The big plan for local food's future

Image a MidSouth where local farmers make a living feeding their own community and healthy produce is accessible to people of all income levels. That is now a dream with a pathway to reality thanks to the MidSouth Regional Food System Assessment, a big picture study released last month that lays out a 20 year plan to grow the local food economy and food access.
 
There are more than 4.2 million acres of farmland in the MidSouth. In Memphis, of 77 low-income neighborhoods, only seven have access to full service supermarkets, and the city has been rated the most food insecure major city in the U.S., according to a 2010 Gallup poll.
 
Recently the Food Advisory Council (FAC) of Memphis and Shelby County, in partnership with organizations and stakeholders in the tri-state area, took some big picture steps to understand this gap, along with other disparities related to the local food system, and hopefully true some of these misalignments.
 
The ability to study the food system came from convenient budget excess. Leveraging unused funds from its HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant (the funds that made the MidSouth Greenprint plan possible), the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability in conjunction with the FAC joined forces with the East Arkansas Planning and Development office. The Arkansas office also had funds from a regional planning grant, and by pooling their resources they were able to conduct the first MidSouth Regional Food Assessment.
 
“We realized we don’t have any research, document, or report about our food system. We don’t understand the geographic extent of our food system, how big it is, or who is participating,” said Andrew Trippel, who participated in the assessment and is Co-Chair of the Urban Land Institute’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative. “We got together to try to figure out what ideas were worth pursuing, what to do with the capacity we already have, and which ones we could actually do something on. It was interesting, because this group really wanted do something they could take action on.”
 
“We’re now looking at a 20 year vision and have set strategies for how we can address our local food system in terms of creating better access to locally grown foods, building the region agriculturally and economically, and ensuring our local food system is environmentally sustainable,” Memphis Shelby County Office of Sustainability John Zeanah said.
 
Zeanah, Trippel and a group of close to a dozen other organizations from Memphis, Tennessee and Mississippi first gathered last fall and submitted a request for proposal in November, with the study kicking off in January of this year with the assistance of Bush Consulting Group in Cleveland.
 
“Bush are economic consultants out of Cleveland who had just recently done a food study in Northeast Ohio around Cleveland, and it was a really good model of what we wanted look at,” Zeanah said of the choice.
 
The assessment was completed and released in July.
 
“It involved a variety of perspectives — community resiliency, sustainability, economic development, job development, higher and better use lands, food access,” Trippel said. “We took a market-based approach to better understand the supply and demand side of our local food system, which may be different than what others have done, but it was what we needed to do.”
 
The production versus access discrepancy stood in the forefront of their discoveries.
Their initial set of findings revealed a high concentration of commodities, such as corn and soybeans, with fewer than 2,000 acres out of 4.2 million, or .05 percent, of farmland used for specialty produce, meaning food grown for local consumption.
 
In the meantime, there is a half billion dollar market every year for local food.
 
“This tells the story of why there’s not the type of local food movement that we hope could be,” Zeanah said. “Additionally, the average farm size in our region is much larger than the U.S. average. With such a low concentration of small farms, it’s a challenge for local produce.”
 
But the enthusiasm for local production is growing, as are the organizations that support it. Despite these challenges, the study found a substantial amount of support of the local food system in the form of food hubs, community farms, and educational institutions interested in local food.
 
“We found quite a bit of enabling activity growing the local food movement, and so in that vein, it helped shape the priorities, intersections, and recommendations for the next 20 years,” Zeanah said.
 
The first recommendation the study put forward was to create a “food value chain facilitator,” a sort of supply chain manager who connects the products — food — with the consumer.
 
“Food is already an enterprise of thin margins. Producers or farmers, to get their product to market, often need to go through an aggregator, a distributor. A food value chain facilitator would reduce the expense associated with aggregating food and would instead work directly with producers and the end market so they’re not collecting with the responsibility of having to warehouse it and therefore spoil,” Zeanah said.
 
“The idea is that somebody needs to facilitate how much is being produced and how big the need is through the food chain, to build relationships, build linkages, between producers and consumers, grocers, restaurants, institutions, individuals,” Trippel said. “It’s a pretty important role.”
 
The study produced four additional “key priority interventions,” including bolstering training and support for potential new farmers to enter the local market rather than asking commodities farmers to take a financial hit by transitioning to local.
 
One interesting intervention is the idea of agrotourism, incorporating the farm narrative into the tourism narrative to bring supplemental income to local farmers.
 
“There’s a farm in Arkansas trying to bring people to their farm, which does local produce and is also significant because it is near the childhood home of Johnny Cash,” Zeanah said. “We could do something similar with Sun Studios, or Stax, which is down the road from Knowledge Quest, the educational urban farm in South Memphis.”
 
Other interventions included creating both urban and rural retail models, like the YMCA’s healthy corner store initiative, for neighborhoods that can’t attract big retailers like Kroger, and to create institutionally scaled gardening and composting for school districts, hospitals and other large institutions.

The study covered 15 counties in the region, including 12 in eastern Arkansas, plus Shelby Fayette, and DeSoto Counties.
 
“Ultimate goal or vision of the plan is to provide fresh local produce and invest in our food system in a way that improves local access, and provide economic opportunities for producers across the region. It’s important that this activity is done in a way that’s sustainable where waste is recovered and it minimizes the impact on our air quality and water quality,” Zeanah said.
 
“Having locally produced food increases the resilience of a community, so we’re not as dependent on outside services. We found that we are primarily dependent on outside services, and now we’re looking at how we can change that,” Trippel said.
 
In addition to aggregating knowledge and creating a game plan, the survey also serves as a tool for future grant seeking as well as a resource for policy change.
 
“It gives foundations that want to go and seek additional support for and investment in our regional food system something with a factual basis to use when they ask. It helps us come together to build the food system here,” Trippel said.
 
“There’s a lot of land use policy issues related to that and the development and redevelopment of communities. We have to look at how we design communities and plan to build healthy communities,” he said.
 
But Trippel doesn’t think the onus lies solely on administrators.
 
“One thing you can do as a consumer is use your purchasing power and support local and regional food production by shopping at the farmers market. Look at your markets for locally produced goods. It’s going to cost more, but it’s an investment in your community and producers. It’s an investment in the resiliency of our community. You can’t take carrots from this region and compare them to carrots produced somewhere else. Your investment is so much more than carrots,” Trippel said. “Be more aware of the opportunities and challenges in our food system. Read the assessment, connect with people, with producers, ask questions — what are the actionable ideas, and what is critical now?”
 
In addition to the Office of Sustainability, the FAC, the ULI, and the East Arkansas Planning and Development office, the study also involved Grow Memphis, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, 4Rivers food hub, MidSouth Community College, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Seeds of Change, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Roots Memphis, Knowledge Quest, and Forge Arkansas.
 
Read the assessment here.
 

 

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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