detailed information on farm-to-school programs.
- Another community-based strategy to consider is creating a local Food Policy Council. North Carolina has a state-wide Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council housed at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. But local food policy councils can also be a useful way of coordinating action across public, private, and not-for-profit institutions at the community level.
There are many other strategies worth mentioning here, such as assisting the development of local food cooperatives, community-supporting agriculture operations (CSAs), agriculture conservation easements, and utilizing economic development marketing to promote local foods. The bottom-line is that there are numerous strategies that to some extent all require some degree of public-private partnerships. Local governments clearly can play a critical role, but those efforts need be in concert with other groups and organizations in the community (hence the importance of establishing a local food policy council). Like most successful community development efforts, developing sustainable local food systems requires partnership synergy.
What experience have you had with the development of sustainable local food systems? What works? What doesn’t? Do you see it as an effective component of an overall set of community and economic development strategies?