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Planning for Food

Local governments make room for local food

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Most communities have some kind of plan for transportation, housing, sewer and water, emergency response, 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, high 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 communities can use to put local people, places, and food back together again and then generate new prosperity.

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.

The Greater Philadelphia Food System Study reflects increased government interest in measuring a region’s ability to provide more of its own food—and a stronger regional economy.

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 good sign, according to Robert Heuer, co-author of an upcoming national report for the Farm Credit Council on business opportunities in 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 about how to build the infrastructure capacity needed to make localized food systems a vital complement to the global food system.”

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?”

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