Macrogreens: Urban Food Systems are the Root of Sustainable Cities

The U.N. projects the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, an increase of 33%. The vast majority of these people will live in cities.

All of them will need to eat.

Through its Campaign for a Sustainable Global Food Supply, Concordia builds and promotes public-private partnerships that work towards the development of sustainable and healthy food systems, not only feeding billions of people across cities and rural areas, but preserving the economic livelihood of millions of farmers and protecting the health of our planet.

The food system is complex and it’s large and it’s going to take all of us to create solutions and so these public-private partnerships that we’re involved in are extremely important.— John Fisk, The Wallace Center

Urbanization has long been conceptually intertwined with sustainability. Density creates efficiencies. However, when it comes to the food supply chain from farms to cities, the cost of transporting what people eat to where they live has a tremendous financial cost, environmental footprint, and economic impact. Worse, the sheer cost of nutritious food and insufficient infrastructure often prevents some low-income children and families from accessing fresh, healthy food options at all.

The idea of combating food deserts (USDA interactive map), or an urban area in which it is difficult to purchase healthy, good-quality or affordable food, with more supermarkets has dominated the urban food policy discussion for decades. But as urban researchers like CityLab have pointed out, the facts on the ground are more complex and require action at each step of the chain. Government leadership, nonprofit coordination, and private-sector innovation are all needed to allow sustainable food solutions to scale. To highlight models and groups that are making a difference, Concordia produced a mini-doc featuring the Wallace Center and FRESHFARM.

Concordia released the second episode in a three-part series on sustainable food in the United States this week.

To create a more sustainable food supply chain, one approach is simply to shorten it, whether by literally reducing the distance food needs to travel or by expanding the concept of “local” to create efficient networks of regional food systems. Here, government action is absolutely critical. Since 2014, the USDA has made more than 900 investments in local food infrastructure, including food hubs, warehouses, local processing facilities, and distribution networks connecting farmers with local markets.

Explore the USDA’s Local Food Compass Map

These investments signal a commitment from the public sector when it comes to supporting and building a more sustainable food system in the United States. Whether or not those investments continue will be determined by the 2018 Farm Bill, which is already being discussed in Congress. As stated in a coalition letter from agricultural associations to President Trump, deteriorating infrastructure across the country can bring agricultural food supply chains to a halt. And in addition to improving how products get to market — roads, bridges, railways, etc. — local food infrastructure must continue to grow and evolve to more closely connect farmers to their end consumers in major metropolitan markets.

What’s more, federal policies have had consequences for both nutrition and food supply chain decisions at the regional and local level in public schools across the country. The USDA’s Farm to School Census showed that in the 2013–14 school year alone, school districts spent nearly $800 million on locally and regionally-sourced food, representing a 105% increase over school year 2011–2012. Much attention has been given to recent steps taken by the USDA under the Trump Administration to change the nutritional standards for school lunches established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama. However, any one-size-fits-all approach will inevitably suffer from the same challenges of our outdated, nationwide distribution approach. Providing states, cities, and their P3 partners an opportunity to craft sustainable solutions that are tailored to their region is the necessary, intricate solution to this complicated problem.

Better feeding our cities also means improving access on the consumer side. One USDA program that does need to be protected, and even strengthened given looming budget cuts, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP allows local food vendors to easily accept electronic nutrition benefits — nearly $20 million was spent on healthy food at farmers markets in 2015 alone, which represents a highpoint and a 600% increase over the last 8 years. This makes for healthier families and healthier finances.

Every purchase that you’re making at a farmers market where the farmers are coming from the local surrounding area, that’s money that’s being reinvested into the local economy.
— Molly Scalise, FRESHFARM
AeroFarms in-school vertical farm

Some of the most exciting partnership-driven innovations in food sustainability are taking place in areas like vertical farming, shortening the supply chain to almost zero. For example, AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey uses cutting-edge tech to produce more than two million pounds of healthy greens a year in a converted steel mill. The New York Times’ 360 degree view into AeroFarms’ newest Newark location captures the grandeur, potential impact and scalability of innovative agricultural models gaining momentum in places like Newark.

Access to healthy, delicious food is not about party lines — it is a fundamental right for every American, and we need to figure out how to come together to work collectively. 
 — Marc Oshima, AeroFarms cofounder

Innovations in vertical farming are not a silver bullet and there’s not one clear solution, or even set of solutions, to ensure a high-quality food supply for rapidly expanding urban areas. A mix of ideas and actions — vertical farms, food hubs, infrastructure investment — needs to be deployed by groups across the public-private partnership spectrum.

Going back to Concordia partner John Fisk: “The average food product travels thousands of miles, comes on large trucks across our highway system, dependent upon fossil fuels for the most part. If you want a more sustainable food system, try to look in your backyard.”

Concordia will continue to work towards strengthening partnerships across business, government, and the nonprofit community to ensure more of those backyards are thriving and nourishing cities in the process.

To get involved or learn more about the Campaign for a Sustainable Global Food Supply please contact Concordia’s Director for Social Impact, Hanne Dalmut at hdalmut@concordia.net.

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