Why can’t local leaders make local food systems work?
I’ve come to the conclusion that improving our local food system requires regional strategies. Most of our governmental processes for economic development are too narrowly focused. We’ve carved the world up into little pieces, and prefer working toward solutions to chronic problems from our own little point of view.
Urban populations have declined. Remaining residents are saddled with brownfields and high infrastructure maintenance costs. While the Detroit metropolitan area has a nation-high unemployment rate of 6.9 percent (U.S. Census, 2007) some pockets have double-digit chronic unemployment. Urban leaders keep looking to urban industries for solutions they cannot deliver.
Rural communities have been awash in agricultural commodities. Most of the past ten years have required local farm businesses to sell harvested goods below costs of production. Budget deficits in farm businesses have been covered by tapping into farm business equity built up over generations of family ownership, or by drawing on off-farm incomes. Farm financial problems stem from our failure to convert commodities into higher-value consumer goods. Rather than selling products directly to consumers for retail prices, farms have sold goods by the truckload into global commodity markets. Rather than processing fruits and vegetable into shelf-ready products, we have shipped fresh produce by truck or rail to other states. While we’ve known about technologies that convert grains and forages into fuels and industrial fibers, we have chosen to ramp up demand for petroleum by making it the single source for industrial growth.
Imagine a food system where chronic problems of urban and rural communities are resolved through collaboration. Chronically unemployed urban workers are deployed to convert commodities into consumer goods. Processing facilities are built on reclaimed brownfields rather than on greenfields suited for agricultural production. Our excuses for importing migrant laborers to complete farm work, or shipping agricultural commodities out of the region for processing used to be our high regional labor costs and land values. Now that property values have undergone a correction and wages have been renegotiated to more competitive levels, new possibilities have arisen for making our regional food system more sustainable.