UMass to sign the Real Food Challenge!

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The Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA has agreed to sign the Real Food Challenge.  This will make UMass the largest university in America (serving about 40,000 meals per day) to sign the agreement committing the institution to assuring that 20% of the universities’ food purchases come from socially responsible farms and food businesses–what they call ‘real food.’

The Challenge was introduced to UMass in January 2012 with a presentation by the Real Food Challenge regional team in our Sustainable Living class.

Following this presentation a small group of students began to meet with university faculty and the Chancellor’s Sustainability Committee to begin to explore the possibility of making this commitment.

The Executive Director of Auxiliary Services and the person responsible for managing food services on campus, Ken Toong (left in the photo), has made a major commitment to high quality, sustainable food, and was an immediate and vocal supporter of the effort.

Students mounted a petition drive, collecting names of other students, faculty and staff who were in favor of the university making a commitment to the Challenge and on May 1, met with University Chancellor Subbaswamy.  According to Sustainable Food and Farming major Molly Bajgot, “the Chancellor was enthusiastic about the proposal and we expect to host a public signing in the fall.”  The actual text of the commitment is linked here

The UMass Student Food Advocacy team of (left to right in the picture below) Rachel Dutton, Ezra Small, Lila Grallert, Molly Bajgot, and Hannah Weinrock, should be congratulated for their hard work and perseverance.

Students in the project earn credit from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture to review invoices from hundreds of food vendors, investigating their commitment to Real Food.

According to Real Food Challenge leaders, “despite a growing interest in local, organic and sustainable food on campuses, little consensus exists on what makes food truly “good”…”  Further, they write…. “the youngest generation of Americans today will be the first in our nation’s history with a shorter lifespan than their parents, thanks in part to the food they eat.  Our food system is driving an epidemic of diabetes and diet-related disease, while also fueling climate change and the loss of our nation’s family farmers. The challenge is there’s just not enough ‘real food’ out there – it’s less than two percent of our national food economy. Fortunately our nation’s colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to address these 21st century challenges and help build a truly healthy food economy. With a combined annual purchasing power of almost $5 billion, U.S. colleges and universities have the capacity to significantly impact our nation’s food system through their decisions. Further, by educating students—our future CEOs,politicians, parents, and (yes!) farmers — we can cultivate the leadership and the ingenuity needed to successfully transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system.”

This student-led campaign is an example of how the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is leading the nation in creating opportunities for small, local farmers and encouraging change in the industrial food system.  Other projects and activities at UMass along these lines are:

  1. The UMass Student Farming Enterprise is a yearround class that gives students the opportunity to manage a small organic university-owned farm and sell their produce through a CSA, farmers market, and to university and private food service and retail markets.  See the video!
  2. The UMass Permaculture Initiative is a unique class and program that has converted underused grass lawns on the campus into edible, low-maintenance, and easily replicable food gardens. See on of the program videos!
  3. Permaculture in the Pioneer Valley is a class, sponsored by the UMass Dining Services UMass Permaculture Initiative that designs and installs permaculture gardens off-campus in local elementary schools.
  4. A celebration of local food cooperatives was sponsored by Sustainable Food and Farming students introducing the UMass campus and students to work opportunities in local foods!
  5. There has been an “explosion” of interest in the Sustainable Food and Farming major, growing from only 5 students in 2003 to over 85 students today.

One of the most important aspects of student education is the emphasis on getting practical experience either with local farms and markets, or non-profit public policy and advocacy groups, and farm-based education collaboratives.  Practical education built on a solid foundation of biological and ecological sciences prepare students to explore creative options and good work Its surely a good time to be an “Aggie.”

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Anyone interested in discussing this new major should contact Dr. John M. Gerber, Program Coordinator and Professor.  Many students have found the flexibility of the Sustainable Food and Farming major attractive.  Contact us or check out the major here and some videos presenting courses and topics of interest.

The U.S. needs 50 million farmers – including local gardeners

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One of the readings I share with the students in the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences  program is Fifty Million Farmers by Richard Heinberg.  This reading is an abbreviated version of an address he presented to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 2006.  It is a powerful declaration that in a world in which climate change, diminishing supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel, and increasing economic stress – our food supply is not guaranteed.  We need lots more farmers in lots more places!

I first heard of this outlandish idea in Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers.  She makes the additional claim that we not only need more farmers but our understanding of “farming” must include individual efforts to feed ourselves.  That is, even those of us who have gardens and perhaps domestic livestock to feed ourselves and our neighbors should be included in this call for more farming.

I like this idea……

I realize that some families who depend entirely on farming for their livelihood look askance at part-timers and gardeners, but my experience is that “hobbyists” are among the best customers at the local farmers market.  We need to be a bit more broadminded as we think about farming in the future.  So, while I work to support full time farmers in my region, I also encourage individuals to begin to take more responsibility for a portion of their food.   We need lots more farmers of all types! 

Think Globally and Farm Locally

I live in the northeastern U.S., in the region we think of as New England.  At times I play the “thought experiment” asking how would my region eat if the ships and planes stopped and all of the bridges on the Hudson River went away.  New England south of Canada would (almost) be an island – a big one, but still cut off from much of our current source of food.  Now I’m not proposing this as a likelihood….. but still?  Think about it.

 

My friend, Dr. Brian Donahue, a faculty member at Tufts University did a rough evaluation of what we could grow in New England if we had the political will to do so.  He suggested that we could grow:

  • Most of our vegetables on 250,000 acres
  • Most of our dry beans on 500,000 acres
  • Half of our fruit on 250,000 acres
  • All of our dairy and most of our beef and lamb on grass on 4,000,000 acres with 3,000,000 in pasture)
  • All of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs but mostly using imported grain on acreage already in large animal pasture or in woodlots
  • Some portion of our grain for specialty products and perhaps feed and vegetable oil on 1,000,000 acres

The major constraints are:

  • lack of vision and will
  • lack of training/education
  • failure to invest

Well, one of the ways to develop the political will would be for more individuals to care about the source of their food – and gardeners care!   We could grow more food in New England and some of that food could be grown in our own backyards.

Grow Food Amherst

A local initiative got off the ground this past month, in which residents of my hometown, Amherst, MA, decided to “roll up their sleeves” and get to work to help our town become more food self-sufficient (trying to “keep up with our neighbors” Grow Food Northampton).

The first project was a “gleaning and cooking together” community effort in which food that would have gone to waste was collected by volunteers and delivered to the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen and food distribution center, as well as a local church.

 

Organized by the town’s Sustainabilty Coordinator in cooperation with a new organization, Grow Food Amherst, and Transition Amherst, this work attracted about 20 volunteers who collected sweet potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower (that was too small for market).

A few days later another community event was organized as part of the national Food Day celebration of local and sustainable food for residents to learn to preserve and make soup from the food that was gleaned from local fields.

In addition to these efforts organized by volunteers, the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the UMass Permaculture Initiative partnered with the Amherst Public Schools to plant fruit trees at three elementary schools and are making plans for vegetable gardens in the spring.  Following the lead of Todmorden, England, permaculturists at UMass are committed to growing food in pubic spaces such as local schools.

NOTE: Anyone who wants to be added to the mailing list for Grow Food Amherst should contact John Gerber or add yourself to our mailing list at GrowFoodAmherst.

We can grow much more locally!

This is not to say that we should rely on gardening or even backyard homesteading to feed the American population but – I believe if we each took more responsibility for some portion of our own food – individually and as a community – we would also create more market demand for food grown by local farmers.  In the U.S., about one-percent of the food is sold directly from farmers to consumers.  We can do better!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.

 

Its the U.N. International Year of the Cooperative in Western Massachusetts

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Did you know that 2012 is the United Nations International Year of the Cooperative? 

Well, students in the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming program and many people living in Western Massachusetts sure do!   There have been lots of activities, events, and work in my neck of the woods related to the U.N. IYC.

Here are a few….

1.  Rebekah Hanlon, former UMass student and currently a co-owner of Valley Green Feast spoke to the UMass Sustainable Living class on cooperatively managed businesses.  Check out this short video on “why I prefer to work in a cooperative/collective business“.

2.  The students in my UMass Writing for Sustainability class this spring sponsored a celebratory event in which over 100 students and faculty came to hear presentations by local food cooperatives in the region.  Presenting at the celebration were:

  • Equal Exchange –  offering fair trade products from small farmers
  • Earthfoods Cafe – a vegetarian cafe on the UMass campus organized as a collective since 1976
  • Pedal People – a worker-owned human-powered delivery and hauling service for the Northampton, Massachusetts area
  • Franklyn Community Cooperative – two local stores stores offering fresh organic produce, bulk foods, organic meats and cheeses and natural groceries and wellness items
  • Valley Green Feast – offering fresh, organic and local food products delivered to your home or workplace

Adam Trott, from the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives was the keynote speaker.

3. In recognition of the extraordinary efforts of the worker-owners of Valley Green Feast, our local newspaper did a front page story and a follow-up editorial praising their work.  Here is an excerpt from the editorial:

This mission-driven business, run by four women, started five years ago as a food delivery service for people who might be customers for community-supported agriculture operations.  This crew now says it is ferrying fresh, locally produced food to 300 households in the Valley and south into Connecticut.  But this year it is also shaving its prices by 20 percent for low-income buyers and making do with those lower payments.

Though we live in a nation obsessed with appearances and worried about rising obesity, little headway is being made to help people shift from highly processed foods, which often contribute to weight gain, from nameless factories hundreds of miles away to healthier local alternatives.  The four co-owners of Valley Green Feast are doing something about that by making fresh produce and other local farm products available at lower cost to people who qualify for benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

4.  The University of Massachusetts Department of Economics recently launched a new certificate program in  Applied Economic Research on Cooperative EnterprisesThis program provides undergraduates with new opportunities for practical, field-based research while also promoting local economic development.   Working in collaboration with the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives (VAWC), UMass offers a course of study and internship combined with intensive, supervised summer research in this new program.  This program is sponsored by the UMass Cooperative Enterprise Collaborative. 

5. Graduating UMass student Nora Murphy, presented an idea for a local worker-consumer owned food cooperative designed to increase food access, provide meaningful employment and strengthen the local food system and economy, at the 2012 IGNITE UMass event.  There is lots of interest in the new proposed Amherst Community Market.

6.  Finally, a small group of citizens  associated with Transition Amherst is working to create a cooperatively managed store to be called All Things Local.  The core idea is to create a resilient local community market by employing a model with lower costs (because of significant contributions from volunteers who care about the mission) and shared-risk (items are sold on consignment, rather than taking on debt to stock inventory).

The store’s design makes it…

 Easy for buyers to buy:
  • Convenient location and hours
  • Year-round and indoors
  • Ability to pick-and-choose among many local producers
  • Single checkout, with all the usual payment options
 Easy for producers to sell: 
  • Producers set their own price
  • 90% of the selling price goes back to the producer where it belongs
  • Fast drop off
  • Don’t have to be onsite (lower staffing costs)
  • Online pre-sale bulk orders

Local producers, consumer advocates and organizers are working together to figure out how this concept might work.  To follow our progress, see: All Things Local blog.

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According to the U.N. IYC

  • Cooperative enterprises build a better world.
  • Cooperative enterprises are member owned, member serving and member driven
  • Cooperatives empower people
  • Cooperatives improve livelihoods and strengthen the economy
  • Cooperatives enable sustainable development
  • Cooperatives promote rural development
  • Cooperatives balance both social and economic demands
  • Cooperatives promote democratic principles
  • Cooperatives and gender: a pathway out of poverty
  • Cooperatives: a sustainable business model for youth

We are celebrating the International Year of the Cooperative in Western Massachusetts.    Tell us about what is happening in your region in the comments box below.

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Please share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Don’t wait for the federal government to fix the economy – relocalize your money now!

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“What would it be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?”  

Woody Tasch founder of Slow Money.

Even though the U.S. economy was rocked by market and banking scams, Wall Street has rebounded quite nicely from the economic crisis they helped to create with assistance from a federal government that continues to support a “big corporation” economic policy.  Want proof –  just follow the money!

  • According to Neil Barofsky, inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the financial  assistance provided those corporations that were “too big to fail” exceeded $3 trillion
  • The U.S. federal government Small Business Jobs Acts created a fund to spur local bank lending to small businesses, investing about 10% of the amount provided to the big banks through TARP

But that’s not all.  According to Amy Cortese’s new book, Locavesting: the Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It, government subsidies, tax breaks and grants to big corporations are estimated as:

$10 to $30 billion to “big agriculture” each year,
$17 billion to oil and gas companies per year, and
… tens of billions to state and local officials to attract corporations to build stores, factories and warehouses in their communities that compete with local, small businesses.

There are fundamental flaws in how the federal government deals with the financial system.  They continue to underwrite big investment banks that play roulette with our money.  They have bailed out financial institutions and corporations deemed “too big to fail” and then allowed them to get even bigger.  And they subsidize multinational corporations that continue to move jobs offshore.

Healthy small businesses and vibrant community banks are needed to restore economic vitality in the U.S. because they create jobs and circulate money locally.  Multinational corporations have failed to produce sustainable prosperity, because they are more interested in making money than making things people need.

According to Sagar Sheth, cofounder of a successful technology firm, “we have lost a sense of respect for what brought us here – building things that the world can use.”  He continues…  “… you have these smart kids coming out of school and going to Wall Street and making a lot of money playing around with numbers.

Federal deregulation has made our financial system a casino for the rich – and they are playing with our money.  When Congress repealed of the Glass-Steagall Act, the relatively conservative culture of banking changed radically and became a free-for-all of risky speculation culminating in the collapse of 2008.   

A ballooning trade deficit producing a massive international debt, an underemployed middle class, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas, and the acceptance of speculative trading as the way to make “easy money” –  is not the road to a sustainable prosperity.  When 40% of the annual profit of large corporations are generated by the Financial Services Divisions that make speculative investments to maximize short term profit (rather than actually making something real) we are in serious trouble!

According to Cortese, the financial system supports “…a massive misallocation of capital away from its most productive uses and toward unproductive, even harmful, ones, such as speculative trading, subprime mortgagees, and the latest bubble du jour.”

Our trade, tax and bank policies create a business environment in which exploitative practices are the norm.  Given the financial power of Wall Street, efforts to regulate this dangerous behavior will be difficult.  Politicians that try are labeled “socialist” and marginalized. 

What can the ordinary person do? 

 

Well…

Occupy Wall Street is one response!

Another is to keep your money close to home!

We need to relocalize our money!

Here are some ways how

Our corrupt financial system must be reformed, (even some bankers agree) but we can’t wait for the federal government to begin.  Politicians run for election full-time and depend on corporate money to stay in office. Wall Street has too much money and power to be reformed by government.

We must take action ourselves and reclaim the power to make the economy work for people, rather than allowing the 1% to manipulate the financial system to serve short-term greed.

Impossible you say?  I say – believe it!

Begin with small actions like those listed above.  Small actions taken by enough people will create a reinforcing feedback loop that can develop into a title wave of change.  If we start a parade, eventually politicians will want to jump up front and carry our flag.

Too many people just don’t believe it is possible to create real change…

To quote a classic……

“‘I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the White Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Believe it

…. and then relocalize your money – today!

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For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  And for those of you from Amherst, please send me your favorite public initiatives to promote local food to add to my list for a future blog.  This post was inspired by the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project.

Occupy the food system: a sermon

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I thought I had exhausted just about every angle on my “occupy” message in previous posts when I was invited to give a sermon at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, MA.  My students often accuse me of being a bit preachy, and here was an opportunity to “preach the good news about local food and farming from a church pulpit”.  I couldn’t pass it up!

So here it is (or at least an abbreviated version of the sermon)…

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We live in a world that is profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable.  Food is grown, packaged, processed and distributed in a way that plays a role in global climate change, is dependent on non-renewable energy sources, and contributes to social inequality.   For me, buying local is a means of uncoupling my household from an inherently unjust global food economy.  A recent  Huffington Post article states:  

“…the rules and institutions governing our food system — Wall Street, the U.S. Farm Bill, the World Trade Organization and the USDA — all favor the global monopolies controlling the world’s seeds, food processing, distribution and retail.” 

Industrial agriculture exploits people, undermines democracy, erodes community, and degrades the land and water to maximize profit.  We can do better.  It is unlikely either government or corporate leaders will cry out against a system that maximizes short term profit but ignores long term ecological and social degradation.  Government officials run for election every 2, 4 or 6 years and corporate leaders must show increased profit every 3 months to be successful!

Government & corporate leaders can’t think in the long term

Only average citizens can make decisions that consider the 7th generation.  We must all be leaders.   We must “start a parade.”  When we are all marching in a more sustainable direction, government and corporate leaders will jump right up front and carry our flag!

A leading international voice for food justice, la Via Campesina, represents peasants, indigenous peoples and family farmers.  They have claimed that well-managed small farms can feed the world while reducing carbon emissions using principles of agricultural ecology.  Many new small, family farmers in the U.S. are working to partner with Mother Nature rather than trying to dominate her.

Corporate agriculture is in the business of maximizing short term profit by manipulating the environment with fertilizers, pesticides, land levelers, mechanization, and irrigation.  The result of these efforts to control Mother Nature is environmental degradation and an unsustainable dependency on non-renewable resources.

Domination of Mother Nature is not “natural”

About 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia something shifted in the human psyche, as people who had formally lived in partnership with Mother Nature as hunter/gatherers, learned to intervene into the management of complex ecosystems and began to manipulate the environment –  to serve our own short-term benefit.

We called it an agricultural revolution and we moved from a partnership relationship with the Earth Mother – to a domineering relationship.  We are the only species that fails to live “naturally” – that is in accordance with Mother Nature’s “rules” (or ecological principles).  Thomas Merton wrote that an oak tree gives glory to God simply by being an oak tree.  It can’t break Mother Nature’s rules.  Humans can and do on a regular basis.

We learn Mother Nature’s rules by observing what has worked for billions of years.   There are three “rules”:

Humans can “act naturally” once again by learning to play by the rules!   And it matters little if you believe these rules were created by divine intervention or by an evolutionary process over the last 4.5 billion years.  These are the rules that work in the long-term!

Industrial agriculture produces lots of cheap food by violating these rules.  The global corporately controlled food system is not sustainable in the long run, but still presents significant short term economic competition to those small, local farms trying to do it right!  If we want to support a more sustainable agriculture, individually and collectively, we need to:

  • buy local food and grow our own,
  • create tax incentives for small farms committed to selling within their own community,
  • support changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution,”
  • make public investments in infrastructure to provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution, perhaps a local butcher, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press, and a flour mill, and
  • develop education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

All this is possible…. if we start the parade….

We all can eat better by eating local.  And in doing so we can support personal health, community health, and environmental health.  Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis.  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation.

Barbara Kingsolver’s wrote in her lovely little book, Small Wonder, that people will join the sustainability movement (including supporting local farms) because;

 “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.”

I invite you to join with others in your community to….

Amen…

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Want to help design a local food hub?

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Student Presentation

On December 1st, 2011, three local college students, Brian Downes, Jennifer Christian, and Tabbitha Greenough, gave a presentation at the community college downtown center in Greenfield, Massachusetts on ideas to enhance the local food system by developing more capacity to process vegetables.

Kyle Bostrom

The presentation was attended by about 50 local residents who came to see the results of a creative new class offered by Abrah Dresdale, on local food systems.  Part of their presentation focused on an idea to create a town food hub.  Their presentation is worth watching!

The very next day, an article about creating the Greenfield Food Hub in an abandoned factory building was published in the local paper.  The article was written by Kyle Bostrom, a Greenfield farmer and member of the town Agricultural Commission.

Coincidence?  Maybe…. or maybe an idea whose time has come.

Ideas like this evolve over time.  I first became aware of the concept when a regional newspaper, The Valley Advocate, published a story about a study conducted by yet more students (this time from the Conway School of Landscape Design) on how the nearby community of Northampton might create an infrastructure that was supportive of a local food system.

Recently, two Greenfield residents asked me to post a few questions to my local blog, Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts, to see who else might be working on a local food hub.  The response was encouraging.  Here are a few of the comments we received:

  • I have three friends that are part of food hubs in different parts of the country – in Hardwick VT, in the Bay Area, and in Southern CA.
  • I’m excited about the possibilities you are exploring to develop an important aspect of a more local food system.
  • There is Hardwick, VT, Intervale in Burlington, VT and there has been a group working to establish one in the Bellows Falls, VT area for the past few years and they have received a grant to do a feasibility study

And some words of caution:

  • We found a need to focus on the development of the social infrastructure first, (community gardens, surplus food and gleaning efforts, farm- to-school, cooking classes, neighborhood buying markets, etc.) and the network of organizations working on local food issues  – and build them until the need for physical infrastructure became clearer.
  • Who is the economics person to crunch the numbers on this project? It seems that if public money was used you would have to know how long until the project can pay itself back?

I was encouraged enough by the local response to bring this conversation to the global audience at World.edu.  Here are the questions we posed in the local blog (where you can find all of the previous comments).  The organizers of this project would greatly appreciate your thoughts (please put them in the comments box below).

1) Are you aware of other Food Hub examples in the U.S. or around the World?  Please share them here and let us know if there is anything that can be added or changed to make the Greenfield Food Hub most effective.

2)  Please share your knowledge relating to:

a. Laws, accreditations, compliances, etc. required to make a local hub reality

b. Infrastructure needs such as design firms, contractors, transportation businesses

c. Equipment needed to make parts of the Food Hub function and where to get it

d. Sources of funding

As you give feedback on each of these questions, please identify yourself and describe your expertise or interest in the Greenfield Food Hub.

Thanks for your help!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Occupy the food system: education and policy

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I received quite a bit of feedback on my last post, Local Food: Lets Get Serious Now, which calls for a personal commitment to supporting the emerging local food system.  While most readers agreed that buying local was an important means of changing the food system, a few thought my unwillingness to “sleep outside in a public park” myself demonstrated a lack of commitment to the movement.

In my post, I applauded those young people (and old) who took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, but I really don’t think all protesters need to “march.”  Eco-philosopher and social activist Joanna Macy reminds us that there are three dimensions to significant social change (which she calls “The Great Turning”).  They are:

  1. Actions to slow the damage to Earth and prevent harm to its beings (such as lobbying and protesting, blockading and conducting vigils, whistle-blowing and documenting problems).
  2. Analysis of root causes and the creation of alternative structures (such as education, policy and new organizations and businesses).
  3. Shift in Consciousness (perhaps the most powerful – and a topic for a future blog).

The Occupy protests have largely focused on action and public awareness.  And the December 4 Farmers March in New York City for example, helped focus attention on inequities in the global food system.  Unfortunately mainstream media did little to cover the story but this video does a nice job of presenting some of the major issues.

While some of us are out marching in the street and sleeping in public spaces, others need to be working on the “creation of alternative structures” to the current food system.  Small organic farms, community supported farms, backyard and community gardens, and all of the many organizations that work to re-localize the food system are critical to the continued emergence of alternatives to the corporately-owned industrial food system.

My hope is that the Occupy Movement energizes more people “vote with their food dollar” and buy local.  And while this sort of personal commitment is necessary, it is not sufficient to create lasting change in the global food system.  We need education and policy change too.  I hope the “occupiers” will continue to bring energy to the local food movement by joining one of the education or policy organizations currently working to support a more local and sustainable food and farming system.  There are many such organizations.

At the international level, la Via Campesina, is a significant voice for peasant agriculture and family farms.  I’m particularly attracted to their claim that peasant agriculture and small family farms can feed the world while reducing carbon pollution.  The banner above was from a protest march at the Climate Conference in Durban on December 5, at which time they called for all governments to “stop industrial farming that promotes pollution and climate change through high levels of use of petroleum based chemicals and to support agro-ecology.”

At the national level in the U.S., I’m attracted to the National Farmers Union (I belong to the New England chapter, which is a member-driven organization, committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, fishermen, nurserymen and their customers through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors and civic engagement).

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is another policy group, with local and regional working groups throughout the nation.  The “SAWG’s” (regional Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups) have been particularly effective.  Many of us prefer to work close to home in local or regional groups, such as the Northeast’s Food and Farm Network which was created by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

Each of us should find an organization we can support and join.  One that I helped to found is the local organization called CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  If you don’t have one in your area – start one!

Perhaps we can take inspiration from the Victory Garden movement or the Women’s Land Army, which grew food for people at home during World War II.  There are many groups “pitching in” at the neighborhood, community, regional, national and international levels working to transform the food system.  If the authorities continue to take down the tents and move protesters out of the public parks, rail links and ports (military power always sides with economic wealth), I hope some of the occupiers will continue the struggle by joining with the education and policy organizations that have been working on these issues for years.

There is more than one way to “occupy the food system.” 

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Please join the “buy local food” movement – and invite your neighbors!

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It’s harvest season in Western Massachusetts and everywhere I look I see wonderful local food products for sale.  We have vibrant farmers markets, colorful farm stands and productive farms in my region of the world.   And of course, I have my own very large garden that is producing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, blackberries, green beans, Asian pears, eggs, honey and more this time of the year.  So I am surely not objective when it comes to local food.  I think about it, talk about it, and participate in growing and buying local food whenever I can.

I’ve written in the past about the need to relocalize our food system to support democracy, to build a vibrant local economy, and to move us toward a more sustainable agriculture.  One might think I’d have nothing more to say about local food, but when I was asked recently to speak at celebration of local food in the nearby town of Granby, Massachusetts, I was moved to write yet another blog!   Here is the outline of what I said……

While it is easy to celebrate local food this time of the year, I am concerned that an increasing number of farmers are competing for customers in a market that is not expanding as fast as production.  We need more people to buy local – and we need your help to make this happen!  Most people buy their food at “big-box” stores (Walmart is the largest food retailer in the world).   We need your help to build a local food economy that will offer some balance to the industrial food system and give us a bit of insurance against collapse, soooooooooo….

…I’m asking you to join the “buy local food” movement and be sure to invite your neighbors! 

If you are going to help, you might first think about what you’d say to your neighbors, who don’t participate in the local food movement.  Here are a few of my own thoughts…..

“I care about good food….  my local community…. and my connection with the sacred.”

1.  I care about good food and we know that local food is “fresher by miles.”   The average food item on your plate has traveled from 1300 to 1500 miles to get there.  And in spite of advances in packaging, refrigeration and handling (which are very energy expensive), sweet corn loses its sweetness within hours of picking…. and there is really nothing like an egg collected “direct from the hen”  and eaten on the same day.  Really… try it!

While some food items ship and store well, such as potatoes and squash…. even with these, you should try a local potato like the yellow, orange, or purple skinned fingerling potato (halved and roasted).  And while one might think that squash is squash is squash….. it is difficult to get the thin-skinned Delicata squash (you can eat the skin) except from a local farm, as it bruises easily when shipped.  I grow my own.

I also care about safe food, and quite frankly I don’t trust the industrial food system to keep my food free of pesticides and anti-biotic resistant bacteria and other human disease organisms (like bird- an swine-flu.  You may not want to know….. but there is a food recall by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration every few days, and Congress has threatened to reduce the inspections budget.  Last summer’s salmonella tainted eggs in the American Midwest was unfortunately not a surprise.  I much prefer to look into the eye of the farmer from whom I buy my food.

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2. I care about my local community, and I much prefer that any money I spend on food stays close to home.  When I spend my money at a Super Walmart grocery store (I don’t), that money leaves the community.  The purpose of a corporation is to  generate profits for investors….. that’s all!  Recent reports of how CEO salaries have skyrocketed makes me sick.  When I buy bread from Ben and Adrie Lester at Wheatberry Bakery, I know my money is going to people I know and trust.

A study comparing a locally owned bookstore and a national retailer found that $100 spent at the local store resulted in $45 circulating in the community through services such as banks, bookkeepers, accountants and advertising etc.  This compares with only $15 from a national chain.  When you are talking about food rather than books, the difference is even more dramatic.  The Local Multiplier Effect is an important contributor to our local and regional economy, creating jobs and building relationships close to home.

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3. I care about my connection with the sacred, so I buy local.  Okay, so this one isn’t quite as obvious as the other two reasons.  I wrote in an earlier blog…. “Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis.  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation.”

Rediscovering the sacred through growing or purchasing and preparing good food can be an act of healing.  Shopping in a supermarket with its artificial lighting and hurried atmosphere is not a sacred act.  We seek and receive bargains, hurry home to microwave a pre-prepared package  (or perhaps stop for ‘fast-food’ on the way) and thoughtlessly shovel too much food into our hungry bellies (maybe while watching television).

Perhaps we can experience a connection with the divine……..

  •             by collecting an egg from under a hen you have raised yourself…
  •             by pouring maple syrup on pancakes from a tree tapped by a neighbor…
  •             by knowing the baker of the bread (or better yet, baking it yourself)…
  •             by  shaking the hand of the farmer who dug the carrots you bought…
  •             by saying thank you for the gifts of creation; the fruit, the vegetables, the meat, the eggs, the bread and the wine…..

I believe there is value in rediscovering ways to connect with the sacred by growing our own food,  buying real food from people we know and trust, and sharing food with family and friends in a communion of the spirit…

So, yes…. I support the local food system whenever I can.  Are you willing to join me… and invite few of your neighbors?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Relocalize the food system to support democracy!

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I wrote in an earlier blog “the global food system will always favor large, financially efficient businesses which exploit people, undermine democracy, erode community, and degrade natural resources in order to maximize profits.” Another of my blogs claimed that for agriculture to be sustainable, we must relocalize our food production and distribution systems.  This resulted in lots of discussion, not all in agreement.

Several of the critics of my “strong relocalization” position focused on the efficiency and effectiveness of non-local food production and distribution systems from an economic and environmental perspective.  And I generally agreed with the criticism.  But sustainability must also include a strong commitment to social justice, and relocalization can support this critical goal by strengthening community and fostering democracy.

My thinking has been influenced by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, who wrote in Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy “the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.”  Sandel boldly states that today “the public philosophy by which we live cannot secure the liberty it promises, because it cannot inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”

The loss of community which undermines democracy is the product of a worldview built on an individualistic understanding of the good life.   This understanding was born during a period of industrialization, fueled by seemingly inexhaustible petroleum supplies, and guided by a political theory that assumed continued economic growth is a moral imperative.

I”m not suggesting that EVERYTHING needs to be grown locally (bananas are difficult to grow in New England)  but rather that we need to move in the direction of relocalization.  And of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the efficiency of regional, national and even global businesses if they are not exploitative. Rather than maximizing profits for the financial benefit of stockholders, even multi-nationals could optimize profits for a network of locally owned and managed small businesses.  This would provide the efficiency and effectiveness of a large organization while supporting a local economy and build community.

So, what’s the problem?

Rapid industrialization in the early 1900’s along with the railroads and national telegraph system was expected to connect the nation more closely than ever before.   However the connectivity created by industrialization and communication was based more on financial dependency than on a shared vision of a common national good.  Interconnectedness in corporations of ever-increasing size and power, is not the same as a sense of community which in fact, diminished rapidly during the first half of the 20th century. 

The progressives of the era were mixed on their response to rapid growth of business and subsequent loss of community.  Sandel wrote: “some sought to preserve self-government by decentralizing economic power and thus bringing it under democratic control. Others considered economic concentration irreversible and sought to control it by enlarging the capacity of national democratic institutions. Theodore Roosevelt sought to regulate big business, increase the power of the national government, and to build a shared vision through his new nationalism.”

Herbert Croly in The Promise of American Life stated that America needed a stronger central government so that people would feel more a part of a national community.  This political theory however, did not promote citizenship or democratic ideals but rather a utilitarian view of continued economic growth as the dominant shared American value.  Economists and political leaders believed that the primary goal for America was to promote a rapidly rising total output of goods and services and full employment.  While this goal is important to the economy, it was not sufficient in itself to prevent the demise of community and the decay of democracy. 

Where do we go from here?

It is surely difficult to imagine a return to a strong civic culture at a national level. Sandel wrote; “from Aristotle’s polis to Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, the civic conception of freedom found its home in small and bounded places, largely self-sufficient, inhabited by people whose conditions of life afforded the leisure, learning, and commonality to deliberate well about public concerns.” A national community is just too big to provide a sense of meaning and purpose that lasts.  We need to connect to something that feels more like a hometown.

People frustrated with national government need opportunities to participate in local institutions that allow more civic engagement in order to feel a sense of agency and control of their own lives.  Local government, colleges and community organizations can be instrumental in both building a local food system as well as providing individuals with a sense of meaning and purpose.  However according to Sandel, current efforts to relocalize the economy face the same “… predicament American politics faced in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then as now, new forms of commerce and communication spilled across familiar boundaries and created networks of interdependence among people in distant places. But the new interdependence did not carry with it a new sense of community.”

What railroads, telegraph wires and national markets were to a former time, satellite hookups, cyberspace, and global markets are to ours – instruments that link people without making them neighbors.  While we need local connections, communities cannot be strong in isolation and small businesses cannot survive without understanding global market forces.  We need a global network of local food and farms.

Relocalization must be global!

I’ve written previously about a proposal to create the Food Commons, a national network of integrated local food production, processing and distribution subsystems.  When we connect this idea with the global food movement called Food Sovereignty, we might begin to imagine a global Food Commons network with governance dispersed throughout rather than centralized in a corporate headquarters.  Sandel, writing about political governance, seems to support this idea, which I think can be applied to business as well.  He writes that only a management system; “…that disperses sovereignty both upward and downward can combine the power required to rival global market forces with the differentiation required of a public life that hopes to inspire the allegiance of its citizens.”

The purpose of the corporation is to generate profit for investors at all legal (and sometimes illegal) cost.  When economic power is concentrated in a few multi-national corporations, it not only erodes the other two sustainability objectives (environmental integrity and social justice) but creates a political situation that undermines democracy.

A network of locally-owned food businesses managed collectively would support vibrant communities, enhance democracy, and provide engaged customers with high quality food grown locally as well as from a distance.  I believe a global network of collectively managed and locally-owned food businesses has the best chance of being sustainable.

To move toward sustainability however, we must reverse the direction of industrialization (centralization, specialization and globalization).  We can do this by getting involved in local organizations and government, supporting local businesses, and encouraging public investment in community priorities.  

For agriculture to be sustainable and democratic, we must relocalize – globally!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Local food: lets get serious – NOW!

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Although the demand for locally grown food has increased over the past 20 years, most people still shop at the major food chains.  I suspect this is because we live busy lives and supermarkets provide a full range of products year round, are convenient with good parking, and are open every day.  Not everyone is willing to join a CSA or stop at the local farmers market.  But given the continued pressure of global climate change, peak oil, and economic stress, I think we need to get really serious about building a vibrant local food system – NOW!

We need to build a Food Commons, a national network of local and regional food production, processing and distribution options to complement and partially replace the current corporate food system, which is showing signs of being in serious trouble.  According to the authors of the Food Commons proposal, “…the antidote to the unsustainable path we are on is a 21st-century re-envisioning and re-creation of the local and regional food systems that pre-dated the current global industrial food system.”

The Food Commons Proposal

The proposed national Food Commons would consist of three intersecting components:

  • Food Commons Trusts to own farm land and food system infrastructure in perpetual trust for the benefit of all citizens.
  • Food Commons Banks to provide financial services to food system enterprises, producers and consumers.
  • Food Commons Hubs to aggregate and distribute local and regional food, create and coordinate regional markets, and provide services to communities and local food enterprises.

If you are interested in the details and proposal, see; “The Food Commons: Building a National Network of Localized Food Systems.”  The remainder of this post will give some examples showing that we are already moving in this direction.

The Food Commons Trust

I’m pleased to be a board member of the North Amherst Community Farm, which is an example of a Food Commons Trust.  NACF is a community group that was organized in 2006 to save one of the last working farms in North Amherst, Massachusetts.  Private donations, town and state funds were acquired to protect this farm from development.  It is now leased to an organic vegetable and livestock farm, Simple Gifts Farm, which provides food to the community through a successful CSA and local farmers markets.  You are invited and encouraged to help us support this project.

The Food Commons Bank

We have an example of this sort of financial institution emerging in our region called the Common Good Bank.   This is a bank created to serve the common good.  According to their mission statement, by “common good” they mean:

“First and foremost, the well-being of each and every individual person, including adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, community, satisfying work, rest, and self-determination, empowering those in need.

“Second, peace and justice — a spirit of cooperation and community between all people, with compassionate sharing of the world’s resources.

“Third, a healthy, sustainable planet, with clean air, clean water, clean earth and a healthy and diverse population of animals and plants.”

The first ever Common Good Festival will be held in Amherst, MA on July 10, 2011 to raise awareness of Common Good Finance, a nonprofit organization working to bring economic democracy to communities in Western Massachusetts.

Other examples are being developed, but one way you can help support better financing for the local food system is to write to the Farm Credit Administration (FCA) asking them to direct FCS banks to be more responsive to the credit needs of small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers producing for local and regional food markets.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a web page to help those willing to write a letter.

The Food Commons Hub

I am not aware of any local food hub as envisioned by the Food Common proposal, but there is interest in developing such a project in our region.  The Feed Northampton Study produced by the Conway School of Landscape Design proposed neighborhood based “food hub” facilities to provide; commonly-owned packaging, cooling, processing, waste management and education for farms in the area.  The report includes a proposal to redevelop a local fairgrounds as a food hub.

What can you do?

The global food system will always favor large, financially efficient businesses which exploit people, undermine democracy and erode community, and degrade the land in order to maximize profits.  If we want to build a vibrant and sustainable food system, we need public investments in a local production, processing and distribution infrastructure (similar to the investment in the national highway system).

At the same time, we need to integrate the drive for economic growth with a concern for the environment and a commitment to social justice.  Unless we are willing to pass regulations and tax laws mandating more sustainable practices in the global marketplace (which is unlikely), this will require a major public investment in infrastructure that will help us relocalize our food system and move in a more sustainable direction.

In addition to creating a Food Commons project in your own area or supporting the Food Commons project with a donation, there are lots of local government, college, and non-profit organizations working on local food projects you can help.   If you want to take personal action in your own backyard, you can begin by growing your own food.  To see more of my own projects and activities, please go to Just Food Now or join my Facebook Group Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts.  But please do join us……

Lets get serious about local food – NOW!