Diversifying and localizing our food sources is a powerful way to help us eat healthier, build community, support the local economy, reduce waste, and build resiliency into the fabric of our town. Here are some of the efforts and ideas afoot to localize our food:
Why do we need to grow and raise food locally when we can get it so cheaply and conveniently from conventional sources?
With Peak Oil on the horizon, food will cost a lot more, using the current agricultural system of industrial-scale factory farms that uses a ton of resources and rely heavily on farm subsidies and fossil fuels. When the cost of fossil fuels goes up, so will the cost of food that is grown with this unsustainable system. Eventually, growing and transporting the food will be too costly and regional farming will become a more practical alternative. However, our country has changed so much since the days of the regional farming of our grandparents time. Massachusetts lost so much farmland and yet our population grew. How will we produce all of our food needs?
Our relationship to food will have to change. There is no one fix to this challenge and nor would we want just one solution. One fix keeps us as vulnerable to food issues as we are now. A multi-lateral approach will build in resilience into our community. Please see above for efforts you can support.
What’s wrong with supermarkets?
Supermarkets do a great job of providing a wide variety of foods (often with a long shelf-life) at great prices. The problem is that all that convenience costs us in other ways. Many supermarkets are owned by corporations that send their profits out of the community -out of state or out of the country. Many don’t offer benefits to their employees or a good wage. Farmers who sell to them don’t get a great price for their crops either. The produce supermarkets do buy must be pretty durable and have a long shelf-life which reduces the taste and nutritional value of the food. The average fruit is 2-3 weeks old before it is consumed, fish sits on a boat for a month before it is sold, orange juice is a year old, etc. The food sold in grocery stores are just not as fresh and nutritious as the food you buy fresh at a farm stand. Additionally, 70% of the food on the shelves of supermarkets has Genetically Modified content with no labeling. The industrial food system -on which grocery stores depend- is plagued with problems of viral outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Bird Flu because its practices make it particularly vulnerable to outbreaks (http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/index.html). During an emergency, our heavy dependence on supermarkets is apparent. Supermarkets rely on a “just-in-time” delivery system that only has 3-5 days of food on hand. If there is an emergency that prevents trucks from making deliveries, that food rapidly sells out. Plus, their buildings are pretty energy-intensive, using open air refrigeration, lots of space to heat and cool, and not a lot of insulation. All in all, supermarkets have their place for the meantime, but because most of us depend on them entirely for our food needs, we have unwittingly placed ourselves in a vulnerable position for food quality, food safety, and emergency preparedness.
Is it even practical to grow food in Massachusetts where the land is so developed and costly?
Massachusetts used to have a thriving wheat industry before the Midwest became America’s bread basket. A lot has changed since then, including a large shift from agriculture to housing and business, making land more valuable and less feasible for farming. But unwittingly, this has somewhat insulated us from the large scale environmental destruction from industrial farms for which other states suffer. For example, Iowa is a big corn state. Each farm grows thousands of acres of this monoculture, leaving a huge impact on the landscape. Harmful pesticides and fungicides are sprayed routinely and excessively and have huge consequences on the local ecology while also impacting humans as well (example: Atrazine is used regularly on corn. Exposed frogs change sex and grow extra legs and exposed humans have an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer). Additionally, excessive amounts of nitrogen and other fertilizers are used and contribute to harmful run-off that creates dead zones in rivers, lakes and oceans. Few buffer zones exist, making it more vulnerable to drought and erosion. But in Massachusetts our land is not suitable for large, industrial farms. And, in fact, our chopped up landscape naturally creates buffer zones and supports biodiversity which, in turn, makes our agriculture more resilient. The fact that our state receives an excellent amount of rainfall each year further positions us for good farming. Innovative economic models exist to help farmers bypass expensive landownership and instead farm on another's land in exchange for a share in the harvest. As people become more concerned with food safety, the need to know your grower creates a vested interest in supporting local farms. The number of farmers’ markets in the state is climbing, from 120 in 2004 to 245 in 2011. This has contributed to the number of farms in the state also climbing, from 5,800 in 1995 to 7,700 in 2011. (National Agriculture Statistics Service and recent Metrowest article on farmers markets)
How can we grow food locally that people can afford?
Often people point out that growing food locally and sustainably is too expensive but if you look at the tremendous drain that the industrial food system has on our tax dollars, the tremendous amount of waste it generates, the carbon emissions, the harmful run-off, the loss of biodiversity and other environmental effects, and the costs all of these things being passed on to the public, it is clear that the true cost of cheap food is not covered in the grocery store price tag. However, knowing this, how can we support those who have less income eat healthy, local food?
To do this, we need to step out of what we call, “The Monoculture Mentality”. That is to say, we need to think of food as a part of a whole system and not just an isolated part of our lives. To do this, we need to think about waste whenever we think about food. In nature, there is no waste. A Grizzly Bear fishing for Salmon only uses the richest part of the fish and leaves the rest. The remains that land in the water are eaten up by other fish, the parts that land on the ground get eaten by eagles and wolves who drag it uphill, leaving nutrients that feed the soil. That rich soil feeds plants that provide food for the small woodland animals that are eaten by predators, and on and on the cycle continues. If we thought of ourselves as part of a nutrient cycle where our waste feeds the system that feeds us, we could reduce the costs of growing food. The most natural place to start is composting.
Additionally, we need to think of waste beyond what we leave at the curb. What if we helped those in need save money in other parts of their lives, allowing them to spend more money on the nutritious food that fuels them? What if we helped them make their apartments or houses more fuel efficient so they are not wasting money on heat that goes out the window? What if we created a walkable and bikeable town that made it possible to not have to own a car?
None of these solutions could generate enough food to feed our community so what is the point?
Each of these ideas, on their own, is not enough to feed our community but combined they provide a diverse, dynamic, sustainable and adaptable source of food for Ashland that could eventually support the whole town. Our food security is already vulnerable by being entirely dependent on the supermarket but by weaving in other ways and means of producing and procuring food, we will have a variety of food to fall back upon. And our “knowing our grower” will further ensure the safety and quality of our food.
But the exciting part of all this is that through these other forms of agriculture, we have an opportunity to build community; Getting a plot in the Community Garden and helping one another tend plants and exchange tips, shopping at the Farmers’ Market and bumping into that friend or acquaintance you have not seen in awhile, gleaning Black Walnuts from a member’s yard and pausing to enjoy a sunset together, pruning your fig tree in the Community Greenhouse while bathed in warm sunlight on a cold, blustery day in February, taking a walk in the woods with friends to hunt for mushrooms. Gosh! -with all this fun how can Supermarkets compete? With these solutions, we have an opportunity to change our relationship with food, and in so doing, change our relationship to each other, our environment and our town.
For more information, see the following sources:
Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”
"Genetic Roulette -the gamble of our lives"
“The Future of Food”
“Forks Over Knives”
“A River of Waste”
The Ashland Public Library’s Documentary and Discussion Series shows films on timely topics and many have been shown relating to food issues. Visit their website to see what they are showing next: http://friendsoftheapl.com/events/events/moviesdocumentary/