“People are realizing that we can’t rely on the industrial food system much longer. The awakening that’s happening is our greatest opportunity,” says New Mexican farmer and activist Miguel Santistevan. This awakening has sparked the revival of local, sustainable food systems.
At its most basic, sustainability connotes a system capable of continuing indefinitely without compromising future life. Sustainability is also sometimes described as a three-legged stool: in order to be balanced, it must sit equally on sturdy legs of economics, environment, and equity. A food system contributes to community sustainability if it is economically viable for small farmers; nourishing of the earth and elements; and socially equitable for all involved, including farm and food workers and consumers.
Examples in the movement to create local, sustainable food systems are virtually endless. Here are just a few:
* Community gardens are sprouting up everywhere, with an estimated 18,000 in the US and Canada. In most cases, members rent a small plot for a modest fee. These patchwork-quilt gardens, primarily in urban areas, provide a local food source, build community relationships, beautify the neighborhood, and give more people the opportunity to eat homegrown food.
* Educational gardening projects give children and teens the opportunity to get their hands dirty and learn about growing food. In East Oakland, California, youth with Oakland Food Connection grew over 3,000 pounds of produce in school-based gardens in one year. Now they’re branching out to create value-added products, like sauerkraut and jelly, and to run a catering business. On the other side of the country, in Orange, Massachusetts, Seeds of Solidarity works with rural and working-class youth to tend gardens at schools, a homeless shelter, and an elder care facility.
Deborah Habib, director of Seeds of Solidarity, said, “Every person is capable of helping to feed their community. To me, it’s really about reclaiming the heart-hands-land connection, so we can each participate, not only as consumers, but by cultivating the earth and cultivating foods.”
* Farmers are growing food for public institutions like schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons. In one instance, the Berkeley Unified School District did away with its tater tots and canned peaches through a policy of increasing the amount of local, organic food it purchases. “We’ve gone from 95 percent processed foods to 95 percent made from scratch,” said chef Ann Cooper. To help allay the higher food costs associated with this program, the school system has gotten bulk discounts from farmers and processors, sources a significant amount of fresh produce from school-sponsored gardens, and uses federal reimbursements from the USDA as well as sales to students. There are now farm-to-school programs involving 12,429 schools in 50 states.
* Real Food Challenge is working to shift $1 billion worth of college and university food purchases towards local, sustainable, and fair sources, and away from industrial agriculture. The nationwide project supports student organizers as they develop campus wide campaigns to get their schools to commit to purchasing 20% “real food” by 2020. They host leadership trainings and events, provide materials and other organizing support, and have developed a Real Food Calculator to help track institutional food purchasing. They define real food as “food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth. It is a food system – from seed to plate – that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.”
* A sad joke goes: If your illness doesn’t kill you in the hospital, the food will. Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont and Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Illinois and Oklahoma are just a few of the hospitals around the country that are part of a growing network of farm-to-hospital programs. Four hundred and forty-four hospitals in the US have signed a pledge, organized by the group Health Care without Harm, to offer more fruits and vegetables, as well as locally grown, fair-trade, and pesticide- and hormone free food. Some hospitals also host on-site farmers’ markets, plant gardens, and compost food scraps.
* Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) creates a direct partnership between a farm and members of the community. Members pay farmers at the beginning of the season, providing them with cash needed to purchase seeds and equipment. In return, each week they receive a share of the harvest, whatever is growing at the time. Members commit to sharing both the benefits and risks of each season. If there is a bumper crop of watermelon, everyone enjoys the abundance. If disease wipes out the tomatoes, share members ride that out as well. This commitment from members gives farmers more protection from both the whims of nature and price fluctuations of the market. By cutting out the middle-people, members have a more direct relationship with where their food comes from and receive a better price for local food.
Started in Japan, CSAs are catching on all over the US and the world. Since its introduction in the US in the l980s, the model has expanded to over 12,500 farms. In some rural areas, members pick up their share at the farm itself, while in cities, farmers drop off boxes of produce at distribution sites. The CSA model is now being used not only for vegetables but also for many other goods like grains, meat, dairy, fish, medicinal herbs, pies, and spun wool.
* Farmers’ markets are also experiencing a meteoric rise. Between 1994 and 2011, farmers’ markets registered with the US Department of Agriculture increased 400 percent. They now number over 7,800. Markets are also vibrant community gathering spots, places to meet, play, connect, and unwind. Food from a farmers’ market or CSA typically travels between 10 and 100 miles, unlike the long distances traveled by their grocery store counterparts.
* Farmers are continuing the time-honored practice of banding together through marketing cooperatives. Selling everything from cheese to cantaloupe, co-ops give small producers more bargaining power in the marketplace. They allow producers to pay discounted prices by buying in bulk; lower their transportation and distribution costs by sharing resources such as delivery trucks; earn a higher profit by eliminating some of the middlepeople; and access federal tax deductions. In 2008, the USDA reported that there were over 2,200 farmer, ranch, and fishery co-ops in the US, with a combined business volume of $213.4 billion. One small-scale example is Moo Milk in Maine. In 2010, 10 organic dairy farmers who had been dropped by the giant corporation Hood created the co-op, through which farmers now keep up to 90% of the profits.
Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the US. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of "Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance" and of the forthcoming "Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti's Divide." She is also a member of Truthout's Board of Advisers.
Tory Field is an organizer and farmer living in Hadley, Massachusetts, and co-coordinates the Harvesting Justice project at Other Worlds. Together with her partner, she runs Next Barn Over Farm, a 30-acre CSA vegetable farm. In recent years she has been a community organizer with Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, MA, and coordinator of a weekly program for incarcerated women and their daughters in Rhode Island.