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Rebuilding the Foodshed

(article, Linda Ziedrich)

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When I first came to live in my rural Oregon county, about 20 years ago, there was nothing to eat — or so I complained. Actually there were grocery stores, with potatoes, onions, celery, iceberg lettuce, oranges, lemons, and mushy apples, but I was writing two cookbooks and needed produce in greater variety. And so I started planting vegetables, herbs, and fruit and nut trees, and acquiring ducks, chickens, and sheep. 

As the years passed, I fed my family more and more from our own garden and spent less and less at the grocery store. Most of the time I don’t care what’s in or not in at the supermarket, because I don’t have to buy anything there. But when I get tired of crouching in the dirt and I stand up and look around, I feel sorry for some of my neighbors.

People in my county without the time or space or strength to keep a garden and animals still don’t have much good food to eat. Sheep wander thousands of acres of lush pasture, but without your own flock or a friend who will sell you a lamb, you can’t eat lamb; the meat all goes to fancy restaurants in big cities. We have thousands of acres of hazelnut orchards, too, but the nuts go off to processors and from there to industrial bakeries. You can drive an hour and a half to the coast to catch your own Dungeness crabs, but if you try to buy a crab here, it’s usually been boiled a week previously, and if you poke a hole in the plastic wrapper, the smell may drive you right out of the store.

This is not to say that the availability of good food hasn’t improved here in the past two decades; the current national obsession with what we put in our mouths has infiltrated even this backwater. Our county now has three little weekly farmer's markets. One small town has a celebrated school-garden program and a bakery, and the discount grocery store is stocking radicchio, of all things. 

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But farmers who want luxuries like health insurance either sell their wares to processors or haul their produce up to Portland, where the chefs and wealthier city folks will happily fork over three or four times what locals would pay for it. Precious little local food is sold here.

The ways we support food producers and distribute food desperately need reform, in this county and in this country, and so I listen eagerly to would-be reformers. Philip Ackerman-Leist’s new book, Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems, seemed like something I should read. Ackerman-Leist is both a farmer and, at Vermont’s Green Mountain College, a professor of sustainable farming. The title of his book seemed to promise not only entrée to the political esoterica of the food world but also possible solutions to real problems. 

I wanted to understand exactly what a foodshed is, and what it means for a food system to be sustainable and secure. By absorbing these concepts, I hoped, I’d learn what we need to do to make good food more readily available to all.

h3. Defining terms

Ackerman-Leist devotes much of his book to sorting out food reformers’ jargon, though he sometimes gets tangled up in it. In case you’re as confused as I’ve been, here are definitions of terms favored by the food-system theorists.

An Australian import, sustainability began to replace organic in the 1980s, when organic came to mean certified by some organization or government according to certain exacting rules. If you try to sell produce from your organic garden today, you can’t call it "organic" unless you’ve gone through a long and expensive certification process.

Sustainable as applied to farming or gardening means what organic used to mean: ecological, with attention to such matters as feeding the soil, reusing waste, and keeping water clean. (To the farmer’s woe, financial sustainability is often overlooked in discussions of agricultural sustainability.)

Sustainable farming might be biointensive. This means simply that the farmer produces a lot in a little space.

Instead of farming or gardening, a person might obtain food through wildcrafting, which isn’t crafting at all but food gathering; a more familiar term for this is foraging.

First used in 1929 and revived in 1991, foodshed was inspired by the term "watershed." Unfortunately, food isn’t shed off the land in the easy way that water is, and, as the originator of the concept pointed out in 1929, the barriers to the movement of foods are more economic than physical. 

So in current usage our foodshed may be our whole food supply, as in the title of the Ackerman-Leist’s book, or it can be a physical area with arbitrary boundaries, as when you’re trying to figure out whether a certain city with its greenbelt could feed itself if it were cut off from the rest of the world through some sort of disaster.

Bearing a hint of doom are the terms resilience and food security. Communities are resilient — adaptable — if they will be able to produce enough nutritionally adequate food in the event of disaster. The two disasters foremost in the minds of people who talk about resilience are extreme climate change and the end of cheap fossil fuels. 

Food security can mean the same thing as resilience, or, especially in government-speak, food security can refer to the situation of people who may produce no food at all. If they can’t get the food they like whenever they want it, according to the United Nations, they are food-insecure, even if they are also obese. Those who talk about food insecurity in this latter sense don’t mean to trivialize poverty and the yawning gap between rich and poor, but they may inadvertently invite others to do so.

Concern for the poor is more clearly reflected in food justice, an umbrella term for efforts to overcome every food-related ill, from landless peasants and juvenile farmworkers to the existence of food deserts (areas without food markets) in American cities. 

Some food-justice advocates emphasize self-reliance, others charity. Some even insist on a universal right to culturally appropriate food, as patronizing as that may sound; how many of us, after all, want to eat just what our parents or grandparents ate?

Closely related to food justice is food sovereignty or food rights. Food-sovereignty advocates pit local producers and consumers against state and federal regulations that, for instance, forbid the sale of raw milk or home-butchered chickens. Under the same banner, activists fight international trade agreements and “remote and unaccountable corporations,” according to the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty. 

Although Ackerman-Leist bypasses the global controversy over genetically modified (GM) crops, first among the remote and unaccountable corporations is Monsanto, which produces GM beet, corn, and canola seeds along with herbicides that you can spray on the plants without killing them. 

Other targets of the activists are companies that threaten biodiversity — that is, genetic diversity — by patenting plant cultivars, although patents on plants and their traits is another topic Ackerman-Leist fails to explore. 

Then there’s all the jargon related to food marketing and distribution. A farmer can sell through a CSA, which stands for "community-supported agriculture" but actually means a business that provides subscribing households with a variable mix of produce, usually weekly. 

Food hubs are central facilities for aggregating (pooling) and distributing food products; the hubs may also do some processing. A "healthy food hub" is something else altogether: a grocery store and farmer's market and community garden and some “healthy” businesses all on one site. (This, I suspect, is somebody’s as-yet-unrealized dream.) 

A "value-based supply chain," or value chain, for short, is a business relationship among farmers, processors, distributors, and retailers based on shared ideals (values), such as a preference for grass-fed beef or organic fruit. Adhering to certain ideals convinces idealistic consumers to pay high prices, as the folks at Whole Foods know well.

The community-garden movement, in revival since the 1970s, lets landless urbanites grow their own vegetables while strengthening neighborhood social ties. Even the desert city of Las Vegas has a community garden, and one in Detroit has developed into a farm. 

The school-garden movement, which nearly died after World War II, has come back stronger than ever. Not only are children getting hands-on botany lessons; they taste and often discover they like all kinds of novel vegetables, and many of the kids end up dragging their parents to farmers markets or insisting on starting home gardens. 

New gleaning groups are harvesting fruit that overhangs city sidewalks or asking residents to register garden fruit trees available for picking. 

Community gardens, school gardens, and gleaning projects help improve cultural attitudes about food, but they have little effect on the local or global food economy or on what’s available in grocery stores. 

Ackerman-Leist also explores concepts related to putting waste to good use: ecological sanitation (hygienically using human excreta as a resource), biogas, and anaerobic-digester technology. Sustainably-minded farmers and gardeners aim to put all their wastes to good use, and even urban wastes can be part of a food system in the broadest sense. 

Still, the topic of waste recycling seems peripheral to the question of how to get good, fresh, clean food into the mouths of the masses and money into the pockets of the people who produce the food. 

h3. Ackerman-Leist's conclusions

Ackerman-Leist has a few helpful ideas about commercial food production: 

# We should provide practical training in farming for young people, he says, and not make them wait until college for it. 
# Farmers can increase their chances of success by forming new agricultural co-ops. 
# Commercial kitchen facilities can serve as incubators for new food-processing businesses, though many such facilities, according to the author, have failed. 
# School districts can continue efforts to incorporate fresh, locally grown foods into school lunches. (As Ackerman-Leist points out, typical American children get most of their fruit and calcium intake from school food, and children in free-lunch, free-breakfast, and summer meal programs get most of their calories though these programs.)

Yet Ackerman-Leist isn’t sure that local food is “what the world needs.” He has visited Vermont farms “that were not necessarily models of good stewardship of finances, natural resources, or even animal well-being.” He describes Smithfield, the big Virginia ham company, as an example of an unsavory local food producer — though this conglomerate, which owns labels such as John Morrell and Armour and processes pigs from far and wide, can hardly be called local. 

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Ackerman-Leist argues, too, that the term "local food" is poorly defined; does it refer to a 10-mile radius, a 100-mile radius, or something else? He prefers the word "regional." He admits that a community’s food security and food resilience depend on local resources, but he maintains that regional resources are at least as important. Yet his term "regional," of course, remains just as vague.

Unlike local-food advocates, Ackerman-Leist fails to see local food as the focus of localism, the idea that we can revive our local economies by buying what we need close to home. The more times a dollar changes hands locally, the idea goes, the more jobs and wealth a community will have. Because everybody needs food every day, much exchange can happen among farmers, processors, consumers, and restaurants when they are all in the same area. 

If you spend a dollar at Walmart, most of it will be sent straight off to Arkansas. If you spend it in the local butcher shop instead, the butcher might spend it on a loaf of bread from the baker next door, the baker might spend it on a bowl of soup from the café across the street, and so on.

Ackerman-Leist also neglects to mention the sense of historical and cultural identity that local foods provide. Here in the Pacific Northwest, people love eating wild salmon partly because wild salmon has been a staple food in this region for thousands of years. Having ready access to special regional foods makes us feel we belong where we are, in a place that’s unique. This feeling must certainly promote psychological well-being if not civic involvement.  

Civic involvement gets a bit of Ackerman-Leist’s attention. He mentions policy matters such as global trade policies, the Farm Bill, and health and sanitation regulations that may be unreasonable and unnecessary for small producers. I really like the one political idea that he describes in some detail: the food-policy council. Whether it serves a city, county, state, or region, whether it is appointed by the government or not, such a council might bring food issues to the attention of officials, review and guide policies concerning food, create or support food-related programs, and aid coordination among different parts of a food system. 

Food-policy councils are in place in many cities and counties already. If my county had one, one of my county commissioners might not have defended GM crops to the Oregon Senate (against the interests of the many specialty seed growers among his constituents) by claiming that '"genetically A council of knowledgeable citizens might have explained to the commissioner that recombinant DNA and old-fashioned breeding are not quite the same thing.

What we have to eat, at what cost, depends not only on economic and ecological circumstances but also on politics. Rebuilding the Foodshed offers scant guidance through the muck of food politics, but it can help prepare citizens for the slog by decoding some of the lingo food activists prefer. 

I hope it will also convince some of those activists to drop the arcane terminology and speak and write in plain English. We may not need a food-resilience movement, a food-justice movement, or even a local-food movement. What we need is what Erika Allen, of the urban-agriculture nonprofit Growing Power, described to Ackerman-Leist as a "Good Food Movement." And who doesn’t want to be a part of that?

p(bio). [/author/LindaZiedrich "Linda Ziedrich"] has written several cookbooks. She keeps a large organic garden on her family homestead east of Albany, Oregon.

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