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Food Systems and Food Justice in West Michigan

May 17, 2010

On Saturday about 20 people spent the morning discussing food justice and food policy at a forum hosted by the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council (GGRFSC). The intent of the 3-hour gathering was to share a summary of 5 separate “white papers” on different aspects of food justice & food policy and then see what direction people wanted to go in from there.

The first presenters were Christy Mello & Lisa Oliver King from Our Kitchen Table (OKT). OKT takes a food justice approach to food security. Food Justice is not so much an economic development issue, rather the emphasis is on changing the current system that makes food more accessible for people and makes food a right, not a commodity.

Their Food Diversity Project is a result of a grant that was obtained by the GGRFSC in 2008 with the intent of encouraging people to grow their food in the long-term and in a sustainable manner. Right now OKT has about 45 gardeners who are participating in the project, which includes growing food in an urban context, food sharing, canning, and seed saving. The OKT analysis advocates greater neighborhood self-reliance and urban bio-diversity.

Cynthia Price with GGRFSC presented next on the topic of urban agriculture. Her focus was on reintegrating agriculture for sustainable living through land use and municipal planning. “How important is it to have long term urban planning that incorporates urban agriculture?” Price asks. She also touched on another paper, which focused on local food and health, specifically the health benefits of eating locally. For instance, foods that are harvested and shipped long distance tend to lose some of their nutrient value.

Tom Cary, a local farmer and organizer with GGRFSC, spoke last and mostly focused on the economic impact of a local food system. The US is currently a net food importer, which is not a position the US can afford to maintain, according to Cary. The other part of the problem of being a food importer is that the food we import is under the control of large multi-national corporations, which means we have little say in the process of food production. However, Cary argues in his paper that we have some buying power through the choices we make in what we purchase.

Some of this effort to influence how food is produced and distributed is reflected in the increase of new farmers, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers markets and local restaurants purchasing local produce. However, Tom said that this shift in food production and consumption still only represents about 5% of the food that people in the US consume.

Tom also mentions the disparity of what famers can earn based on the current model. In Allegan County the average farmer with 50 acres or more makes around $20,000 on average. A new farm of 4-6 acres for example, makes about $60,000 a year because the food production is more diverse and is focused on local distribution.

After hearing the presenters, everyone else in attendance introduced themselves and talked about their interests in food security, food justice and food policy. The group then decided to discuss all of the themes addressed in the white papers, instead of breaking into small groups having different discussions.

The group conversation centered around food systems with subcategories such as food justice, urban agriculture, locally grown food, the food economy and food policy & land use. The group also pointed out the importance of identifying the threats or obstacles to achieving a just food system.

Here is a partial list of all the other issues raised by the group that would are all part of the larger food systems theme: healthy food literacy, reclaiming the commons, countering the privatization of land, Government support of agribusiness, government subsidies, the lack of a government department of food, the global impact of food production on the local level, poverty, health of the soil, political power of agribusiness, the true cost of food, GMOs, diversifying local foods, affordability, hoop houses, the importance of a corporate power analysis, the need to treat people with dignity, culturally relevant food, media literacy with corporate food advertising, food co-ops, food charity organizations, urban fruit & nut trees, food waste, edible landscaping, the Farm Bill, transitional food systems, the amount of money being spent on the military industrial complex, adopting a Cuban urban ag model, and the importance of finding ways to support local small farmers who are committed to a local food system.

At the end of the morning the group decided that it would be good to have a follow up meeting soon for further discussion and to identify clear action steps to be taken at the local level. Someone also suggested that it would be good to attend the OKT Food Summit on June 10, since there would be discussion on what people are doing locally and what ways people could support each other’s work around food justice.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2010 1:21 am

    What an interesting forum you put together. I love this method of civil discourse and think it’s wonderful that you’ve chosen food as your topic. Wish I was closer but keep up the good work.

  2. May 17, 2010 5:01 pm

    Thank you, Tammy! and thank you Jeff for covering the forum.

    Just wanted to make a minor correction, admittedly it was confusing because my little section of the presentation covered two other papers on behalf of their absent authors. The primary focus of the urban agriculture paper I wrote, which I will attempt to send so it can be linked as soon as I can, was on creating community self-reliance through a focus on growing one’s own food. My paper focuses mostly on the social and environmental benefits of urban agriculture, with a nod to community-based entrepreneurial endeavor.

    The other paper about sustainable land use actually did focus quite a bit on urban agriculture, but it was mainly a plea for municipal planners to include food when they plan for their communities, specifically, sustainably raised food that doesn’t interfere with ecosystem function. That paper was written by Andy Bowman, and includes a matrix of the different agriculture and land use policies of all the cities and townships in Kent County.

    Our thanks also to everyone who came out for the forum. Giving up a whole Saturday morning was a sacrifice, and we hope in the future to make participation as easy as possible. We’ll keep you posted!

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 17, 2010 6:05 pm

    What would a Cuban urban agricultural model look like?

  4. Jeff Smith permalink*
    May 17, 2010 6:17 pm

    After the Soviet Union collapsed Cuba could no longer get oil and had to re-adopt a sustainable form of agriculture. The government also began to allocate huge plots of urban land in cities like Havana for urban agriculture that has done amazing things. The Cuban model has been documented in the film “The Power of Community.”

    The Bloom Collective has a copy if you ever wanted to check it out.

  5. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 17, 2010 6:36 pm

    Thanks, Jeff. So it sounds like in order to effect a model like that here, government cooperation would be necessary, for both land and funding; something on the order, or larger-scale, than a parks & recreation program.

    It does seem at at this time, in the current economy, a case could be made for the sense of such a government-community cooperative effort, when so many people are lacking access to basic nutrition and food security.

  6. Jeff Smith permalink*
    May 17, 2010 6:38 pm

    I agree and think that if we are serious about having a just food system a redistribution of land for urban ag is essential, land that would be held in the commons, not for profit.


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