Got Food? How Local Food Systems Can Build Resilience for Turbulent Times

The complex, globalized system that puts food on our plates is a technical and logistical marvel. It’s also surprisingly fragile.

via Shutterstock

By Wendy Slusser and Laurie Mazur

Consider, for a moment, that lettuce leaf on your plate. It probably traveled a long way to get there — about 1,500 miles, on average. In fact, your dinner has probably seen more of the world than you have: the average American meal contains ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.

The complex, globalized system that puts food on our plates is a technical and logistical marvel, delivering unprecedented quantities of food at historically low prices.

But that system is surprisingly fragile. Its globe-spanning supply chains are easily disrupted and its vast monocultures are vulnerable to drought and disease. And, because the system is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, it is subject to the shortages and price swings that afflict those commodities.

New Yorkers got a firsthand look at the fragility of the food system when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the city in 2012. Days after the storm, trucks were still stranded on roadsides, unable to make deliveries. Some grocery stores saw their stocks destroyed by the storm surge; others lost power and trashed their perishable goods. Thanks to “just-in-time” supply chains that kept inventories to a minimum, shortages set in quickly. As a result, hungry New Yorkers stood in line for hours, waiting for emergency supplies of food and water.

Most New Yorkers weathered those shortages, and a massive crisis was averted. Still, Sandy should serve as a wake-up call. In the era of climate change, our cities will face more monster storms, floods, and other extreme weather events. At the same time, a wide range of natural and human-made crises — from epidemics to terrorism — have the potential to bring our food system to its knees.

In these turbulent times, we need to make our food supply systems more resilient. Producing and distributing food on the local level could help us weather disruptions of all kinds.

Local food systems have taken root across the country in recent years, with a proliferation of farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and farm-to-table restaurants. There were more than 8,000 farmers’ markets across the U.S. in 2014, up 180 percent since 2006. Locally marketed food topped $6 billion in sales in 2012.

As food author and activist Michael Pollan has observed, those smaller-scale local and regional food systems are better able to withstand shocks than their massive, globalized counterparts. And because they are decentralized, local food systems offer less tempting targets to terrorists and saboteurs.

St. George’s market in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The popular weekend market provides a space for local producers to sell fish, meat, dairy products, and produce.

Local food systems support the resilience of people and communities in other ways as well. Because it travels shorter distances, locally grown produce is able to conserve nutrients better, making it more nutritious. It also tastes better, which encourages people to eat more of it. Better nutrition means better public health — a cornerstone of disaster resilience.

And, while farmers growing for a global market must choose varieties that are uniform and ship well (hence the tasteless square tomatoes found in supermarkets year round), those growing for a local market can choose varieties for their nutrition and taste. The greater crop diversity found on local farms means more nutritional diversity for consumers and more resilience to pests and drought.

Local food systems also generate more jobs than conventional agriculture leading to increased economic resilience for communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that produce growers supplying local and regional markets generate 13 full-time jobs for every $1 million earned, compared to just three jobs per $1 million for farms that do not serve local markets.

Finally, by reducing the miles between farm and fork, local food systems limit greenhouse gas emissions. Food systems account for between 19 and 29 percent of emissions worldwide. Reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture would go a long way toward mitigating climate change, which poses mounting threats to global food security. Preventing the worst effects of climate change is a better resilience strategy than trying to adapt after it’s already occurred.

So, local food makes all kinds of sense and is growing in popularity. But food grown for local markets still accounts for only 1.5 percent of U.S. agricultural production. That’s because the mostly small farmers who sell their produce locally struggle to compete with industrial farms whose economies of scale, hefty public subsidies, and sheer domination of the market enable them to sell their food more cheaply.

But with effort, those challenges can be overcome. One effective strategy is to create local “food hubs” that aggregate locally sourced food to meet demand. These collaborative enterprises enable small farmers to access wholesale, retail, and institutional markets they couldn’t reach on their own. This strategy is catching on: the number of food hubs across the U.S. grew nearly threefold between 2007 and 2014.

Communities can help by nurturing vibrant local food systems. For example, citizens in Placer County, California — a rapidly suburbanizing area with a rich agricultural heritage — took action to sustain nearby farms. They created an agricultural marketing organization called PlacerGROWN that launched farmers’ markets, festivals, and fairs featuring local produce, meat, and wine. PlacerGROWN educates the public about the benefits of local food and forges connections between the community and farmers. As a result, much of the county’s best farmland has been protected from development, and in 2007, the county’s farms, ranches, and vineyards generated almost $60 million worth of agricultural products.

Others are bringing the farm to the city. In Milwaukee and Chicago, a group called Growing Power, Inc. has built state-of-the-art greenhouses in urban food deserts, engaging people from low-income communities in the production of nutritious food. In Cleveland, the worker-owned Evergreen Cooperatives manage a sprawling greenhouse that provides jobs and fresh produce in an impoverished neighborhood.

The scale of these efforts remains small, but history shows that local food production can ramp up quickly when it needs to. During World War II, Americans planted “Victory Gardens” to help the war effort and produced 40 percent of the vegetables grown in the U.S. More recently, when food prices spiked in 2008 — touching off riots around the world — many Caribbean countries invested in local agriculture to reduce reliance on imported food. It worked: today Antigua and Barbuda produce nearly half of their own food, up from only 20 percent in 2009.

There are many reasons to embrace local food: it’s healthier, it tastes better, and it’s better for the planet. Here’s one more: it can make us more resilient, in good times and bad.

Wendy Slusser is Associate Vice Provost of the Healthy Campus Initiative at UCLA. She also serves on the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s Leadership Board.

Laurie Mazur is the editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

This article was originally published in Solutions.