Toward a Local Food System

Lake Macbride
Lake Macbride

LAKE MACBRIDE— Writing about gardening, farm work, fermentation, soup-making, canning and cooking is personally satisfying, but what is the connection to our broader society? Why does one person’s journey in life with friends and family matter in the broader scope of things? With a global population of more than 7 billion, and expected to hit more than 9 billion by mid-century, life on earth is changing in ways that test the limits of our ability to comprehend. Will the lives of individuals matter as Earth reaches its tipping point, pushing the envelope of its geophysical limits?

American society, founded in part on the cultural resonance of eighteenth century agrarian individualism, promotes the moral worth of an individual. Independence, self-reliance, freedom and the ability to work toward self-realization are core values of our society. The idea that we can own a plot of land, grow some of our own food and prepare it in ways steeped in process, learning and tradition, yet how we want, is as American as the apple crisp I make from my apple trees. What is often forgotten is that individual lives occur in the context of a society that was founded during the Age of Enlightenment, and that society is coming apart at the seams.

If romantic concern for the good old days is what drives people to work toward a local food system, the idea is bound to be abandoned. In Iowa, we created the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The center has conducted hundreds of grant studies and reported on them with an eye toward sustainable agricultural practices. The Leopold Center is key to understanding our food system and providing reasons and process to create and strengthen community-based food systems. It is uncertain their work will take, despite the fact that locally grown food produced with sustainable practices is highly cost competitive with the products of the industrial food supply chain.

What makes a local food system possible is not the development of practices and high level theory, but the support behavior change receives in society. Behavior that congealed during the post World War II economic boom that included development of our industrial food supply chain. With population growth, society requires an organized mechanism to produce, preserve and distribute food to a growing population. In that sense, the industrial food supply chain is as necessary to a local food system as are the practices developed by the Leopold Center. To choose between them is a false choice.

Based on my experience with local farmers who use sustainable practices, there is tremendous capacity for improvements in efficiency, fuel use, water management, labor practices and mechanization that are untapped because of capital constraints. What the local food system may need most is an infusion of capital to create business incubation centers, sustainable water management systems, efficient farm to market systems, and most importantly, a sustainable source of labor that pays a living wage. The industrial food supply chain, because of its strong capitalization, has essentially blocked out competition from sustainable local growers who struggle to pay bills each month.

The question comes down to what individuals do in society with others, and there is no template for it. Stories about dealing with excess zucchini, kohlrabi and leafy green vegetables serve as examples of how to live with the challenges of a local food system. My garden won’t grow everything we need to provide all of our own food, so we leverage outside entities. Whether it is electricity to run the stove, cheese and milk from dairies, veggie burgers from Morningstar Farms®, or cooking oil from California, Italy and Iowa, how and why we leverage these entities and others matters a lot to a local food system.

That’s why I write about local food systems, as an example in which I hope others find value. If we’re lucky, and with collective action, tenuous local food systems will be strengthened as we work toward sustainability in a turbulent world.