The Local Foods Movements Has Made Half a Revolution. For the Other Half, We Need a Green New Deal

Anthony Flaccavento January 14, 2020

People shop for food at a farmers market in Jackson, Miss. According to a 2016 USDA study, more than 167,000 farmers in the U.S. sell at least part of their farm products through local and regional channels.

I’m one of those farm­ers and ranch­ers for a Green New Deal,” and like a lot of them, my involve­ment start­ed with soil.

I began mar­ket gar­den­ing in 1994, five years before my wife and I pur­chased the old tobac­co farm where we’ve been doing organ­ic farm­ing ever since. Back in the mid-90’s in south­west Vir­ginia, there was bare­ly a hint of a local food sys­tem,” save the occa­sion­al bar­ter­ing of excess pro­duce or the pur­chase of a quar­ter cow for freez­er meat.

In that con­text, I start­ed a tiny CSA — Com­mu­ni­ty Sup­port­ed Agri­cul­ture — with a dozen fam­i­lies, sup­ply­ing them from my mar­ket gar­den. I reck­on it was one of the first CSAs in cen­tral Appalachia.

With­in four years, there were near­ly 100 par­tic­i­pat­ing fam­i­lies and six oth­er farm­ers con­tribut­ing pro­duce, eggs, hon­ey and oth­er sta­ples, orga­nized in a grow­ers’ net­work we called High­lands Bio-Produce. 

There were two types of farm­ers in our net­work: Amish, and back-to-the-lan­ders. The cus­tomers who com­mit­ted to us for the 28-week sea­son, most­ly mid­dle-class folks, were also of two types: The con­scious con­sumer,” com­mit­ted to good, healthy eat­ing and will­ing to spend more time and mon­ey to get it; and the dab­bler,” who was will­ing to try some­thing dif­fer­ent, but as much for the nov­el­ty as out of any larg­er commitment.

We had, I think, a pre­dom­i­nance of dab­blers amongst our ear­ly cus­tomer base, part of the rea­son why turnover was quite high. I recall being scold­ed by one such cus­tomer whose exas­per­a­tion over the lack of sweet corn in her bas­ket came through in a phone call. That call was in the first week of June, three weeks after our spring frost date had passed. Corn plants were not even a foot tall yet.

For food con­sumers accus­tomed to ubiq­ui­tous abun­dance, sea­son­al lim­i­ta­tions were anathema.

A great deal has changed since then.

For one, there are many more farm­ers pro­duc­ing for local mar­kets. Accord­ing to a 2016 sur­vey by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture’s Nation­al Agri­cul­tur­al Sta­tis­tics Ser­vice, there are more than 167,000 farm­ers in the U.S. now sell­ing at least part of their farm prod­ucts through local and region­al channels.

Esti­mates of total sales of local foods” vary (depend­ing upon what you con­sid­er to be local”) but are between $8.7 bil­lion and $12 bil­lion, either fig­ure rep­re­sent­ing dra­mat­ic growth over the past decade. And a size­able por­tion of these farms are using eco­log­i­cal­ly sound pro­duc­tion prac­tices: Over $6 bil­lion of organ­ic food sales in 2016 were through local markets.

Organ­ic food sales in the U.S. now exceed $50 bil­lion annually.

While pro­duce con­tin­ues to be the front line” of local foods, in many parts of the coun­try it is only part of what’s being offered through farm­ers mar­kets, CSAs and oth­er local food chan­nels. Eggs, a wide range of healthy, pas­ture-raised meats, and even dairy have crept into local food mar­kets. This is mak­ing it pos­si­ble — even easy in some places — for shop­pers to make the mar­ket their super­mar­ket” as we’ve begun to say in Abingdon.

The devel­op­ment of local foods infra­struc­ture, almost from scratch, rep­re­sents a sec­ond crit­i­cal change from the ear­ly years of earth mom­ma cus­tomers trav­el­ing to their farmer” to pick up the week’s gro­ceries. Though still far less com­mon­place than super­mar­kets and fast food, local, sus­tain­ably raised food is far more wide­ly and con­ve­nient­ly avail­able than 20 years ago. The num­ber of farm­ers mar­kets has increased near­ly four­fold, from 1,750 in the mid-nineties to over 8,500 today.

Food hubs, which aggre­gate, pack and ship local farm prod­ucts, now num­ber sev­er­al hun­dred across the coun­try, mak­ing it eas­i­er for inde­pen­dent gro­cers, restau­rants, schools and hos­pi­tals, and even some super­mar­kets to car­ry local food.

And though still sore­ly inad­e­quate to the needs, local food pro­cess­ing facil­i­ties, from abat­toirs to shared-use com­mer­cial kitchens have begun to make it eas­i­er for small- to mid-size farm­ers to add val­ue to their prod­ucts and reach more customers.

The third sig­nif­i­cant change is among eaters, the con­sum­ing public.

For one thing, there are many more Amer­i­can con­sumers seek­ing out local food, not only at mar­kets, but in restau­rants and at the schools where they or their chil­dren attend. A 2017 Gallup Poll found that near­ly three-fourths of peo­ple stat­ed they pur­chase local food, while one in five Amer­i­cans indi­cat­ed they eat local food twice per week, accord­ing to Sta­tista.

While I’m skep­ti­cal of these num­bers, hav­ing expe­ri­enced first-hand the pro­found chal­lenge of chang­ing people’s shop­ping and eat­ing habits, there is no doubt that tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans now con­sid­er where their food comes from, how it was raised and where they can get it.

The Need for a Green New Deal 

Local foods, along with organ­ic and sus­tain­ably pro­duced foods, have demon­strat­ed that the mar­ket can dri­ve change towards health and eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. How­ev­er, it’s equal­ly clear that the pace of this change is too incre­men­tal to seri­ous­ly impact cli­mate change or fos­ter broad­ly based — and des­per­ate­ly need­ed — eco­nom­ic revi­tal­iza­tion in rur­al communities.

For that, we need major invest­ment, along with pol­i­cy changes that will sup­port sus­tain­able farm­ing and region­al food sys­tems, while break­ing the stran­gle­hold of Big Ag monop­o­lies that under­mine farm­ers, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and the ecosystem. 

What kind of pol­i­cy do we need and how can a Green New Deal make that happen?

While that will be the focus of the sec­ond arti­cle in this series, part of the strat­e­gy for pol­i­cy change must come from the bot­tom up, build­ing on the suc­cess­es of the organ­ic and local foods move­ments. That suc­cess includes tens of mil­lions of every­day Amer­i­cans, includ­ing peo­ple of lim­it­ed means, who now shop for local and sus­tain­able foods.

Yet pre­cious few of them are engaged in the big­ger ques­tions of pol­i­cy and pub­lic pri­or­i­ties. They’re sus­tain­able food con­sumers, but most are not sus­tain­able food citizens.

I believe that a por­tion of them can be mobi­lized to be advo­cates for a more just and sus­tain­able food sys­tem, one reflec­tive of their social and eco­log­i­cal values.

After all, giv­en the choice, how many peo­ple who rou­tine­ly sup­port sus­tain­able farm­ers with their food dol­lars real­ly want to sup­port Mon­san­to and Tyson with their tax dol­lars? That’s an absurd con­tra­dic­tion, one that we can change only if we build a broad base of well-informed and well-equipped food citizens.

And that’s where the sec­ond piece in this series will begin.

Editor’s Note: This essay is the first of a two-part series orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on the blog of the Organ­ic Con­sumers Asso­ci­a­tion. It is repub­lished here with per­mis­sion. To read the sec­ond part in the series, click here. To read the orig­i­nal ver­sion of this arti­cle, click here.

Antho­ny Flac­caven­to is an organ­ic farmer in Wash­ing­ton Coun­ty, Va., and author of Build­ing a Healthy Econ­o­my from the Bot­tom Up: Har­ness­ing Real World Expe­ri­ence for Trans­for­ma­tive Change. His con­sult­ing busi­ness, SCALE, Inc, works with com­mu­ni­ties around the world to help build health­i­er, more sus­tain­able economies.
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