- Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems
In 2009, a two-day workshop series, titled the Virginia Agriculture; Food Entrepreneurship Program, was held in order to help farmers and food producers navigate the food processing and safety regulations in the state of Virginia. The sold-out status of the event provided evidence of a burgeoning interest in food entrepreneurship and fulfilled the need for educational support relevant to food regulations and marketing. These well-attended events also demonstrated the concern food entrepreneurs have for creating sustainable, safe and legal models of doing business.
The VAFEP is a relevant and valuable project because in order to create and maintain a viable and resilient regional food system, we need to provide the necessary infrastructure. Helping our farmers and food producers in navigating the food processing and safety regulations will help entrepreneurs get their products to the ever-expanding market for fresh, local food and farm products. In turn, we become more food self-sufficient and we become one step closer to creating community food security.
Growing Food & Community is a volunteer initiative dedicated to creating, supporting and uniting community food programs and sustainable agriculture projects as a pathway toward resilient, viable and equitable food systems in the Virginia Piedmont. Our goal is to partner those that produce, distribute and market our food locally with those that consume these foods locally and, thus, galvanize our community, protect the environment, strengthen our local economy and secure our food future.
In 2009, Growing Food & Community (GF&C) was awarded a Sustainable Community Innovation USDA SARE Grant and collaborated with several other community partners to create the Virginia Agriculture & Food Entrepreneurship Program (VAFEP). The project was manifested through the collaboration of a highly motivated committee of organizers that includes GF&C plus Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville-area farmers market managers, some of our local farmers and an economic development agent. Recognizing the need to disseminate food processing, food safety and local food marketing information, the VAFEP handily enlisted the support of several sponsors and presenters, including Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia Tech, VA FAIRS/Farm Bureau, Piedmont Environmental Council, Meet The Farmer TV and Flavor Magazine.
The purpose of the VAFEP was to support new and existing value-added food processors and food producers in the Virginia Piedmont region through a series of educational workshops and through an informative website. In doing so, the VAFEP intends to foster the exchange of locally produced food with those who consume it locally. This is an excellent strategy for immediately and positively impacting the resiliency of our region’s food shed because the impacts of these efforts can be felt far and wide throughout a community.
INCREASE PROFITABILITY & VIABILITY OF SMALL FARMS
For one, providing this infrastructure helps to make our local, small farms more profitable and viable. In the instance of value-added agriculture, for example, when a farmer is using raw materials to the fullest, they are able to close the loop in the production system, eliminating waste and, thus, making the most efficient use of resources while increasing the economic viability of their farm.
UNITE & GALVANIZE SEGMENTS OF A COMMUNITY
Small farms were once the cornerstone of communities. Prior to the “industrial agricultural” revolution, most families were involved in growing and processing their own food. Now we no longer know who grows our food nor the methods used to grow it. Local food systems strengthen communities through building relationships and trust; they create bridges between those that produce our food and those who consume it, between rural residents and urban dwellers, between farmland and non-farming land, between humanity and nature.
GROW MORE FARMERS
Providing infrastructure and education is crucial to filling our growing need to incubate more farmers. Right now, the average age of the average farmer is approaching 60 years old. And right now, less than 2% of the population even knows how to grow food. In order to feed a growing population amidst a declining population of farmers, we’d be wise to return to what Thomas Jefferson referred to as a “Nation of Farmers.”
BOOST THE LOCAL ECONOMY
Supporting local production of food and farm products also strengthens the local economy. It reduces the amount of economic leakage experienced as a result of non-Virginia produced food being purchased and consumed by Virginians (estimated to be about 60% or 8.9 million dollars). But when people have access to and purchase food from local producers, that revenue is retained within our community. In fact, if each household in Albemarle County spent only $10 per week of the food budget on fresh, local food and farm products, it would equal about $20 million dollars in revenue.
HELP ENSURE EQUITABLE FOOD DISTRIBUTION
Local food systems can play an important role in ensuring equitable and adequate distribution of food to all members of a community. Achieving social justice through food justice and community food programs is an excellent strategy to reducing “food deserts” and for increasing health, well-being and vibrancy of residents within regional foodsheds.
IMPROVE HEALTH & CONNECTION TO LAND & NATURE
Consuming foods grown regionally and within season is the diet that nature intended and is designed to supply us with many of the nutrients we need for health and well-being. These most auspicious foods allow us to take in the “terroir” – or essence – of the land from which they are grown, deepening our connection to the natural systems and cycles of our regional foodshed.
REDUCE POLLUTION & ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION
It also means a healthier environment and a more sustainable planet. As the distance between farm to fork is reduced, so are the greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere as a result of a food system that relies on transporting food great distances from producer to consumer (our industrial agricultural system produces over 30% of the GGE that are the cause of global climate destabilization). Our globalized, industrialized and centralized agricultural system is wreaking havoc on our planet and a return to regionalized, sustainable food systems is the solution.
REDUCE DEPENDENCE ON NON-RENEWABLE FOSSIL FUELS
Buying locally also reduces our dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels like gas and oil, something to give serious consideration to as our global supply of these precious resources is becoming less abundant, harder to extract and more expensive. Fossil fuels are currently so integrated into our food production and distribution systems that it makes folks like Richard Heinburg ask, “What will we eat when the oil runs out?”
Supporting the creative entrepreneurial efforts of our farmers, such as with value-added production, is one of the best ways to achieve sustainable community innovation and long term viability. “Economic viability today demands value-adding, which means on-farm infrastructure,” says Joel Salatin (Flavor Magazine, Dec/Jan 2009).
Supporting the viability of our regional food-based businesses is also an excellent strategy for immediately and positively impacting local sustainable agriculture, farm preservation, farmer profits, food production, socio-economic welfare, community integration and a new generation of farmers. This is important because these are all essential elements of “community food security.”
One of the best venues for getting these products to market is via direct-to-consumer markets such as farmers markets. They are catalysts for what is known as “local living economies” whereby basic needs of a community are produced close to home in ways that are sustainable and don’t harm the environment.
Building local food self-sufficiency is important because the data available on local and global food economies and systems demonstrates that our current model is vulnerable and why a project such as this one is crucial to securing it.
Ensuring the security of our food future is a daunting task. Consequently, the VAFEP focused on two objectives that were built around helping farmers realize their fullest potential by creating new jobs, businesses and revenue streams:
1. Increasing the amount and quality of value-added agriculture in the Virginia Piedmont region.
Assisting farmers in navigating the difficult process of adding value to their farm-grown products has a direct impact on promoting sustainable agriculture. Farmers need to be supported in their efforts to move from crop production agriculture to value-added enterprises. They need hands-on leadership and guidance to walk them through feasibility studies, marketing research, business plan development and in getting their products to market for a fair price. That is why the VAFEP was committed to partnering and networking with those having expertise in these specialized tasks through the informative workshops and a resourceful website.
2. Strengthening direct producer-to-consumer partnerships as a primary vehicle for sales.
Farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer selling venues are one of the most successful modes of food distribution because of the far-reaching effects they have on a community. Local economies are strengthened, local farmers are supported and local communities are galvanized all as a result of them.
The growth in farmers markets has been fueled by increased public interest in knowing where their food is grown, who grew it and how. They want food that has been grown without damaging the environment and are willing to pay a higher price for it.
“We need to get small farmers into the distribution system,” says Rick Schnieders, chief executive of food distributor Sysco. Considering the many obstacles to getting local, healthy foods onto the shelves of supermarket chains, direct-to-consumer sales and farmers markets present a viable solution for ensuring access to healthy food for all members of the community.