Lots of things are described as a “system.” There is a medical system, a circulatory system, a court system, a solar system, a computer operating system and a school system just for starters. One of the systems that has made the news lately is the food system. Based on the news, it seems more like chaos than a system, but like all systems, the food system has many moving parts. Maybe it would be better described as a complex web.
A “linear” food system would be one that grows food and feeds people — period. But there is more to it than that. This web of activities is so much more intricate than a simple system for feeding humans. The food system is comprised of farmers or producers, consumers, processors, marketers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. It includes people who work in education, policy, social services, research, political advocates, entrepreneurs and regulators. It is a system that reacts to what is desired but also shapes by design that which we desire.
One small piece of this huge and wildly complicated system is the local food system. The local food system exists within the “larger” food system. There is quite a bit of food that is grown by our neighbors. But what they grow and how we gain access to it depends on us — the buyer. Unless the local community finds value in the work or product of our community farmers we may choose to buy distant food from large chain stores. After all, it may be cheaper and more convenient to stop by a box store than to buy from a farmers market, Community Supported Agriculture share, road stand or local farmer. But, what are the hidden costs for that convenience? Conversely, what are the hidden benefits to buying local?
Consider the benefits of a two-tier system. We have just witnessed cracks in the global and national food system — a machine that typically works with miraculously efficiency bringing diverse and affordable food to our stores. But that feat takes many people and many interactions all working in a unified and orderly sequence to find you. Uh-oh, COVID-19 just knocked out some of those systems and food, while still in abundance the food is derailed from our grocery shelves. There is no lack of meat, milk or other commodity but still, we see the absence. So, we turn to our local system. Our neighbor farmers and growers are registering a banner response from the public. Folks are buying their eggs, meats, locally produced and processed dairy and soon, vegetables, fruits and specialty items like mushrooms.
A strong local food system can feed a community. If backyard Victory Gardens during WWII could feed 40% of the nation’s need for vegetables, our community can potentially supply a significant amount of our meat, vegetables, fruits, eggs, honey, dairy and other products.
There will always be foods we cannot supply locally. It is unlikely that we can affordably enjoy local strawberries in January or oranges ever. We have constraints of weather, seasons and infrastructure. But we can build our capacity to grow more food locally and be more self-sustaining, especially during challenging times, if we flex that muscle.
To support local, we must do just that — participate by buying. Otherwise producers cannot grow or develop the infrastructure needed to meet demand and protect our food supply nationally and locally.
Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and the agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson county. Contact her at 315-788-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.