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Local, State Officials Can Boost Local Food Economies

Pioneering agencies include ‘regional food assessments’ in their plans

November 23, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The Greater Philadelphia Food System Study demonstrates the increasing interest among local and regional governmental agencies in evaluating the ability of a region to grow its own food and, along with it, a stronger regional economy.
Part Three of six parts

Michigan families and businesses are calling for healthy, tasty, trustworthy food. And they are not waiting for Lansing, but moving forward, building new pathways between family farms and local buyers and reinventing systems, such as regional distribution, to bring more good food to more people.

There is already great power in this dynamic movement—power to bring dollars home to local economies, to grow green jobs, and save money by keeping people and natural resources healthy. Yet there are things that Michigan’s state and local leaders can do to expand this movement and make it even more powerful. They could start by including the need and demand for healthy, green, affordable food in their approaches to planning and economic development.

Most communities have some kind of plan for transportation, housing, sewer and water, emergency response, public health, and more.

But for food?

Essential as it may be, making sure your region has good ways to secure healthy, plentiful food for all has not been in local governments’ job descriptions—until now. Slowly but surely, public concern over access to safe, highly quality, healthy, affordable food is connecting with concern about the future of our farms and farmland. That combination is putting food—who gets it and where it comes from—on local leaders’ plates.

The result: New information, tools, and policies that rural and urban communities can use to put local people, places, and food back together again and then generate new prosperity.

Planners Eye ‘Foodsheds’
A milestone came in 2007, when the American Planning Association issued comprehensive guidelines for regional food planning. APA’s guidelines validated the idea that community planners should think about and assemble strategies for increasing residents’ access to healthy food and for aiding farmers’ ability to access and serve those residents.

One of the first steps in planning for community and regional food systems is taking an inventory of an area’s food and farm needs, opportunities, and participants.

Dozens of grassroots groups across the country have performed such “community food assessments” by gathering data, drawing maps, and talking with farmers, food companies, churches, food banks, health professionals, and others to understand the rural-to-urban food landscape.

One of the largest such assessments is the just-published study of the 100-mile “foodshed” around San Francisco, performed by American Farmland Trust and local partners. “Foodshed,” like the more common term “watershed,” defines a supplying area and everything that affects it. San Francisco leaders are using the study to develop more local food markets, particularly for disadvantaged urban areas.

Another major effort is the Greater Philadelphia Food System Study, which takes a 100-mile-wide look at food supply, demand, and systems covering 70 counties in five states. The region’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO), the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, is conducting the study.

The involvement of an MPO in foodshed assessment is a major milestone, according to Robert Heuer, co-author of an upcoming national report for the Farm Credit Council on business opportunities in emerging regional food systems.

MPOs manage federal transportation dollars, which largely determine how and where a region grows. It’s important, Mr. Heuer said, to engage MPOs in the discussion about how to build the infrastructure capacity needed to make localized food systems a vital complement to the global food system.

A Menu for Regional Success
Kami Pothukuchi, a Wayne State University-based leader of the planning profession’s new food systems focus, reinforces the idea that governments must act as a region, through entities like MPOs, to build regional food systems.

The guiding question, she said, is: “How can regions work as a system to meet as much of their needs as possible from their own natural resources?”

In Michigan, the six counties around Grand Traverse Bay may well end up leading the way in developing a regional strategy for a local food economy. That is because of the citizen-based Grand Vision project, a land use and transportation study that will produce a 50-year growth plan for that region by next spring.

The project will include inventories of northwest Lower Michigan’s local food and farm opportunities in its decision-making process, which started in October 2007, attracted more than 3,000 people to its workshops in all six counties. Participants spelled out their own ideas about where growth should and should not go and the kind of transportation options they wanted.

Then, almost 12,000 people weighed in on the four growth scenarios that The Grand Vision consultants derived from the workshops. Their “votes” will shape a growth strategy that suits most people and that local leaders will be willing to pursue.

A scientific survey conducted by the project confirmed what the workshops revealed: Most people in the region strongly favor a small-town, rural quality of life. That means there is strong support in the region for shaping growth so that it builds opportunities for local food and farming.

New Detroit Diet
But awareness of local food as an economic development tool is also showing up among leaders in urban areas like Detroit. And that could, among many other things, help revive a fine big-city tradition that faded in the face of the auto-culture and the big, national food distribution and retailing systems that grew out of it over the past half-century.

Malik Yakini, for one, remembers that tradition—produce trucks delivering fresh fruits and vegetables directly to Detroit neighborhoods.

“When I was a kid they drove up and down the streets every weekend with fresh produce,” recalled Mr. Yakini, who heads up the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

Now Mr. Yakini and hundreds of other Detroit residents are exploring ways to bring better food choices to the city. Their efforts have drawn greater local and state attention since a 2007 study discovered just how much the city’s lack of quality, full-service grocery stores endangers lives.

The study, commissioned by Chicago-based LaSalle Bank Corporation, found that more than half of the city’s residents live in areas where fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods are essentially unavailable. The study found that people in those areas are more likely to suffer or die prematurely from a diet-related disease.

City and state economic development leaders add that it’s difficult to attract new residents to Detroit if the city does not offer such basics.

Now the city’s economic development arm, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, is working on ways to increase fresh-food and quality-grocery choices in the city, including a potential multi-million dollar fund to stimulate investment.

“The attraction of new grocery stores and the improvement and expansion of existing stores is an important part of our retail strategy,” said Olga Savic Stella, vice president for business development at that agency. “Quality grocery stores anchor quality shopping districts.”

A model they’re looking at is the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which in the last few years has loaned or granted $42 million to finance 58 projects, half in urban neighborhoods and half in small towns across the state.

Because the stores are independent and locally owned, the initiative’s leaders believe the businesses are more likely to work with local food suppliers, especially area farmers. While there are no studies yet to confirm that theory, if independent retailers are flexible enough to set up in tight downtown areas, they may also be open to buying from local farmers.

Mr. Yakini and some of his friends involved in the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network will be around if they do. The network’s three-acre “D-Town” urban farm on the western edge of Rouge Park is already selling food at farmers markets and to restaurants.

Maybe produce trucks are next.

In Part Four of this series, Patty Cantrell reports on what some entrepreneurs are doing to build the local food movement across the state, and what local and state officials can do to help them out. Patty directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture Program; reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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