SOLUTION: Think in terms of the “foodshed,” the people, places, and purposes behind all this local food business. We’re talking the geography of relationships, values, and outcomes when a region takes an interest in feeding itself.
Case in Point: The California Food Hub Network
It was history in the making Jan. 26 in Monterey, Calif., when a cross section of local food producers, buyers, distributors, and supporters from California met to discuss the idea of connecting their work, region to region.
Vision and mission filled the room. Questions and argument did, too. In the end, solid conviction carried the day, much like it must have kept Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton working together as delegates to the Continental Congress despite their differences.
The Founding Fathers knew they were on the right track even as they were building it. So, too, the representatives of various “foodsheds” across California brought a common set of values and practical thinking to their gathering. It was the second formal congress on forming a more perfect union of their regions’ local food efforts, from the Redwoods to the desert, up into the mountains and down along the coast.
The conversation contained two big areas of work. One was the detail discussion of how to build marketing facilities and services that farms need without duplicating or conflicting with existing businesses, such as distributors large and small in the local food arena. The second was investigating the value of organizing producers, buyers, and related businesses on a regional level; that is, why such organizing is needed and what it can do.In drilling down to these essential and sticky points, the participants surfaced an underlying fact that confirms the value of forming a statewide network of regional food hubs. That is the fact that most food supply chains, no matter how strong or sincere a company’s interest in sourcing local products, are still largely divorced from the people, places, and purposes that make up a foodshed. California’s emerging network, then, is not just about managing and moving food but also about instilling a foodshed perspective into the commerce of food, so it produces the outcomes that communities need and want, like healthy food, strong farms, and good soil. [For more on such work to build “values-based food supply chains,” start with this article and these examples.]
Similar to a watershed, which encompasses all the land that drains into a particular river or other body of water, a foodshed encompasses the natural relationships that contribute to feeding a place. Just as managing a watershed involves attention to ecological relationships, relevant foodshed relationships are not just physical, as in a certain number of miles between production and consumption, but also ecological, economic, and social. Transportation routes come into play. So does rainfall, culture, social justice, and soil quality.
One example is the San Diego Growers effort to develop a regional food hub. It’s one of many in process around the country to not only help smaller farms aggregate, pack, and distribute their products to more local and regional buyers, but also to make more healthy, fair, affordable food available to a region’s residents. [For more on regional food hubs, check out this great overview article by Alan Borst of USDA Rural Development, starting on p. 20 here.
The problem is, even surrounded by fruit and vegetable farms, San Diego residents cannot count on finding a local orange or a local avocado to buy, except (thanks to growing local food demand) at a roadside stand, a farmers market, or a specialty store. The story is the same across the country. A region’s agricultural bounty is either shipped out as a matter of course, or it is no longer widely available locally because the global food supply chain has squeezed out the smaller producers and market outlets that might have provided it.
The result is a lack of access to a region’s bounty for local consumers, for farmers, and for the region’s economy. Bringing it home, in terms of building regional marketing avenues for farms, can produce a broad range of benefits for a region. Outcomes include more small and diverse farms making a decent living and building local commerce; greater access to fresh and high-quality foods; and better land and water stewardship the more connected food producers and consumers are to each other and their common soil.
The foodshed, thus, reflects the fundamental values behind the local food movement. Bundled into local food demand are the many relationships and values that make up a foodshed, from concern for local land, water, and economies to the care a community should take for the health and welfare of children and families. The local food movement is fundamentally a movement to build community prosperity through such connections. It’s a movement to claim and build the bounty of a region, for a region.
The California Food Hub Network conversation is a clear sign the local food movement is not only growing to include more regional food commerce but also that, as it grows, the values behind local food must remain at the forefront. Those involved have many details to work out in their quest to build a network for sharing information and expertise, and maybe even facilitating inter-hub trade. But the bottom line is solid: Organizing and connecting foodsheds is key to extending and maintaining the values behind this new sector of local, healthy, sustainable, and fair food.