The 2008 Farm Bill provided more support for local and regional agriculture. In 2009, under the leadership of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, the USDA launched its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, with an eye towards doing just that. The list of initiative goals is lengthy, but include promoting, locally and regionally produced and processed foods; expanding access to affordable and fresh food; and demonstrating the explicit connections between food, agriculture, communities and the environment.
Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a USDA-wide effort. It is not a new department, but rather, an effort that seeks to more effectively connect existing USDA departments and work to strengthen local and regional food systems.
We know that demand for local and regional foods is strong. Per USDA statistics, the number of farmers markets has more than tripled in the past 15 years and there are now more than 7,175 around the country. The community supported agriculture (CSA) model has grown from 2 operations in 1986 to more than 4,000 today. Farm-to-school programs have experienced explosive growth, and are now found in 48 states, and total more than 2,200 (per the USDA, there were two such programs in 1996). There are “branding” efforts touting what is produced “locally” (or regionally, or statewide) in each of the 50 states.
These efforts are important: local and regional food efforts are vital to local economies, as they can often provide farmers with a higher share of the food dollar. Local jobs are supported and created in this manner, as money spent at a local business often continues to circulate within the community, creating a multiplier effect. Food dollars are good dollars.
On February 29th, 2012, the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative launched its new COMPASS. The KYF Compass is a digital guide to USDA resources related to local and regional food systems. The KYF Compass organizes the USDA's work on local and regional food systems into seven thematic areas. The Compass provides tools for navigating to learn more about local and regional food systems and projects. The site enables users to secure the most up-to-date information and create interactive scenarios on a variety of topics relating to local and regional food systems, including:
- What local and regional food systems are
- Farm-to-Institution (including Farm-to-School);
- Stewardship and local food;
- Local meat and poultry;
- Healthy food access;
- Careers in agriculture and food systems;
- Case studies; and
- Interactive mapping tools that enable site users to locate USDA-funded local and regional food systems projects in their area (note to researchers: score!).
One of my interests is food access. The site did not fail to satisfy me in this respect. The food environment atlas tool enabled me to construct a spatial overview of the ability of specific communities to access healthy and fresh foods. In very short order, I was able to construct a rough demographic overview of how my county measured up in terms of residents’ access to grocery stores, the prevalence (and growth) of fast food restaurants, etc. This information could then be compared against other communities (or in my case, adjacent counties). This tool, along with other USDA food access tools, will prove invaluable to site users (including social science researchers). The USDA’s Economic Research Service produces some of the most cutting-edge and valuable research in this area; this site makes this information even more accessible now.
The site also provides ways to find out about consumers can more directly connect with producers, a key part of building and sustaining local and regional food economies.
The COMPASS explicitly links food and agriculture, and shows just how interconnected the food system is with the economy, the health of communities, and the larger environment. President Obama recently said, “Local food systems work for America: when we create opportunities for farmers and ranchers, our entire nation reaps the benefit.” The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative continues to grow, to improve and to support this vital sector of our nation’s food system.
Last week, while the market experienced a kind of volatility that had nearly everyone drawing parallels with the Great Depression, I had the privilege of participating in the Western Regional Assembly on Farm-to-School, which was sponsored by Ecotrust. A large group gathered in Portland to share information, develop strategies and network around the issues of good food for schools, institutions and communities.
To many people, farm-to-school, school gardens and attempts to create local food systems are somewhat of a novelty. Here's the line of thinking...Sure, it's important to provide healthier food options to youth, and to teach them about agriculture and the food system...And it's important to try to eat locally sourced foods as much as possible, for many reasons...But mostly, these activities lie largely outside of the "big-E" economic system. They are simply too small in scale to make much of an impact.
What I learned last week about this topic shifted my thinking in fundamental ways. Local food systems - including farm-to-school programs - can mean real money for local farmers, local food processors and local/state economies.
And the state of Montana has an excellent model for this.
Mary Stein, who is on the faculty of Montana State University, shared information about what's going on in Montana in terms of needs and opportunities. She described an area of acute poverty that has developed on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains, and in reservation counties. I did some of my own research over the weekend and was astounded to learn that some of the poorest counties in the United States are in Montana. Rural residents have been struggling there for years. In one county, the new jobs created in the last six-seven years numbered 42. Sure these are small counties, but these figures represent poor economic health and growth. History repeating itself? Perhaps. While 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression for Main Street America, rural residents had been struggling for nearly ten years prior to that, since the conclusion of WWI. And too often, rural struggles go unnoticed in America.
Through the 1950s, Montana produced about 70% of the food its residents consumed. That figure has fallen to 10%, and the state is perilously - I would argue dangerously - dependent upon food that is shipped in, much of it via trucks. A frequent observation is that Montana is one truck driver strike away from food insecurity.
Like many other states, Montana's attempts to recreate a more locally sustainable food system have been hampered because of the loss of nearly all the food processing infrastructure in the last fifty years. When we created a meta/mega food system in America, one of the casualties was local processing.
Montana has become a commodity-based agricultural system, producing mostly grains and beef cattle that are shipped out of state for processing and distribution. Ironically, Montanans probably re-import processed grains and meat that they produced.
It's not just a lack of processing infrastructure that hampers the effort to eat more locally sourced foods. It is also federal school lunch policy. "With the way the commodities programs are currently structured, there is a massive barrier for K-12 schools to source these commodity products locally," MSU's Stein says. "Montana is a beef state, and yet it's almost impossible for our schools to access locally-produced beef, because districts can't specify local beef within the federal commodities program." Nor can they get cash in lieu of commodities to buy local beef.
Grow Montana seeks to change this food system and revitalize the state's economy. Grow Montana is a broad-based coalition whose purpose is "to promote community economic development policies that support sustainable Montana-owned food production, processing, and distribution, and that improve all of our citizens' access to Montana foods." The coalition is coordinated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, which is based in Butte, Montana, and which is also one of the coalition's partners.
Grow Montana Director Nancy Matheson says of their model, "We're looking to use the local food movement as a way to transform and revitalize Montana's economy, specifically the rural economy." She is particularly interested in hearing from others who are working on topics central to rural food systems and economic transformation.
Grow Montana works on multiple levels. It encourages conversations with communities, entrepreneurs, farmers and ranchers, identifying needs and opportunities. Matheson says, "The message is coming from the grassroots, and we take it on a collective basis to the state level." And Grow Montana's policy work is having real economic impacts, because its members recognize the real opportunities that exist. Unlocking the Food Buying Potential of Montana’s Public Institutions - Towards a Montana-based Food Economy is a study that provides information about one Grow Montana strategy that impacts farm-to-school programs, and could inform this work elsewhere.
On the ground, Grow Montana's work is equally impressive. The organization uses a FoodCorps to accomplish vital economic and human goals. FoodCorps members - VISTA volunteers - deploy to create and develop farm to cafeteria programs in local schools and colleges. Through these programs, K-12 schools and colleges buy locally-grown food. This strengthens Montana’s agricultural economy, while also serving healthy and delicious food to youth.
The FoodCorps work is coordinated by Crissie McMullan, who traveled with this year's FoodCorps (hundreds of miles via a van) to the Western Regional Assembly in Portland. One of the real "goose bump" moments at the gathering was when the Montana delegation was asked to stand. These incredible young volunteers - who are doing such important and ground-breaking work in sustainable food systems - earned an enormous and sustained round of applause.
Per Grow Montana Director Matheson, FoodCorps also enables the larger organization to "develop strategies that we can test in the real world, on the ground...strategies that inform our policy work." Food Corps volunteers track statistics about the amount and value of local food purchased for their programs; valuable information is being gained. And dollars are staying in Montana because of the program. The economic impact is real.
In honor of the Montana program, which provides a unique model we ought to consider - and which has inspired me enormously - I'm including their tagline with the Victory Grower tagline.
"Montana Food for Montanans"
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Yet another example of why we need to seriously reconsider our nation's food policy has emerged. Recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissioned an analysis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Child Nutrition Commodity Program (CNCP), and how that program impacts the nutritional quality of school breakfasts and lunches.
The policy analysis, produced by California Food Policy Advocates and Samuels and Associates, focuses mostly on California, but its authors argue that it has "relevance to other states and the nation." I agree.
A little background: the USDA coordinates the distribution of commodities to more than 94,000 public and private nonprofit schools that provide meals to students. These programs support American agricultural producers by providing cash reimbursements for meals served in schools and other institutions serving children across the nation. The rationale for these programs is a worthy one, and goes back to early in the Great Depression, when surplus agricultural products were destroyed as millions of Americans went hungry, justifiably causing outrage. The development of federal policies to purchase agricultural surplus for distribution to hungry and underserved citizens solved multiple problems in Depression-era America, and beyond. It was progressive public policy for the time and is a key component of today's federal feeding programs.
What this most recent analysis finds is that many of the foods ordered by school districts fail to meet nutritional standards, because of the "processing" that occurs prior to the commodities being delivered to schools. This processing increases fat, sugar and sodium levels in these foods. The result: many commodity foods have about the same nutritional value as junk foods by the time they reach students. In a nation struggling with an epidemic of childhood obesity, this isn't good policy.
Taken directly from the analysis (available free-of-charge, via this link) are some key findings and recommendations, which I've italicized and included below:
Nationally, more than 50 percent of commodity foods are sent to processors (i.e., fat, sugar, and sodium added to foods) before they are sent to schools. Processing is not regulated for nutritional quality and often involves adding fat, sugar and sodium to commodity products.
California school districts used more than 82 percent of their commodity funds to purchase meat and cheese. They spent only 13 percent of their funds on fruits and vegetables.
There is little alignment between what California schools bought in federal commodity foods and what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people eat daily.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans should be reflected in School Meal Initiative Standards, and schools should have to meet them. Efforts to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables and decrease the amount of meats and processed foods purchased for school meals would contribute to providing students with much healthier foods."
I couldn't agree more.
This week, I'll be joining others who are active in the movement to improve the quality of school lunches at the Western United States Assembly on Farm-to-School, being held in Portland. It's sponsored by EcoTrust, and there is enormous excitement among those attending about the opportunity to gather, and to learn about the best models and practices in this field. I am looking forward to sharing what I learn in future postings.
An historical footnote: There is an incredible body of fine art and photography showing deprivation in America during the Great Depression, much of it produced by WPA artists. One of the most haunting pieces is a work entitled Lunch Hour. These pieces of art document a difficult period in American life. To me, they also serve as a reminder that many of the basic public policies and fundamental premises that shape our daily lives in America were crafted during the Great Depression. The Great Depression began for most Americans nearly eighty years ago, in 1929 (although a depression started in the agricultural sector nearly ten years earlier, post-World War I). These policies, which we know as the New Deal, represented a dramatic restructuring of American life that gave subsequent generations - us - very different expectations and experiences than our grandparents and great-grandparents had. This is all leading up to a big question:
Is it time for a New New Deal vis-a-vis the food system?
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Like thousands of other schools across the nation, Cabrillo Middle School opened its doors last week. The return to school presents challenges, including busier schedules. But it also provides an opportunity to rethink food choices and particularly, school lunches.
Here in Ventura, we live in the best of worlds. Our school district has farm-fresh salad bars in each of its seventeen schools. In addition, we live in an area that produces fruits and vegetables year round. Simply drive a couple of miles from mid-town Ventura, and you're at a farmer's stand; we also have two great farmers markets, one during the week. In addition, we have several excellent Community Supported/Sustained Agricultural (CSA) options.
My daughter, Natalie, has always liked to take her lunch to school. Last year, she expressed concern about the amount of trash generated in the typical school lunch. Together, we found plastic bento boxes on line, and have happily used those. This year, Natalie's work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has provided a different focus for her: ways to create appealing, satisfying and healthful lunches. In the past, Natalie has been mostly content to let me pack her lunch; now, she wants to be intimately involved in the process. The seemingly simple act of lunch-making has provided daily opportunities to discuss nutrition, menu-planning, decision-making and a whole range of social justice issues around food.
Some wonderful items made their way into Natalie's lunchbox last week. Using produce from our CSA box, she crafted delicate cucumber sandwiches for the first day back at school. They were so wonderful that as an encore, she made them for us to have as a snack with a cup of tea later that day. It was a treat to have my child, now taller than me, take such care to create something healthy and delicious for us to eat together.
I'm not the only one with school lunches on my mind. In mid-September, I'll be traveling to Portland, Oregon to participate in a gathering of other professionals from the western United States who are also concerned about school lunches. Hosted by EcoTrust, this Assembly will focus on making positive changes in the school food environment. Not just for our own children, but for the children in the communities in which we live.
Today's world is full of extremes. There is an epidemic of childhood obesity in our country that has long-term consequences for our health system and our economy. Too much food in some cases, and not the right kinds of food. (My last blog entry discusses some issues relating to childhood obesity in Los Angeles County).
In contrast, today's Los Angeles Times features an article about India's crisis: childhood malnutrition. According to the article, half of that nation's youngest children are malnourished, with entirely inadequate access to a proper amount and - in many cases - the proper kinds of food. The figures in the article - and the implications for all of us - are staggering. In some ways, the situation seems hopeless. There is simply not the collective will to solve these problems.
As I plan a week's lunches with my daughter, we're faced with many decisions about what to eat. We have the luxury to be able to make choices, hopefully, most of them responsible.
And it makes me realize that one of the ways to solve the large, seemingly intractable problems that plague our world is to take small and deliberate actions to improve the territory in our immediate vicinity. Pack a nutritious meal for the children in your care. Become more informed about childhood nutrition and food policy (a great blog on this topic, Caroline's Lunchbox, is written by Dr. Betty Izumi). If you want mostly healthy snack ideas from a 12 year old, visit http://natalies12.wordpress.com/).
In your community, lobby for a healthier food environment in schools and in youth organizations. If it's your turn to bring a snack, skip the cupcakes and provide fruit. At the national level, write your political leaders and request more funding for fruits and vegetables in federally-supported nutrition programs. And request more aid to help other nations in food crisis...because the food security of all children is of vital importance to our collective future as citizens of the world.
And consider being really upstream in your thinking by producing some of what you eat. Participate in a gardening effort, whether at home, at a local school or someplace in the community. While your gardening efforts may seem small and insignificant, they may provide something miraculous for a child's lunchbox, and in the process, may also feed your soul.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."