Take One Step Forward – Building Local and Regional Food Systems

Wendell Berry has inspired millions of farmers and farm advocates with his assertion that “eating is an agricultural act.” Food advocates and activists today are taking that further and showing that eating is also a political act. We can reclaim personal agency and power from the dominant system of corporate food production, by building and supporting local and regional food systems that give us choices about the kind of food we eat, where it comes from, and whose prosperity our food dollars help to create.

It is well-documented that local sales put more money in the farmer’s pocket. When farmers and food producers do well, they create local jobs, generate local taxes, and reinvest their proceeds in services they buy from others in our community. Local money recirculating in local communities contributes to both community self-reliance and sustainability. It’s kind of like the old rural tradition of barn-raising or the not-quite-so-old urban tradition of rent parties, except easier and with more in it for us.

Surveys and studies show that farmers selling directly to consumers retain from 40 percent to as much as 75 percent of the food dollar, versus just 15.6 percent in the corporate food chain. Not only is selling high-quality food locally a better economic model for many farmers, it gives them the freedom to grow crops that have superior flavor and offer more biodiversity, rather than the handful of varieties that can withstand cross-country travel and meet grocery store size and shape guidelines. We eaters benefit from the pleasure of tasting fresh, delicious and unusual foods in season.

When we buy from farmers and patronize restaurants and retailers who sell locally grown food, we also support a growing network of agricultural suppliers, local food aggregators, meat processors and butchers, and other related businesses. Farmers markets offer a low-cost venue for incubating food businesses, like makers of jam and candy, baked goods, pickles, and ferments. Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are essentially a form of crowdfunding for small farms without access to traditional forms of financing, making consumers direct investors in the farm that grows their food.

Local and regional food systems can offer solutions for neighborhoods where low-income residents, both urban and rural, and people of color have been neglected by grocery stores. The development of new farms, cooperative food stores and food businesses, owned by residents of local communities, reconnects people to food production as an economic driver, and to food as a source of community well-being.

In The Chesapeake Table: Your Guide to Eating Local, I show readers how the locally based food system in the states of the lower Chesapeake Bay watershed is growing, some of the issues it has worked through in the last ten years, and what could be on the horizon. But most importantly, I give readers quick options for stepping in and becoming a part of this system. We can all find ways to buy and eat local food, and we can go further in terms of investing in or advocating for local food as well. One step from everyone, and we all move forward together.

Renee Brooks Catacalos is on the Steering Team for the Chesapeake Foodshed Network, an initiative working to build a sustainable, resilient, inclusive, and equitable regional food system in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. She is the former publisher of Edible Chesapeake magazine, served as deputy director for Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, and is currently the executive director of the American Institute of Architects Potomac Valley Chapter. She is the author of The Chesapeake Table: Your Guide to Eating Local.

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