(Re)Localizing Food Systems: We Must Connect the Three E’s to the Three 3C’s

by Jessica Skinner

Did you know that the number of registered farmer’s markets in the US has grown 128% since 2002 to over 7125 markets?  And that Farm to School programs are active in all 50 states?

There is a strong push to bring more local products onto our plates and into our schools, and to keep those products in communities where they are produced.  So why the push for local food?

Simply put, local food is more sustainable for our community in the long run.  A more localized food system embraces the main tenants of creating a more sustainable food system, taking into consideration the Three E’s: environment, economy, and social equity.

By investing more time, energy and money into our local community through the food system, we support much more than just the farmers and the preservation of our food.  From sustainable agriculture to sustainable land use planning to sustaining ourselves as human beings, the principles of sustainability are the guidelines by which the local food movement is rooted.

Reconnecting with our food and the system that it embodies is more of a (re)localization of our food system, keeping our dollars close to home by purchasing food within a 150 to 200 mile radius of one’s home. I say (re)localization because local and sustainable food systems are not a new concept, we’ve just grown away from them since the onset of the industrial revolution and our ability to grow, move and dispose of things far away and quickly without much thought as to what happens next.

I’m also referring to the increase in the number of home and community gardens springing up across the nation as a way to decrease food miles, our food’s overall carbon footprint, and the larger cost of food.

When national campaigns such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, reconnect consumers to the origin of what they eat, it is evident there is a paradigm shift about how we interact with our food and the system that creates it.

So what is a food system through the lens of sustainability? Virginia Nickerson lays out the basic elements in this diagram from her report “Understanding Vermont’s Local Food System:”

From food production to distribution, waste and nutrient management to consumption, there is a common link that connects each one of them – the change agents that shape and mould this system. There are varying degrees to which each sector of the system plays a role. As in any ecosystem, no one element of the food system can function properly without the other.  When the change agents (that’s you, me, our policy makers, educators and researchers, and others) make socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound decisions regarding how our food is grown, how it is processed, and how it makes its way to our mouths, we are voting for a food system that will support us in the future, that will provide livable wages, and will help us to circulate money and other vital nutrients within our own communities.

Across the nation, educational leaders, farmers and parents are creating ways to reconnect people of all ages to various aspects of this system.  The Farm to School Network, whose goal is to “establish relationships between local foods and school children”, and projects such as Vermont Feed strive to get students involved and invested in their food system and their future.

If a child grows a carrot, or visits a farm where they harvest greens for their salad bar, or takes a trip to a landfill where they can see some of the effects of wasting resources, they will be much more inclined to make decisions that are more sustainable for themselves as well as their surrounding environment, including their schools, their families and their neighbors.  The Three C’s, Cafeteria, Classroom, and Community, guide the Vermont FEED network and are the core of many school based food education programs.  By teaching students how to make healthy food choices and by having them interact with their food system, they will become better decision makers in the future.

(Re)localizing and making our food system more sustainable is happening in big ways, from the growth in programs such as Farm to School and Farm to Institution, but also in the development of larger scale food waste composting programs, networks of small food processors and distributors, and educational materials, webinars, videos and workshops about how to sustain our food system so that it can sustain us.  This movement is grassroots AND being shaped by federal, state and local policy.  People are tuning into ways to change their eating and buying habits to keep our money and our resources local, as evidenced by the number of farmers markets, farm stands, gardens, energy reduction programs, buy local campaigns and more.

How can you connect the Three E’s with the Three C’s in your local food system?  

Eat More Kale photo:  Courtesy of Seacoast Eat Local

Diagram from “Understanding Vermont’s Local Food System” by Virginia Nickerson, Prepared for The Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council, 2008

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