Thursday, December 29, 2011

Making Rural Matter

By Shanna Ratner, Principal, Yellow Wood Associates

When I started Yellow Wood Associates in 1985, it was with the idea of that the world would be a better place if rural people were able to act as effective stewards of the natural resources that surround them and be rewarded for it.  That led us to specialize in natural resource-based community economic development.

Over 26 years, we've discovered lots of barriers to effective local stewardship, especially for poor rural communities. Resources are often owned and controlled by external forces. Local people lack information about the quantity, quality and potential of the resources surrounding them. Policies and regulations don't support local engagement. Training in stewardship approaches is not readily available. Management expertise is lacking. Market forces encourage exploitation of people and resources.

Today, as we struggle to cope with climate change, population growth, increased effective global demand for goods and services, and instability caused by over reliance on fossil fuels, the need for new approaches to stewardship of natural resources has become even more evident. CarbonNYC
Increasingly, here in the United States, we are beginning to imagine regional solutions; however "regional” is too often taken to mean “metro and adjacent counties” when really it should mean metro, suburban and rural areas. Why? Because cities depend (and could increasingly depend) for clean air, clean water, food, fiber, recreation, labor, renewable energy, and markets for urban goods and services on rural areas. New York City understood this when it chose to invest in improved resource stewardship in the (rural) Catskills, its source of clean water, rather than in a water filtration plant within the city limits. New York City recognized that it is much less costly to protect water quality at the source, by investing in the infrastructure, training, public education, and innovation required to support rural people in changing their behaviors to benefit an entire region, than it is to restore water quality once it has degraded. New York City's investment in the Catskills isn't charity; it's an investment made with the clear expectation of a tangible return in the form of clean water.

We now know that the process of industrialization has resulted in significant exploitation and degradation of the natural (and human) resource base. Bringing these resources (soil, water, air, wetlands, croplands, forestlands, lakes, streams, pollinators, etc.) back to a productive state in which they can help meet the needs of entire regions, will require intentional investment in rural areas that increases the capacity of rural people to restore, manage, and sustain these resources for the benefit of entire regions. We also need to invest in new resource management approaches to available renewable resources.  Ultimately, rural resources cannot be “protected” for the benefit of metro and suburban areas without engaging rural people in their protection and development in ways that are mutually beneficial. If we continue to separate rural development from regional development, we are likely to continue unsustainable patterns of rural resource exploitation.

How can we join hands with consumers and decision-makers in urban and suburban areas to identify new opportunities to funnel investment that sticks in rural areas for the benefit of entire regions? If we can answer this question, we can begin to overcome the rural/urban divide and create allies among our urban friends. As they recognize the value to their own communities of investing in the productive and innovative capacity of rural places, together we can speak truth to power with a force beyond what rural America can hope to achieve by organizing within its own ranks.

Shanna Ratner is the Principal of Yellow Wood Associates, which is the managing grantee for the Wealth Creation in Rural Communities initiative of the Ford Foundation. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Senior Housing Policy: "Tomorrow Is Another Day"

By Sandra Rosenblith, Director, Stand Up for Rural America

Do you follow media coverage of national officials and policy makers dealing with an issue you know? Lots of folks in Washington, DC get paid to do this. Way too often we wind up wondering: "What are these people thinking? Don't they know ....?"

I'm an Inside the Beltway veteran. I’ve got decades of experience helping local nonprofits across the country mount comprehensive efforts to create healthy, prosperous, equitable communities that stand the test of time. They have developed tens of thousands of affordable homes and apartments. In recent years, most of my work has taken me to rural America.

Along with my smart, engaged 90 year old mother, I’m increasingly distressed by the country’s failure to confront reality when it comes to adequate affordable housing for our aging population, many of whom do and will need it. Like it or not, 76 million Baby Boomers are coming! Every day this year and for the next 19 years, 10,000 Americans will turn 65. By 2020, there will be 10.2 million new households headed by individuals aged 55 to 74. By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. By 2050, nearly five percent of us will be 90 or older.

A tenant tends her plot at Desert Gardens, the first affordable apartments ever built for retired farmworkers, developed by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition in Indio, CA.

Seniors aren't all rich or even financially comfortable. An Urban Institute study shows that in 2009, 34 percent, or one in three seniors, were poor or near poor. That's more than 13 million seniors. According to federal standards, housing is affordable when it costs 30 percent or less of income. Using this standard and the 2011 poverty line, a single poor senior should pay $361 or less per month. Are there many ‘decent homes in a suitable environment’ at this price where you live?

The Great Recession took and continues to take a heavy toll on older Americans. Retirement accounts have recovered some, but these shrank by 20 to 30 percent. Seventy percent of seniors own their own homes; about one in five owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. It's no accident that Florida and Nevada, retirement meccas, are ground zero for foreclosures.

Even when foreclosure isn't the issue, many seniors are trapped in homes they can't afford. They can't refinance or renovate because they can’t get loans. They can’t sell because buyers can't meet newly stringent credit criteria and appraisal standards. The rental market has tightened and rents are rising. Unemployment for workers 55 and more is usually lower than the rates for the rest of the workforce. While this is still true, rates for this group have doubled and it takes over 55s more time to find new jobs than other workers. Also, pension benefits are declining or disappearing.

Yet senior housing barely gets a mention, much less serious consideration, in high level discussions about the deficit. It's all about cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Where are seniors supposed to live? What is it going to cost? Who is going to make it happen? You can bet your bottom dollar that the for-profit private sector isn't going to meet the housing needs of poor and near poor seniors absent significant public incentives and subsidies.

This oncoming train wreck will damage rural people and places most. The proportion of seniors in the population is higher in rural than urban areas. It is growing due to an influx of retirees, many of whom are seeking lower cost living. Incomes are low and so are wages. More rural than urban seniors depend on Social Security and food stamps for their livelihoods. The supply of appropriate affordable housing falls far short. Rural seniors have a hard time ‘aging in place’, meaning ‘staying’ in their homes. More of their homes are isolated. Public transportation is sketchy or nonexistent. So service delivery is a bigger problem, everything from medical care to meals on wheels. Younger family members are often away in cities seeking better opportunities.

Do you ever wonder why people in Washington go around in circles? One big reason? They don't ask the rest of America for advice on their communities’ priority needs and how these can best be met. They don’t invest in the people’s ideas. There are literally thousands of nonprofit community developers and service providers ready, willing and able to tackle senior housing issues. Many have already proven what works in their communities. They pursue innovative solutions. But no-one calls, writes or sends money. Do you think we can do anything about this situation? After all, sooner or later, we hope that we all need senior housing.

Sandra (Sandy) Rosenblith, a lawyer, has worked for and with community-based developers across this country, delivering information, training, technical assistance and advocacy support and providing and monitoring grants, low cost loans and access to equity capital. She has also worked for every level of government as well as major foundations, including a federal stint helping draft the original Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations. Of special note, she founded and managed the national Rural and Mid-South Delta programs for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Currently, she directs Stand Up for Rural America, an advocacy initiative designed to help rural community developers gain the attention, resources and policy support their work deserves.

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.