Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Future of Regional Food Systems in Rural America

By Rich Pirog, Senior Associate Director, C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University

The local food movement has grown rapidly in the United States over the past two decades, championed by farmers, chefs, non-profits, authors, and the White House.  Direct-market sales continue rising; with more than 7,100 farmers market nationwide today compared to less than 350 in 1970.  High school, college, and corporate cafeterias all now feature local or state-grown fare, and numerous regional and national food retailers and food service distributors have developed partnerships with local farmers.

Photo: sbctb/

As Marketing and Food Systems Program Leader and Associate Director at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa, I saw the movement over time grow more focused in its goals and more sophisticated in its approach.  In the early 1990s, success was pulling together a local food meal at a conference.  All of us involved in this work,however, knew in our hearts and minds that all-Iowa meals were just a baby step forward. 

At the Leopold Center, our role evolved as the movement evolved; from primarily a grant maker to include roles of convener and catalyst, providing servant leadership to build the capacity and collaboration across numerous organizations needed to keep the local food movement growing and maturing. 

By March 2011, we had developed 16 collaborating food networks covering more than 80 of Iowa’s 99 counties in our Regional Food Systems Working Group, with more than 30 organizations participating. 

 The Leopold Center had produced a Local Food and Farm Plan mandated by the state legislature, with funding and policy recommendations to help build the local food economy. Counties stepped to the plate and contributed funds to build local food commerce, leadership coalesced to create a statewide non-profit food systems council, and in July 2011 the state appropriated funds to support recommendations found in the Iowa Food and Farm Plan.

Across the United States, the local food revolution has joined forces with the movements to end childhood and adult obesity, eliminate poverty, increase food security, and increase the resilience of urban and rural communities.  The stakes have never been higher, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement, where more Americans feel disenfranchised from their corporations and government leaders.  
Where to next? 

We must make a clear and convincing case about the economic, social, and environmental benefits of local food.  We also must do a better job, particularly in rural America, of explaining how local food systems are nested within regional, national, and global systems and sourcing schemes.

In the future, I see regional food systems offering increasing opportunities in strengthening rural economies. What do we mean by regional food systems? In their 2010 article in CHOICES magazine, colleagues Kate Clancy and Kathy Ruhf contend that market territories, landscapes, and ecosystems all have meaning at the regional level,and that multiple local food systems can be nested within a regional framework.

Clancy and Ruhf describe an ideal regional food system as a system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s food needs is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region.

 In rural America, local food systems supported through farmers markets, roadside stands, and institutional and retail sales will continue to have some impact on local economies and increase food security in the region.  Without a regional framework that includes interdependence with nearby micro or metropolitan areas, however, these local efforts may not have enough of an impact on the jobs, entrepreneurship, and innovation that rural America needs and that strategic investments will require.  

A regional food systems framework that transcends political boundaries is becoming more common in food systems research, outreach, and advocacy.  USDA and public and private foundations are now encouraging more multi-state and/or regional collaborations. Community, state, and national leaders are realizing the value that regional food systems play in preserving a region’s cultural, historical, and ecological identity. In the past two years, the USDA, the National Good Food Network, and other organizations have led research and outreach to better characterize and understand “regional food hubs,” where producers and processors work cooperatively to guarantee quantity and quality to larger volume buyers without losing their product’s brand identity and imbedded values.

 In late May I moved to Lansing, Michigan, to become associate director at what will soon become the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University.  Our mission is to engage the people of Michigan, the United States, and the world in applied research, education, and outreach to develop regionally integrated, sustainable food systems.   Look for the Center for Regional Food Systems to play a critical role leading the discussion about the challenges and benefits to developing these systems.   We’ll conduct research, develop new outreach mechanisms, and build new and catalyze existing networks.  Here are just a few questions that we hope to research and discuss:

·    What are the best local, state and federal policies to rebuild regional food infrastructure?

·   Our ideal regional food system is one where food is healthy, green, fair, and affordable for all.  What are the most reliable indicators we can use to determine we’re making progress toward that ideal?

·   Where are there synergies between rural and urban agriculture?  How do we take advantage of interdependence of the two to benefit regional economies?

Rich Pirog's research and collaborations on local and place-based foods, food networks and communities of practice, food value chains, and ecolabels has been publicized in magazines and media outlets across the globe, used by local food practitioners, and are often cited in books and college courses.  In 2003, he received the Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa, and in 2004, he received the Iowa State University College of Agriculture Award for Outstanding Achievement and Service.

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