Have you ever tasted a tomato?
No, really. I mean, actually tasted one?
I know, I know, you’re thinking, “of course I have!”
Chances are, if you’ve only ever bought tomatoes from a grocery store, then you haven’t really tasted a tomato. (Sorry to break it to ya.)
But, if you’ve been lucky enough to eat a locally-grown tomato, then you know how amazingly good a tomato tastes.
That’s why it’s so important that we strengthen and support our communities’ food systems. And the benefits go far beyond biting into the juiciest, sweetest tomatoes.
Shifting to a more local, direct-to-consumer food system supports our farmers, our environment, and our health. It helps us keep traditions alive, focuses on sustainability, and reminds us why food is such an important part of our lives.
The current global food system has a lot of weaknesses. And it’s not supporting consumers, farmers, or communities in the ways it should.
So what are the benefits of community food systems?
What are some of the ways we can bolster them?
And why should you care?
Let’s peel back the layers.
Food Supply Chains: The Problem With Treating Food as a Commodity
Any food supply chain or food system, regardless of size, has the same basic structure.1 They describe the journey that food takes from field to fork. The journey can be thousands of miles long and pass through many hands for processing. Or, it can be short and simple.
Food used to be a necessity of life, celebrated and cherished for keeping us healthy. It was a big part of many cultural and religious traditions. Now it’s treated as a commodity,2 where quantity outweighs quality in order to feed the masses. This is one of the problems with our food systems today.
The US imports 55% of its fresh fruits, and 32% of its fresh veggies.3 Nowadays, we want to be able to eat strawberries and avocados in the dead of winter. So, to meet that demand, going global became the answer.
But we do pay a price for convenience.
Bland Bananas and Tasteless Tomatoes
Yes, you can get any kind of food imaginable any time of year. But most of the time it tastes like the packaging it came in.4 What’s the joy in that? Is it really worth it?
We’ve gotten so used to this that it’s almost as if we’ve forgotten what food is really supposed to taste like.
Because a lot of our “fresh” produce comes from the other side of the world, it’s harvested before it’s ripe. This is to keep it from rotting or over-ripening before it gets to the store shelf. It just doesn’t have the time to develop its full potential in taste and nutrients.
A lot of the varieties of fruits and veggies we eat are a far cry from their beautiful, original selves. They’ve been developed and manipulated to grow fast and ripen slow. In exchange for quick and hardy, we end up eating lackluster food.
That’s how we stand to benefit from community-based food systems. It brings us back to what food is supposed to be, to what it’s supposed to mean to us.
The Heavy Costs of Convenience
Because of the way the global food system has evolved, the effects of it go beyond just bland food. Growing, processing, and shipping massive amounts of food around the world comes with its own set of problems5:
- Food waste
- Less biodiversity
- Carbon emissions
- Poor animal welfare
- Invasive species
- Harmful labor practices
- Inadequate farming practices
The global food supply chain is very long. It has a lot of links. This makes it more susceptible to failure. The more links in a chain, the more opportunities it has to break. Whereas, a shorter chain has fewer connections. It means fewer chances for it to break, or fail.
The bigger the food system, the larger number of people that rely on it. If one point in the system fails, millions of people could be affected.
The Difference Between Global and Local Food Supply Chains
Community food systems benefit by being smaller and shorter. When something happens along that chain, it affects fewer people. This means it’s generally more manageable.
While any failure along any chain can have serious consequences for those affected, the effects here aren’t so widespread.
Lower-income people already have a hard time affording food staples. So when disaster strikes on the far side of the world, it can have unintended consequences right here.
For example, a severe drought in Africa could result in higher food prices here in the US. Even though these are usually short-term price increases, it hits those who are struggling even more.
Natural disasters and severe weather events are getting worse around the world because of climate change. Food production produces 26% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.6 Our food systems are severely impacted by the same problems that, ironically, they aggravate.
All of the problems mentioned and that we face today certainly affect lower-income, marginalized people. Whether it’s because of unfair wages, disease, or price increases, they feel it the most.
Often the solutions lie at the community and grassroots levels. It takes a heck of a lot of resources to change the world, and we need to keep fighting to do that. But, what are some of the things that you can do right now that’ll support your community’s food system?
The Benefits of Community Food Systems
In general, more people benefit from strong community food systems. This is because they’re more equitable and sustainable.7 And who doesn’t want their community to be the best version of itself?
When we strengthen our local food systems we’re supporting local farmers, workers, the environment, and all of its residents.
Also, in a community food system, the distance from field to fork is usually a lot shorter. Your community has way more control over food quality and food access. Residents have a greater say in what kinds of food they want.
Because the food is only going a relatively short distance, it can be picked closer to its peak ripeness. This means you end up with nutrient-packed, more flavorful produce. It also results in less GHG emissions because food doesn’t have to travel so far.
You can strengthen your community’s food system by:
- Encouraging a new generation of farmers.
- Operating a mobile farmers’ market.
- Advocating for community supported agriculture.
Let’s explore each idea in more detail – and why they’re so darn awesome.
Supporting the Next Generation of Farmers & Farms
If you want to strengthen your community food system, what better place to start than at the farm. The average age of American farmers is 57.5 years old.8 Sure, that speaks volumes for experience. But, what happens when they retire?
Helping people to see the value and beauty of fresh, whole foods is very important right now. That’s what’ll attract the next generation of farmers. Thankfully, there are a lot of community organizations that see the importance of helping new farmers succeed.
The Center for Land-Based Learning is one such place. They have a Farm Incubator Program9 that helps new farmers start and grow their businesses. The program gives them all the tools they need to get started and to stay viable.
Urban farming is a great way to increase food access in urban areas. There’s an urban farm in Detroit that grows fruits and veggies for lower-income neighborhoods.10 They use the money from selling some of their produce at markets to offset the costs of providing food to those in need.
Developing and funding these kinds of programs will make sure that there’s always a fresh supply of local produce.
Better Farming Practices for Better Communities
Nowadays, farms come in all shapes and sizes. That’s why it’s important to encourage family, urban, and local farming.11
These kinds of farms are more likely to be environmentally sustainable. They practice better soil management, so more nutrients stay in the soil. They don’t rely on pesticides as much as large-scale farms. That’s because their produce isn’t traveling as far or to different countries.
You end up with fresher, more flavorful produce. Plus, they can keep heirloom, or native plant varieties alive. These are the kinds of fruits and veggies that give us such a flavor – and nutrient – pop. They’re not worried so much about growing fast, flavorless produce for a huge market.
How Mobile Farmers’ Markets Benefit Community Food Systems
Mobile farmers’ markets benefit community food systems by supporting both the farmer and the consumer. They provide local farmers with another avenue to offer fresh produce to residents.
Mobile markets increase food access by bringing healthy food where it’s needed the most. They usually focus on serving food desert communities.
A lot of people have a hard time making it to stores or markets to buy fresh produce. Sometimes the only option is the nearest corner store. This is especially true for people who can’t afford a vehicle or have impairments that make it difficult for them to get around.
Mobile farmers’ markets can target the housing complexes where these people live.
Because mobile farmers’ markets target food deserts and lower-income communities, a lot of them offer benefits to SNAP participants too. This normally comes in the form of discounts like Double Up Food Bucks.
Using a Mobile Farmers Market to Support and Strengthen Your Community
Food banks and community organizations of all sorts use mobile markets to increase their reach. It gives them a chance to get into their neighborhoods and talk with the people they serve.
They get to hear what kinds of foods people need and want. This way they can coordinate with farmers to offer more culturally appropriate foods.
Organizations that run urban farms and community gardens find that operating mobile markets helps them achieve their mission.
And farmers know their harvest is going to help people who need it the most. It increases their market reach to people who might not otherwise be able to buy their produce.
This model, using a mobile market, benefits community food systems by bringing the community together. It gives people a chance to get out, be social, and connect with their food suppliers.
You can swap recipes with one another and learn new ways to prep food. It’s a great way to share your traditions and learn new ones. How many other food retailers offer these kinds of opportunities in your neighborhood?
The social interactions that these markets offer are great for your mental health. Your community is happier and grows stronger together.
Community Supported Agriculture Initiatives
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)12 is a great way to support existing farms in your region. It’s also a great way to help secure food access for people and families in need.
CSAs make sure that farmers have an established market for their produce. Customers give money directly to the farm, and in return, they get a box of fresh produce weekly. It’s kind of like the Jelly of the Month Club, but way healthier and more rewarding!
This helps farmers upfront with operational costs. And you don’t have to worry about where your produce is coming from each week.
The Hudson Valley CSA Coalition in New York takes it a step further.13 Their farms accept SNAP benefits as a form of payment. Plus SNAP participants can get a discount too. Talk about making food accessible.
Re-Imagining Our Food Systems Approach
Ensuring that everyone has access to fresh fruits and veggies gets people excited about eating again. People have more of a say in what’s being offered to them. They know that they’ll have a steady supply of healthy food for themselves and their families.
Direct-to-consumer approaches, like mobile markets and CSAs, produce less food waste which is a huge problem these days.
They’re more in tune with their customers’ needs because their success is directly tied to those they serve. Because of this, they encourage better farming practices and healthier eating habits.
Farms that exist to serve their communities’ food systems are very aware of their practices. They help to keep the local economy strong and more self-reliant.
This is important in hard times. When there’s a crisis elsewhere, it won’t affect your community as much. It helps protect people from food shortages and rising costs.
Supporting farms and direct-to-consumer models benefits your community food system and everyone in it. It reminds us of why food is so important in our daily lives, and all the ways it affects us.
Food has the power to bring us together, to keep us healthy, and to change lives. And that is definitely something to celebrate.
How do you support your community’s food system?
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