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Planning a sustainable, accessible and local food system

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ITHACA, NY — Taking a deep look at a plate of food might mean retracing the winding journey each piece took to get there, thinking of the multitudes of people who find nutritious food unaffordable or totally unavailable, or trying to count the many hands that have played. a role in the work of culture. Exercise can be dizzying and perhaps seem a little out of place for a hungry stomach.

But it does help illustrate the broad definition of the term “food system,” which is the complex web of systems and infrastructure involved in feeding people: the farms where food is grown or livestock raised; the facilities where food is packaged; the vehicles that transport it; grocery stores and food stores; and how food waste is handled.

The big question of how people are fed is underpinned by complex systems and big implications for the environment, health, economy and the functioning of communities. Although the elements of a food system typically extend far beyond the borders of a city or region, a growing movement to address intersectional issues through the localization and regionalization of food systems has made national progress and is seeing new growth germinate in Tompkins County.

The project is known as Tompkins Food Future (TFF) and originates from the Food Policy Council of Tompkins County, a citizens’ rights advocacy group. There are many names involved in the advice and development of TFF, but two figures at the center of the work are Don Barber, president of the Food Policy Council, and Katie Hallas, the community food system plan coordinator.

“What’s exciting about this project, and also exciting, is that when we think about stakeholders, it’s really everyone in our community,” said Hallas. “We are all eaters. it’s something we make decisions about several times a day.

The Food Policy Council was formed in 2016 with the goal of making Tompkins County’s food system more sustainable, fair, healthy and affordable. With funding from the Tompkins County Legislature and the Tompkins County Community Foundation, Tompkins Food Future was launched in February 2020.

The planning process is now nearing the end of “Phase 1,” which is meant to be an assessment of the current challenges and opportunities for the food system as it is in Tompkins County. To develop this benchmark, the Food Policy Council wanted to emphasize a strong element of community engagement for ‘plausible’ about the inferences the board might be able to make from reliable data sets from sources. such as the USDA.

The Food Policy Council toured presenting its preliminary findings to representatives of the Tompkins County Legislature, as well as community gatherings where they gathered public comment on what they would like to see. in a food system. They shared the obstacles and opportunities they identified and tried to incorporate public feedback to shape the plan they are developing.

The council aims to publish full reports by the end of the year on its findings before moving on to developing the food system action plan, which it aims to present to the county legislature in May 2022.

Credit: Jimmy jordan

Early findings from the Food Policy Council show that of Tompkins County’s 523 farms, 94 percent are dedicated to producing animal feed. About 75 percent of them have less than 180 acres, which has led the Food Policy Council to classify them as small farms. According to the USDA, the average farm size in 2020 in the United States was around 444 acres.

Barber said most of the food grown in the county stays in the municipality, going to a few large dairy and beef farms that are mostly found in the northern part of Tompkins. But it looks like a lot of these feed farms are failing.

About 70 percent of the county’s farms sell less than $ 40,000 in agricultural products per year. The Food Policy Council found that 55 percent of the county’s farms report net losses.

One of the main points that the Council wishes to make is that the localization of aspects of a food system, such as the production and distribution of food, presents an opportunity for economic development.

“We have a great climate and we have a lot of land that is still available to grow food. And so we have the resources available, and we’re not taking advantage of them, ”Barber said.

In its baseline assessment, the Food Policy Council estimated the total market value of agricultural products produced in the county to be around $ 65 million. It is not known how much of this money leaves the county. The Council said the large food companies operating in Tompkins would not share the information they need to accurately calculate those numbers.

The Council found that only about 19 percent of farms were selling direct to Tompkins consumers, an indication of what Barber and Hallas called a robust local farming scene, but one that has room for growth.

While the Food Policy Council is in the early stages of policy and planning thinking, Barber and Hallas said tapping into the purchasing power of institutions was a promising idea to catalyze the growth of farmers and food producers. local.

“If you look at the major institutions in our community – public schools, higher education, hospitals, care facilities for the elderly – that equates to something like almost half of the population fed in these places,” Hallas said. “There is just a huge opportunity to unlock that purchasing power.”

The Food Policy Council has also identified a number of barriers to the growth of their businesses by farmers. The development of value-added products, such as pickles, jams and hot sauces, is prohibitively expensive due to limited access to facilities, technical and regulatory expertise. These types of businesses “extend the season” and lengthen the period during which farmers can sell their produce throughout the year. The council also noted the lack of incentives for small and medium-sized farms to sell to grocers, like Wegmans or Tops, who require large volumes of food from their producers and are not as flexible with seasonal crops.

Barber pointed out that in local financial institutions he has seen a decrease in expertise in the small and medium-scale agriculture sector, which he says makes it difficult for young farmers to obtain suitable loans. to their businesses. The Food Policy Council has found that the average age of farmers in Tompkins County is over 56 years old.

These kinds of obstacles are all about investment and effective planning, said Barber.

“If we can make food a priority, then I think we need to get economic enablers to spend more time with it. “

“Food is something that kind of happens. We weren’t intentional and we have to change the way we think at all levels, ”said Barber. “We are more than willing to invest money in bridges. How about a food system? “

An integral part of the Food Policy Council’s mission to locate county food systems is to improve access to healthy food within the community. The Food Policy Council presented in its baseline assessment that 11.6 percent of Tompkins residents are food insecure, which, as defined by the USDA, means “an economic and social condition at the community level. household of limited or uncertain access to adequate food “. Tompkins’ trends exceed national rates of food insecurity, which the USDA said accounted for 10.5 percent of households.

Tompkins County, while far from national averages, also struggles with obesity. The council said 24 percent of Tompkins residents are obese and 12 percent of Tompkins children are obese. The impacts obesity can have on an individual’s health are innumerable and are linked to many of the leading causes of death in the United States, such as heart disease and certain types of cancer.

The Food Policy Council found that SNAP benefits are not used by 62% of residents eligible for enrollment, and that a third of Tompkins’ food insecure residents are not eligible for federal assistance. The council has identified that increasing access to healthy food is the highest priority shared by members of the Tompkins County community.

“We are the only developed country with such a big problem of hunger and food insecurity,” Hallas said. “And at the same time, we have this problem of food waste.”

Somewhere in between 30 and 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted. Hallas called the three conditions of food insecurity, health problems and high volume of waste an “American paradox” and one of the intersections of issues around which the Food Policy Council will seek to plan.

“Since these three conditions are so closely related, what can we do to resolve each of them through solutions that address these three problems,” said Hallas.

Perhaps the most relevant benefit of a more localized food system is the insulation it can provide against supply chain imbalances. The COVID-19 pandemic has created barriers to access and shortages in the supply of food and other goods, demonstrating the problems that the United Nations and others are supporting are inevitable with the devastating effects of climate change.

“The pandemic has made it all so real to all of us,” Barber said. “It is not an abstract thought. It really happened to us. It still happens to us.

Barber and Hallas said that as they prepare to develop policies and plans to present to the Tompkins County Legislature in May, they intend to shed light on the benefits that the location of the the county’s food system can contribute to the fight against climate change.

“It’s a public health issue as much as an environmental issue as much as an economic issue,” Barber said. “It covers all aspects of our life. “