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Local Food and the Emerging Economy

Insights + Opinion

Brad Masi

My first foray into local food systems work occurred about 20 years ago when I was a student at Oberlin College enrolled in an introductory environmental studies course. The professor split the class into several groups, each of which had to examine a daily activity of campus life, trace out the extended environmental impacts and then develop a sustainable alternative. Our group focused on the college dining systems. Excited about our class mandate, our group delved into one of the dining cooperatives on campus and decided to trace the environmental impacts of one meal. We wanted to map out where the ingredients from one meal came from and how the production and distribution of those ingredients impacted the environment. We quickly realized how difficult this assignment actually was. We could trace most of our ingredients to a distributor, but could find no information about who actually produced it or where it actually came from.

Overwhelmed by the complexity of tracing just one meal, we decided to focus on one food item that was consumed regularly and popular with just about everyone—apples. We determined that the coops were getting most of their apples from New Zealand in a box that was labeled “jet fresh.” We quickly honed in on the ecological impacts of consuming apples that were flown half way across the world to our co-op. Perhaps even more surprising, within a stones throw of the Oberlin campus, there was an abundance of multi-generational apple orchards dotting the old sandy beach ridges of Lake Erie’s ancestral lakes. We wondered why it was easier for apples to be brought in on jets than to be delivered from farms just down the road. It revealed to us just how globalized our food system had become and the increasing difficulty that farmers had accessing markets down the streets from their farms.

Thus, Oberlin’s local food initiative was born. After the class, a group of students continued to work through the co-ops to shift our purchasing to these local family orchards. Not only did the apples taste better, but we began building relationships with the farm families that produced these apples. My college experience was greatly enhanced by connecting with these local farms and realizing that a simple shift in purchasing allowed us to keep our dollars in the local economy while reducing the carbon being emitted to transport it from the other side of the planet. We were pleased that our efforts that first year directed about $10,000 of purchasing to these local farmers.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but our initiative was an act of social entrepreneurship. Many of the pieces needed for a sustainable local food economy already existed within our community. We just had to take some extra time to make those connections, work out logistics, and, over time, find other food ingredients that we could substitute in a similar manner.

Fast forward to today. Oberlin College spends almost a million dollars between the student cooperatives and college dining services. This same story has been repeated in communities throughout Northeast Ohio and the U.S.

A theme common to all of these local food initiatives is the extent to which they leverage already existing assets within communities and connect them in new and innovative ways.

Consider the growth of local farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs. Most of these efforts connect urban neighborhoods with farmers in the surrounding rural areas. The neighborhoods create the spaces and networks with farmers and keep the food dollars circulating in the local food economy.

Many Great Lakes cities, including Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo are utilizing the abundance of vacant lots to create food access in communities that have lost grocery stores and lack outlets for healthy foods. The vacant lots flip from community liabilities attracting litter and abandoned cars to thriving assets that process food waste into topsoil, feed people, connect communities and provide new entrepreneurial opportunities for everyone from youth to retirees.

Many communities contain empty buildings and abandoned commercial storefronts. These spaces are being converted into retail local food cooperatives, aggregation points for local food distribution or value-added processing kitchens.

Farms, both in cities and in the country, are increasingly utilized as ways to turn waste streams into productive assets, including utilization of waste vegetable oil to run farm equipment or delivery trucks, composting of food and other farm wastes to create topsoil, and conversion of manure into energy through bio-digestion.

Farms are increasingly being looked at as part of a regional effort to reduce carbon emissions. A well-organized and efficient local food system requires much less energy to transport and store food items, and soil can become an effective place to sequester carbon. In fact, sequestering carbon in agricultural soils not only reduces the carbon load in the atmosphere, but it increases soil fertility, tilth, and water storage and retention.

We live in a volatile time. We see the emerging results of an increasingly chaotic climate, from simultaneous record flooding and record drought to record outbreaks of extreme weather events. People are finding themselves in increasingly precarious economic situations, losing homes, businesses, savings and lacking the capital to initiate new ventures.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has begun to shift the national conversation, as people increasingly feel victimized by economic and political forces remote from their immediate control.

The growth of local food economies throughout the nation reveals one counter-balance to this trend where communities take stock of their own assets, from empty buildings and land to new relationships between rural and urban communities, and begin to grow a new economy rooted in social equity and the stewardship of the land. The Occupy Wall Street initiative is about many things to many people. Fundamentally, it is about how we can begin to wrestle control back over our own economic destinies in ways that do not liquidate our communities' soils and natural systems upon which we depend.

While the Occupy Wall Street movement has shifted the national conversation in some important ways, the real work ahead involves large-scale reinvestment in our own communities and regions. Can we begin to create models for local stock markets or community investment portfolios that leverage all forms of local capital, including money, time or under-utilized assets? Can we look to these mechanisms to begin to generate the local wealth and value needed to create truly regenerative economic systems that nurture instead of exploit life?

Just as my experience in Oberlin revealed, we have more power than we think. We just need to take a close look at what’s around us and begin with the assets that already exist within our own communities. Many communities are nurturing these assets and creating new connections and networks within and between communities. Through this work, an economy rooted in community and healthy ecosystems is beginning to emerge.

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