Tag Archive | Local Food

Creating a Local Food System

This is re-posted from www.GRIID.org

In recent years there has been a growing interest amongst the general population to eat healthy and eat local. This interest has sparked more individuals to grow some of their own food, join a CSA (community supported agriculture), eat at restaurants that serve locally grown food, even learn how to preserve food.

However, these types of individual or market-drive responses are both inadequate and in some ways unsustainable. Individual actions are inadequate in that they tend to ignore the power of the existing agribusiness system and it is unsustainable, because much of the focus has been put on operating within the for-profit, market economy. Until eating healthy food is seen as a right and not as a commodity, we can never have a truly sustainable and just food system.

Once we have a principled framework, we need to then think about creating a local food system. Creating such a system means we need to do a local food assessment, do a food audit and create a food charter.

Assessing Our Food System

Assessing our food system involves two main components, coming to terms with what the capitalist agribusiness system looks like and an analysis of the local food realities. Our current food system is based on making money, growing mono-crops, using pesticides, government subsidies, contaminating the soil, the production of genetically modified crops and the exploitation of labor. Food in the current system means that food can be wasted and used as a tax write-off. Food in the current capitalist system is even used as a weapon, a theme that is explored in detail in Raj Patel’s book, Stuffed and Starved.

The current for-profit food system causes environmental destruction, causes poor health, contributes to global warming and is one of the main perpetrators of hunger.

Assessing the local food system requires a very similar understanding, but it also requires an assessment of the capacity to create a truly sustainable local system. Agribusiness dominates the food system in West Michigan, with the bulk of the food consumed here coming from far away. Most of the food consumed locally is also highly processed, coming from food brokers who have nothing to do with growing real food or the fast food industry, which does tremendous ecological and human health damage.

The capacity for a sustainable and just food system on the other hand is tremendous in West Michigan. We have great climate and lots of land for growing food. We have the benefit of living in the Great Lakes Water Basin, so access to water is not an issue. We have a significant amount of family owned farms and cities that can also be integral to food production. There are some good online resources for doing local food assessments, such as the Oakland Food System as well as an interesting document written by Kami Pothukuchi. 

Auditing the local food system

A food policy audit is a tool to help assess a community’s existing local food policy infrastructure. It helps facilitate a process to assess the strengths, gaps and opportunities in community food policies and identify priorities to improve the local food system.

Several communities have already developed their own auditing tools, one from the University of Virginia, which directly addressed food production, distribution, and access, as well as community activities that might help improve the food system.

Lastly, it might be useful to create a community food charter. A food charter is a statement of values and principles to guide a community’s food policies. In a charter, community members come together to develop a common mission for their food and agriculture systems. Each community’s charter would be unique to its area, thus what works for West Michigan may not work in other areas.

Here is an example of a food charter from Detroit   and another one from Toronto.

MLive uncritically looks at GRCC farmer certification program

This article was originally posted on GRIID.

Last week,  MLive posted a story by reporter Brian McVicar, which promoted a new program by the Grand Rapids Community College that seeks to assist local farmer obtain certification and allow them to sell to larger food distributors.

The article states that GRCC is offeringGood Agricultural Practice (GAP)certification classes to area farmers who want to expand their sales beyond farmers markets. Nowhere in the story does the reporter question the premise of the project, which seems to be shifting food sales from farmers markets to involve food marketers and food brokers. The article does not include voices that would suggest that farmers markets are the best mechanisms for promoting local food.

The only sources cited in the article are the director of work force training at GRCC and someone with the MSU extension, which is one of the partners in this project.

However, the article omits the other partners in this project, which according to GRCC are Sysco, Walsma Lyons and Morse Marketing Connections. The MLive story does mention Sysco, but not as a partner.

Understanding who the partners are in this project makes all the difference in the world. Sysco, Walsma Lyons and Morse Marketing Connections do not grow food, they only distribute and market food products. These entities also have a long history of being food brokers and marketers with an emphasis that is not on the local. For instance, Walsma Lyons states they offer access “to a large global network of preferred suppliers.”

Morse Marketing Connections, “originally worked with Michigan-based agricultural groups and has expanded nationally, now working in multi-sector partnerships across a variety of food-related initiatives, with government agencies, private and public universities and corporations.” Sysco, while it has a Grand Rapids office, is one of the largest food distributors in the US.

What the MLive reporter failed to acknowledge or investigate is that when companies like Sysco get involved in purchasing from local growing’s, particularly small farmers is that they then exert tremendous influence in what those farmers grow. The reason being is that Sysco and other food brokers operate on volume, which means they not only are likely to determine food prices, they sometime can determine what farmers grow, based on “the market.” If a small blueberry farmer begins to sell their product to companies like Sysco they are submitting themselves to an unstable market that is often determined by what Sysco other food distributors can market around the country or around the global. This means that when a crop disaster happens anywhere else in the world it can impact the sales of food grown locally that are now in the global market because of their relationship to companies like Sysco.

This topic was explored briefly in the film Food Inc., but is better explained in Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.

If the local news media is going to report on local programs that are supposed to “assist” area farmers, then they need to ask important questions about the commercial partners in this project and what it really means for farmers and the public.