Wherever this flag is flown…we take care of our own.
– Bruce Springsteen
When it comes to food and farming, there’s been an assumption since the planting of the first seed that the harvest first feeds the farmer, the family, the clan, then the community. We’ve strayed from that simple but necessary notion over the past decades as our food system has tilted in the direction of industrial scale production and distribution that serves global markets first. Where once the people’s voices and nutritional requirements called the tune, local food needs and connections are drowned out by market forces that dance to a different beat.
In the midst of the post-World War II tectonic shifts in the ways we grow and get food, domestic hunger persists, a fact that achieves a seasonal acuity during these holiday months. One in eight people and one in six children are food insecure according to the USDA. Obesity and diabetes rates are two to three times higher than they were in 1992. Most 2-year-olds today will develop obesity by age 35, according to a recent project of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
What’s become obvious is that the ethical commitment of a local food system to first take care of its own has been displaced by a global food system’s commitment to first take care of its bottom line. Just as a prosperous civilization that fails to meet the needs of the least among us cannot lay claim to a moral place in the universe, our food industrial complex cannot profess to “feeding the world” when millions of its own are food insecure or in the throes of diet-related disease. Likewise, chemically-based, energy-intensive, carelessly polluting methods of food production display a willful disregard for our children and grandchildren who will suffer mightily from a degraded environment and global warming.
Though our food system has veered recklessly from the intimate to the distant, the people’s urge to be heard and to shape their own destiny has never diminished. The revival of farmers’ markets over the past 40 years, the growing awareness of sustainable agriculture and healthy eating, and the rise in thousands of feeding initiatives attest to our refusal to accept so-called economic norms. As if to say, “there must be a better way,” consumers, farmers, and those who advocate for good food for all are raising their voices in Congress, state legislatures, and city councils.
No better evidence of this can be found than in the emergence of local and state food policy councils, which according to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future number over 250 nationwide. Here we find producers, anti-hunger advocates, chefs, and government officials, just to name a few stakeholders, coming together to plan for their communities’ food future and to ensure that those plans are implemented.
While food policy councils come in different shapes and sizes, they generally serve as the eyes and ears of the community and its policy makers. They are not comprised of ranters-and-ravers and soap box standers. They are made up of thinkers and doers who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and work with people of different opinions and interests for the common good of their community.
And much good has come from food policy councils. In New Mexico, they have enlisted state government to start a permanent farm to school program that is using the buying power of public schools to purchase New Mexico-grown food. In Minnesota and Connecticut, they have worked with transportation officials to establish new bus routes to ensure that people who don’t own cars are able to reach a grocery store. In Colorado and Massachusetts, they have worked with farmers’ markets and state agencies to enable the use of SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets. In Kansas, they paved the way for the establishment of a food hub that connects the state’s growers to better market opportunities.
While no single local or state food program or policy will grind the gears of the global food system to a halt, they do refocus our attention on a place – our place – and a people – our people. This is exactly what they are starting to do in Nebraska with the establishment of the Nebraska Food Council. With guidance from the Center for Rural Affairs, people from across the state have been meeting to reset Nebraska’s food compass so that its needle points in the direction of its people – the food they eat, the air they breathe, and the water they drink.
At this time, food policy councils and numerous local food coalitions are loading their carts with programs and policies that move with muscle and purpose to the checkout line. A quick scan of what they have selected and set in motion includes strengthening and expanding farm to school initiatives which now exist in 47,000 public schools; changing regulations and providing funds to support more local food hubs and food businesses; expanding programs to increase the use of SNAP benefits at the nation’s 8,500 farmers’ markets; protecting access to farmland for all those who want to produce food; and kicking ass and taking names to ensure that all our fed.
This is only a partial list of what food activists across the country are doing to secure a healthy and sustainable food system for all. As citizens of a democracy, we must raise our voices for what we believe is right; as members of a community, we must take care of our own.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving!