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Decentralize, Diversify, Localize:

Three ways the regional food movement can make our food safer

September 30, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The growth of the local food movement offers us many opportunities to make our food supply safer and more stable.
Ms. Cantrell delivered these comments on Sept. 9, 2009 at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., as part of a panel entitled “The Future of the Food Supply.”

Our conversation today starts with a major point of agreement: Our food supply has become very fragile.

We are gathered here to tackle the fact that our food supply is simply not ready to face some clear and present dangers, including global water shortages, extreme weather, peak oil, increasing population, food-borne illnesses, and diet-related diseases, to name a few.

My point today is that to solve this problem we must more fully appreciate and integrate the corrective power of the regional and sustainable food movement - that is, that broad and growing set of farms, families, entrepreneurs, and communities building new food choices.

Our food system is so fragile because it has grown too centralized, too homogenized, and too globalized to withstand shortages and shocks, even as it fails to meet basic health and wellness needs.

We need to bring it back from the edge. We need to decentralize, diversify, and localize.

That's what the regional and sustainable food movement does. It naturally pulls us back from the brink and puts us where we need to be: in the resilient center. That's the place where, when one supply line fails, we have many more suppliers at the ready. It is where we recover quickly and easily from disturbances because we've become more efficient and creative with our resources.

I'm here to bring you the good news that this process is well underway and growing, even as we speak.

I've been watching it for 20 years, since first writing about it at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in Snowmass, Colorado. For the last eight years, I’ve been at the Michigan Land Use Institute, where we've been busy on the ground building a local food marketing campaign, farm-to-school programming, and a regional food and farm business network.

And, as a Food and Society Policy Fellow, I'm also on the job of explaining how regional food systems are a key economic development ingredient in the 21st-century mix. I write that places like Michigan, for example, need to reconnect urban eaters and rural producers to both grow jobs and build places that are attractive to live and work.

In the few minutes I have, I want to demonstrate briefly how the regional and sustainable food movement is a naturally occurring, stabilizing force for our food supply.

With the story of one farm, we will see how this movement is not just a bunch of isolated people and events but an actual, emerging system that we can build on and come to rely on as we work toward building a resilient center.

A Central Concern
Let me start by taking a moment to note just how centralized our food supply is.

You may know that farmers now make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. But you may not know that less than 2 percent of those few farms account for half of all agricultural sales.i

That's how we come to have 20 million hamburgerpatties coming out of a single factory in one week, or one processing plant washing 25 million servings of salad per week.ii It's easy to see in this consolidated food world how contamination from one cow or one head of lettuce can kill far and wide.

In this supersizing process, agriculture has become our economy's second-largest user of fossil fuels, after automobiles. So “peak oil”—the steadily rising price of petroleum products as worldwide production peaks and begins to decline—will affect all of our plates.

Meanwhile, we continue to lose our remaining family-owned and -operated farms, which we need for resilience.

With one company, Dean Foods, controlling some 90 percent of the milk supply in Michigan, for example, your options as a milk producer are to either get big—that is, try to overcome lower and lower prices with higher and higher volumes—or get out.iii That's what 90 percent of America's dairy farms have done since 1970—and now a big new bunch of those farms will shut down this year, with record low milk prices driving the final nail.iv

That’s the bad news about one of our basic food commodities—milk.

But now let me introduce you to George and Sally Shetler, from Kalkaska, Mich.

Back in the 1980s, they faced this "get big or get out" choice. But they ignored that choice and, instead, took two significant steps toward resilience.

First, they substituted their own pasture for all the costly feed they were buying to boost their dairy herd’s yields. That cut their expenses dramatically, including practically eliminating veterinary bills because their cows were healthier.

Next, they looked around and found a whole bunch of people who wanted their pasture-raised milk for taste, health, and environmental reasons.

Now, after nearly losing the farm, they have built a local milk bottling business that not only supports them, but their children's families as well. Their kids had earlier left the state to find off-farm work.

Today, non-homogenized, pasture-raised milk from the Shetlers' 40-cow dairy is available in several counties in northwest Lower Michigan. Their slogan is "Our cows aren't on drugs, but they are on grass."

Now, if some contamination event were to shut down part of the big consolidated milk supply, the Shetlers would not be able to supply every household in the region with milk.

But they would be there, supplying milk.

And you know what? So would the Cream Cup Dairy, out of nearby Norwalk, Mich.—another small-farm bottler making another decentralizing dent in our food supply. These two farmers, and scores more across the country, are making those dents by connecting with consumers who want more to see more diversity or variety in the products that stores and distributors are carrying.

Mind you, it's not just the higher-income, highly educated buyers who are making these choices, although their money is helping to pull the new regional and sustainable farm products onto the market.

It is also the low-income grandmother who knows a good deal when she sees one. I'm thinking of the shopper I overheard at our rural grocery store telling another woman how great the Shetler milk is—not just its taste but how it lasts longer than the regular store milk.

I'm thinking, also, of the cafeteria cook who tells me that local, sustainably farmed eggs may cost more, but the kitchen gets more omelettes out of them. That's because the local eggs are less watery and arrive more intact, compared to the high rate of breakage they see with thin-shelled industrial eggs.

These are just some of the reasons why the number of farms that sell directly to consumers, at farmers markets and such, increased 17 percent from 2002 to 2007, while sales of local food overall increased an inflation-adjusted 30 percent.v

In fact, the local food phenomenon has grown to include not just high-end chefs but also financially strapped schools. We've gone from just 400 farm-to-school programsvi in 2004 to more than 2,000 today, with nearly 9,000 schools involved.vii

What's more, all of this is prompting the development of new, more regionalized distribution and processing options. The local food phenomenon is evolving in this way to bring more sustainably produced food, its local identity intact, to more people.

We now have cooperatives and regional brands like Good Natured Family Farms, near Kansas City, which is partnering with a local independent grocerviii and regional distributor to move food from more than 100 farms to buyers in the metro region.ix

We have school purchases spurring investment in new, local food processing. In the southeast, a cooperative of African-American farmers sells washed, cut, and bagged vegetables to 15 school districts.x

In New York, farms are already bagging and slicing local apples for New York City schools and are working on getting cut carrots into their cafeterias, too.xi

Working Those Connections
So what's the point here?

Regional, sustainable food systems are growing because of three really important dynamics.

First, people are stepping out of the centralized food system. Second, they are diversifying product choices in the market. And third, distribution and processing innovations are emerging that create local, reinforcing loops in our overly globalized system.

And here's some more good news: These loops are connecting! And you know what happens when things connect: They grow and strengthen. We now have the National Good Food Network, for example, supporting communication and learning across regions. This movement is growing exponentially, and that is exciting.

What we've seen here is how the Shetler Dairy is neither alone nor confined to some niche.

The Shetler story is connected to countless other, similar stores of farms, families, entrepreneurs, and communities seeking resilience. And these stories are connecting and growing as new regional and more sustainable systems.

I'm not here to argue that these developments would be able to feed the world today. But I am arguing that they are a natural, corrective force that we can and must build on to feed the world.

We agree that all manner of dangers to our food supply are clear and present—from peak oil and extreme weather to the healthcare crisis of diet-related diseases.

But the problem is not a lack of technology or finance in the system. The problem is that our food supply has become too centralized, too homogenized, and too globalized. It is too fragile to withstand shortages and shocks. It also is simply not meeting our basic needs for good nutrition, local commerce, and environmental integrity.

We need to bring it back from the rocky edge to a resilient center. That's what the regional and sustainable food movement does.

Step by Step
It's happening. It's real. And we can come to rely on it, if we do two things:

First, we must get out of the way. National, state, and local governments must act, and quickly take down many of the policy barriers that keep pushing markets toward consolidating rather than innovating.

Second, we must evaluate all new technologies and programs through the regional and sustainable food lens.

We must always ask:

Does this proposal lead to more centralization or does it help us decentralize?

Does it lead to more homogenization, or does it help us diversify?

Does it lead to more globalization, or does it help us localize?

I’m happy to say that, in northwest Lower Michigan and in a growing number of places all around our country, people are choosing decentralization, diversification, and localization. Those choices are helping the local economy, keeping farmers on their land, and leading to much healthier food choices.

A long road lies ahead, but we are on our way.

Patty Cantrell is program director at the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she built northwest Lower Michigan’s nationally recognized Taste the Local Difference program. Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow focused on promoting local food and farming as a New Economy strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

i "Small Farmers See Promise in Obama's Plans," August, 20, 2009, John Burnett, National Public Radio, All Things Considered.

ii "Farmer in Chief," October 12, 2008, Michael Pollan, The New York Times.

iii "Independent Farmers Feel Squeezed by Milk Cartel," August, 20, 2009, John Burnett, National Public Radio, All Things Considered.

iv Ibid.

v "Direct farm sales rising dramatically, new Agriculture Census data show," Press Release, February 4, 2009, Ken Meter, Crossroads Resource Center.

vii National Farm to School Network, http://www.farmtoschool.org/.

viii "Innovative Models: Small Grower and Retailer Collaborations," Case study, Wallace Center/National Good Food Network, http://www.ngfn.org/.

ix "Sysco’s Journey from Supply Chain to Value Chain," Case study, Wallace Center/National Good Food Network, http://www.ngfn.org/.

xi Ibid.

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