Local Food Movement in the New Year – guest blog by Sophie Miller – Serve Louisiana member
As COVID-19 spread across the United States in 2020, we saw increased interest in local food. Grocery shopping became both a health concern, and a timely task, as businesses set capacity limits and reduced store hours in an effort to manage safety. Eating at restaurants was brought to a halt with government restrictions to stop the spread. Many of us opted to purchase food boxes delivered straight to ou doors, rather than increasing unknown risk of COVID by venturing into stores. Some boxes are sourced from local farms, thereby reducing the environmental burdens of long transportation and refrigeration. Also, buying locally simultaneously cycles money back into our own town or city economy. People across the U.S. recognized that they could put dollars back into communities that were struggling from shutdowns during the pandemic. We hope vaccinations will allow people to feel safer going into food stores and other shops soon, but it seems the sudden widespread recognition of just how important local food production is will live on, promoting lasting food systems change.
Prior to 2020, the popularity of locally grown food was increasing. Most people in the U.S. who were financially able, tried to include locally grown foods in their diet, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cited an increase in locally grown food sales even earlier in the 21st century: a jump from $5 billion in 2008 to over $12 billion in 2014. These numbers are promising, and to keep the momentum going, we need to remember why local food is important.
There are significant environmental and health benefits to buying local. Buying from local farms often means fresher food as it isn’t transported far or for long periods of time. Furthermore, developing a relationship between farmers and consumers leads to connections from farm to fork, and the ability for honest discussions about the use (or lack thereof) of pesticides or other farm practices, making people feel more connected to the food on their plates.
A term often used to describe an area with low or no access to fresh food is “food desert.” The prevalence of food deserts are often associated with increased diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and other chronic diet-related illnesses, according to Loyola’s analysis of food insecurity in Louisiana. However, Karen Washington, a New York farmer activist and James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipient recognized that this term is not comprehensive enough to describe disparities in food access. She coined the term “food apartheid,” bringing a wider lens to the table – using the term food apartheid forces us to look at how racism, geography, socioeconomic status, and other factors may play a role in an inequitable food system.
Part of the answer to this broad obstacle is increasing opportunities for urban farming, specifically in communities that experience food apartheid. In Los Angeles, guerrilla gardener Ron Finley is on a quest to convert empty lots into gardens; with the 26 square miles of empty lots, he envisions a wealth of food forests. He wants to inspire his neighbors to essentially print their own money by growing their own food. Despite the abundance of empty lots, buying land from the government can be difficult. A problem urban farmers experience frequently in New Orleans is securing land – an issue we are intimately familiar with at Recirculating Farms. One initiative that our executive director Marianne Cufone has worked on is the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) Growing Green Project. After growing on land for three years, a farmer may have the opportunity to purchase the land, having successfully completed their proposed project. More stable spaces for growing mean more local food – something we need and want!
Land access is not the only impediment to achieving an equitable local food system. According to the LA Food Insecurity Report, we need to incentivize grocery stores to relocate to under-served rural and urban areas, help ood insecure households sign up for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and increase food bank supply of nutritious donations. Even with all of these factors in place, we need to be smart and creative to fully address food insecurity over the long term.
We need a more drastic upheaval of the current food system, because the power in farming still primarily lies with white people. To sustain the local food movement, distribution of land needs to change. Currently, 98% of rural land is owned by white people; we need to shift land ownership to BIPOC farmers. Systemic racism means BIPOC people often don’t have the same resources that more privileged growers might, making the communities affected most by food apartheid and the pandemic have an exponentially more difficult journey to farming. The following will not alone end systemic racism in our food system, but they are instrumental to change: donating land to land trusts for farmers of color and offering free beginning farmer trainings like SPROUT NOLA and Recirculating Farms did earlier this year.
Here in New Orleans, there are many people and organizations sustaining the local food movement. For instance, Crescent City Farmers Market found funding to offer unlimited market match until March 31st – and extended that to purchases through Top Box, ReFresh Market, and us at Recirculating Farms. Programs like this are essential to continue the local food movement momentum. In addition, the mutual aid group, New Orleans Community Fridges, started a community-led network of food aid throughout the city.
The pandemic exposed the gaps in our food system and highlighted food apartheid in primarily lower income neighborhoods and communities of color, demonstrating the intersection of food insecurity, racism, and poverty. The next time you buy local produce, know that your purchase is a form of activism, as we continue to reshape the food system into a more equitable landscape in this new year!