The Potential of Local Food Systems to Revitalize Communities
by Mary Fund
“The food system is changing,” stated Dr. Mary Hendrickson, rural sociologist University of Missouri, “and how we participate in it is up to us to decide.” Hendrickson, keynote speaker at the KRC fall conference, went on to describe how the food system is changing and what is driving it. According to Hendrickson, communities, both rural and urban, small and large, can benefit from these changes. But the critical question she posed was “how do we capture and measure these benefits at home?”
Hendrickson spoke at KRC’s annual fall conference in mid-November. About 200 people from across Kansas and from neighboring states gathered to discuss the conference theme “Framing Our Future: What is Right About Food, Farming and Communities in Kansas”.
Many things are driving the change in our food system, Hendrickson explained. While many are satisfied or at least don’t question the highly processed foods of a corporate dominated food system, an increasing number of people are worried about food quality, safety, transparency and trust. Even treatment of workers is rising as a concern that consumers have about how their food is raised. The food system, she explained, is not a very trusted place right now if you are a big producer or player. People have lots of different perceptions. They are looking for something that reflects their concerns and their environmental and social values and is dependent on relationships they trust.
Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1997 surpassed baby boomers in numbers in 2017, and are driving food system changes, as are young families who are concerned about what they feed their children. These consumers are deeply committed to a values-based system and their purchasing habits reflect this.
Demand for locally produced food is on the rise. Purchase of organic food is about 5.5% of the overall food market, and continues to see growth. Food labeled as “natural”, even with its questionable definition, is another category seeing steady growth. Supermarkets are changing to serve the new demands offering more of these food choices.
Definitions of local food vary. USDA has a more regional geographic definition—anything within 400 miles and focusing on short supply chains—food that does not have to change hands very many times. Others claim geographic terms as little as 50 miles or up to 200 miles. What is clearly most important is “knowing the source” and how it is produced. The definition involves proximity, explains Hendrickson, “but also knowledge that it is not corporate.” Trust and transparency is thus a critical factor in defining local or regional food.
According to USDA, local food sales topped $6.11 billion in 2012. $3 billion was through wholesale intermediate channels, that tend to do better financially for farms than smaller farms selling direct through farmers’ markets. 42% of schools nationally are participating in the Farms to School program providing fresh local food to school children.
“The question is ‘are we capturing these benefits as eaters, farmers, and communities?’ ” she asked. The change in the food system is good she explained only if it works for us and if it is not corporate; that is, the benefits are not captured by corporate businesses that extract the profits for far away shareholders. “We need to think about how we want the system to work,” she stated.
Community food systems she explained have different goals than the system organized by profit motivated corporations. Community food systems are place based; they are integrated systems of production, processing, and distribution to enhance environmental, social and community economic goals, benefitting the people and quality of life in the community.
Can remote rural areas capture the benefits of these emerging markets? “People tend to say this can’t or won’t happen in western Kansas or in small towns,” she said. But she pointed to her hometown in Nebraska population 341, where she admitted maybe 10% of the population cared about a local food system, which she pointed out is not really different from metro areas. Through community relationships and collaboration, her small hometown created not only a community grocery store to serve the community, but a much-needed child care center.
“Maybe in the Plains you’ll need a more regional approach,” she offered, “but community food systems are about where you are and how you are going to improve your place.” Such developments are really about comprehensive community wealth creation, she explained, which impacts far more than just food.
Community wealth involves financial capital (i.e. credit, loans etc.) but it also depends on social, political, cultural, human and natural capitals. Social, political, and cultural
capital all involve lots of citizen engagement and relationships. Human capital means education, training, and capacity building. Protecting soil, water and the environment is all part of natural capital, protecting it and respecting it, and we don’t talk about it often enough. “This is one that will come round to bite us soon,” she warned, “if we don’t pay more attention to it.”
Wealth she explained is not just about how much money is in your portfolio or how much money is tied up in land or land prices. It is about people and relationships, and broader ideas of well-being and what makes a place wealthy. Community wealth is also about ownership and control in these places, and lasting livelihoods.
In Kansas and elsewhere the examples of the community capitals (social, political, natural, etc.) at work can be found in the development of local food councils, community grocery stores to serve both rural and urban food deserts, and collective action among farmers in marketing co-ops and food hubs, and in the information sharing among cover crop/soil health building farmers.
“Our economic model of prioritizing financial wealth has compromised all other wealth creation on multiple scales,” Hendrickson explained. “But wealth is the sum total of our assets – natural, social, cultural, human etc. – that we own as a society.”
“If you have higher natural, social and human capital, the community is more immune to shocks and has more resilience,” she explained. Resilience is the capacity of the system to absorb shocks and bounce back—whether these are natural shocks like floods, fire and drought, but also the economic shocks of industries leaving or not able to serve the community.
She pointed to an example from North Carolina where hurricanes last year decimated the region’s farming community and the food infrastructure. The first milk on store shelves was from a local grass based dairy with on farm bottling.
“How we participate in the changing food system and how we organize to capture its benefits is critical and is up to us,” she concluded. “We want to capture the benefits in a way to create comprehensive community wealth and that we adopt a broad-based idea of wealth and all of the kinds of capital.”
Hendrickson also spoke in Lawrence, Kansas, at last May’s “Harvesting Opportunities in Kansas Symposium: Building Community Wealth Through Food and Farming”. Presentations from the symposium are available at https://www.douglas.k-state.edu/community/harvesting-opportunities.html. Presentations from the KRC conference including a video of Hendrickson’s talk are available at www.kansasruralcenter.org.
KRC conference speakers, panels and workshops following the keynote focused on topics ranging from community food to soil health to farm transitions and succession to diversity in Kansas.
Conference sponsors included the League of Women Voters of Kansas, Eastern Kansas OCIA Chapter, Green Cover Seed, Center for Rural Affairs, Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services, Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, Graze the Prairie, Audubon of Kansas, Women for Kansas, No Till on the Plains, Central Plains Organic Farmers, Kansas Farmers Union, The Land Institute, Kansas Forest Service, American Ag Credit, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, Service-member Agricultural Vocation Education Corp (SAVE), Kansas Black Farmers Association, Westar Energy, Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops; Kansas SARE, Kansas Permaculture Institute, Kaufman Seeds, Blue River Hybrids, and Kansas Natural Resource Council plus several individuals.