How Local Food Can Enrich a Community

Not so long ago, we knew where most of our food came from: out of the garden, or from farmers in the region. But now the ingredients of our suppers are likely to travel thousands of miles to reach our tables. Not just tropical delights like bananas, coffee, and tea–we’re shipping even the basics: potatoes, tomatoes (even in season), meats, and greens, not to mention boxed and canned goods.

While we’ve come to expect all foods to be available year round, the costs of this diet are staggeringly high. Consider heavy chemical use on distant megafarms, the nutrition and taste lost during long-distance travel, and the amount of fuel burned along the way.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Contrary to what food industry advertising says–marketers now receive 67 percent of profits in the food business while farmers receive 9 percent–people all around the world are returning to eating food grown near home. In his book Going Local (Routledge, 2000), Washington policy analyst Michael Shuman points out that some “800 million people in the world who live in cities are engaged in urban agriculture, mainly for their own consumption.” One in five residents of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania’s capital, work as farmers. Two-thirds of the poultry and close to half the vegetables eaten by Hong Kong citizens are produced within the city limits.

Local food is also regaining its rightful place as the center of local econo-mies in the United States. Shuman points out that the growing demand for local fruits and vegetables in the San Francisco Bay Area has expanded the region’s agricultural economy by 61 percent over the past decade. That’s translated into $915 million of agricultural income added to the local economy each year.

Following are some of the brightest ideas in the local food movement.

Athens, Ohio

Athens, Ohio, lies in one of the poorest regions in the nation, at the northern reaches of Appa-lachia. But this sleepy college town of 60,000 has proven the richness local foods can bring to a community. With several organizations working together, Athens has “one of the most exciting and dynamic local food systems in the country,” writes Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in the forthcoming anthology Sustainable Planet: Road Maps for the 21st Century (Beacon, Nov. 2002).

Athens boasts a well-established farmers’ market, but its local food economy really got cooking 15 years ago when ACEnet, an organization that started as a community kitchen, converted an old lumberyard into a wildly successful incubator for local food entrepreneurs. To date, Ritchie reports, farmers who have brought their products and skills together at the center have created more than 120 specialty food businesses and hundreds of jobs. Recently, Rural Action, an Athens organization dedicated to environmental sustainability, began running the National Center for Preservation of Medicinal Herbs, which helps protect–and sell–medicines from the region. Taken together, these initiatives have rekindled the local economy and turned Athens into a national model of sustainable community development.

Vancouver, British Columbia

With a host of ambitious chefs in search of great locally grown foods, nearly two dozen home-delivery organic food suppliers, and a wealth of public enthusiasm, Ritchie declares, “Vancouver’s local food economy is hot.” A sampling of some of the other projects popping up all over town: The Vancouver Community Kitchen Project creates opportunities for people to cook together. The EcoCafe Sustainability Society helps youth understand food and ecology. Students at the University of British Columbia are re-designing the campus farm to make it more environmentally friendly–and they’re developing a campus market garden. And the Good Food Box sells fresh fruits and vegetables at low cost to people in need.

At the center of it all is Farm Folk/City Folk, a 10-year-old organization that brings together food, farming, health, and environmental activists to help shape public policies around local food production. It also hosts an annual harvest festival to celebrate local foods and music.

Belo Horizonte, Brazil

In 1993, Belo Horizonte, a city of 15.8 million inland from Rio, started thinking differently about hunger. With too many children living in poverty–and one-fifth suffering frommalnutrition–Belo’s citizens, under the leadership of the reformist Workers’ Party, decided that access to good food should be a human right, not a matter of consumer wealth. It’s now the only city in the capitalist world that has made food security a right of citizenship.

Francis Moore Lappé and her daughter Anna Lappé visited Belo Horizonte when they circled the globe to write Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (Tarcher, 2002). They describe a number of the city’s new initiatives: promoting community and school gardens; renting market space to entrepreneurs who sell produce at city-determined prices and deliver fresh food to poorer neighborhoods on weekends; linking hospitals, restaurants, and other big buyers to local organic growers; and serving 4,000 healthy, inexpensive meals a day at its Restaurante Popular, the people’s restaurant.

Belo Horizonte now provides a model for how communities around the world can begin to solve the problem of hunger on the local level.

Karen Olson is a senior editor of Utne Reader

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