Category Archives: Local Food Systems

Buying local is an investment in a better quality of life for all!

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm in Central California, when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. Only a few days in the country, this undocumented field worker, who didn’t have easy access to water, shade or the work breaks required by law, passed out from the heat and died two days later.Maria-Isabel

Maria was 17 years old. The Center for Disease Control reports that heat-related deaths of farm workers are on the rise in the U.S.  This deadly trend is unfortunately one of the costs of cheap food.   When you buy cheap food at the big box stores, you also invest in this deadly system of industrialized food.

Compare this experience with that of working at a local farm like Simple Gifts in North Amherst.  Here the farm workers work hard but are treated fairly.  As apprentices who live on the site, they are gaining a valuable education in preparation for the day when they might manage their own farm.

sgf_apprentices
Farm apprentices and farm managers at Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst

Our industrialized food system of mega-farms, long-distance shipping and big box-stores has driven down the retail price of food to the point that Americans, on average, expend about 9 percent of their annual income on food. The industrial food system in the U.S. produces relatively “cheap” food, but at a cost. Fortunately, in some parts of the U.S., we can partially opt out of this exploitative and costly system.

In our community of Amherst and surrounds, the locally grown vegetables are of higher quality than anything shipped from a distance.  We can enjoy the freshness and flavor of the food available at our local farmers’ markets, farm stands, food coops and some regional supermarkets.  Yet most experts agree that less than 10 percent of the produce purchased in our region is grown locally.

Why don’t more of us in Amherst “buy local”?

I suspect the reason that 90 percent of the consumers in our fairly progressive region of the country don’t regularly buy local food is due to its perceived higher price and the convenience of shopping at the big box stores.

Busy people treat food shopping as just another task, rather than a pleasurable social experience.  Studies indicate that we have 10 times more conversations when we shop at the farmers’ market than at the supermarket.  I know when I stop in at the new Simple Gifts Farm Stand in North Amherst, I always bump into friends and neighbors.

The “grand opening” of the new Simple Gifts Farm Stand was an example of the sort of celebration of good food and community, some of us have come to value.  When we stop in at Simple Gifts, we invest in a food system that strives toward a better quality of life – fall all!

Shopping locally isn’t an “efficient” use of time in a task-driven life – which is one of the reasons I make the effort slow down and shop at the farmers market or Simple Gifts.  Yes…. for me, buying locally is an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).

bigy.jpgSome regional supermarkets do try to offer local products.  The Big Y in Western Massachusetts, for example, is a family-owned business and a major supporter of the UMass Student Farm, which grows organic vegetables for sale locally. When we do choose to shop at supermarkets, we can support local farmers by asking specifically for locally grown products.

And what about price? How often have we heard the statement that local food costs more?

Certainly, local beef, pork and chicken cost more than meat raised in a factory farm. You just can’t beat the efficiency and scale of the industrial animal factory for low price. Hve you ever experienced “sticker shock” when you see that local, fresh eggs may be priced at $5.00 a dozen or more when industrial eggs may be closer to $1.50?   Well, there is a reason!   Just look at the pictures of local eggs and free-ranged hens compared to factory farmed eggs below….

eggs

The fact that local meat products are generally produced with less stress on the animals may not be worth the higher price to some of us.   And some people truly can’t afford to pay the higher price for meat, dairy and eggs that are produced in a sustainable manner. But many of us have a choice!  On the other hand, there is little difference in price between local and shipped vegetables, especially during our growing season.

If we were truly concerned about the health of the animals, our own health, the health of our community and the health of the environment, we would choose to buy local meat, dairy and egg products, wouldn’t we.  We would investment in a higher quality of life for ourselves, for local farm families, our community, and for the animals we consume.

When we buy local bacon and sausages, we can even introduce our children to the live animals that provide these products for us, like “Pig Floyd” at Simple Gifts Farm!

floyd
Pig Floyd is helping to clean up the weeds at Simple Gifts Farm

“Cost” includes more than “price”

The industrial food system that produces cheap food does so at a great cost!  The retail price does not include the cost of harm done to the workers in the food system; on farms, in factories, shipping terminals, big box-stores, and the fast-food restaurants serving the food. These workers earn near minimum wage. A federal minimum wage law that leaves families in poverty is part of the cost of cheap food.

When we consider the quality of life we enjoy in those regions like ours where local food is plentiful, we might also wonder about the quality of life of those who are working to produce, ship and sell cheap food. When we buy food shipped from long distances, we say “yes” to an exploitative system designed primarily to maximize financial returns of corporate shareholders – at the expense of others.

It is true that relocalization of the food system may result in higher (but fairer) food prices overall.  At the same time buying local food will create local jobs and build community.

When you buy your food locally you are making an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).  I think this is an investment we can’t afford not to make.

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The North Amherst Community Farm is a small, local, not-for-profit organization devoted to preserving farmland and promoting sustainable farming practices in our community. The capital campaign we completed in 2016 will preserve a 30+ acre farm property in North Amherst, MA that is currently managed by Simple Gifts Farm.

Please sign up for our mailing list to learn more! 

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Urban Agriculture in the Motor City

By Matthew Kirby, UMass Sustainable Food and Farming student in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Many symbols of American culture have come out of Detroit, Michigan.  Motown Records and classic American cars are some of the things that come to mind when someone mentions Detroit. However, since the collapse of the American auto industry and the economic decline that followed, the city is also known for its high crime rate, poverty and abandoned buildings. The city filed for nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013. Detroiters however, have not given up on their city and what has now become one of the largest urban agriculture initiatives in the United States is a testament to their determination and the power of local food.

The population decline in Detroit has led to 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 abandoned houses and 90,000 vacant lots. Poverty and unemployment has limited Detroiters access to fresh, nutritional food. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative however believes that vacant Continue reading Urban Agriculture in the Motor City

Ag College Students Contribute to Local Community

One of the most exciting programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst today is an undergraduate major with a tradition that goes back 150 years and yet still serves the citizens of the local region by growing food, growing community and “growing” new farmers.

As local and regional food production in New England grows, so does enrollment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture’s Sustainable Food and Farming program.  UMass graduates are engaged in creating ventures to relocalize the food system, build community, and reduce the carbon cost of shipping food long distances.

UMass began as the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863 and recently the former “Mass Aggie” was recognized as having the eighth best global agricultural science program and 3rd best in the U.S.  Levi Stockbridge, Hadley farmer and the first teacher at Mass Aggie, would be proud.

Building on its historic mission of practical research, outreach to the community and hands-on education, today’s Stockbridge School helps educate young women and men in ecological landscape management and sustainable food systems — crucial training in an era threatened by the impact of radical climate change.

Many Stockbridge students and grads believe that global trends and the need for enhanced food security will make the Food Solutions New England vision of producing at least 50% of New England’s food by 2060 a realistic objective.  Students and graduates both contribute to this goal by working toward careers in local food and farming, urban agriculture, permaculture, herbal medicine, community education and advocacy for a more sustainable and just world.  Most “Stockies” choose to complement their classroom work with real world experience, often in the local community, earning academic credit for this work as part of their undergraduate studies.

An example of a local business providing students with valuable real world experience is the All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, started by area people committed to the relocalization vision. Stockbridge students and graduates volunteer at this year-round farmers’ market, some selling products they produced themselves, such as organic eggs, milk, artisan tea, blueberries, fermented kombucha, mushrooms and other vegetables.

Other Stockbridge students volunteer with Grow Food Amherst, a network of neighbors and students uniting town and gown.  The vibrant local food economy of the Pioneer Valley provides a supportive environment for food entrepreneurs, and this project  engages over 450 local residents helping to move the region towards greater food-resiliency through education and action.

Building on Levi Stockbridge’s commitment to experiential learning, students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major are actively engaged in hands-on learning projects that contribute both to their own education as well as the local community. For example:

  • The UMass Student Farm is a year-round class where students manage a small organic farm and sell their produce through food service and retail markets — including a popular on-campus farmers’ market.

  • The UMass Permaculture Initiative has converted underused grass lawns on campus into edible, low-maintenance food gardens, winning the White House Champions of Change competition in 2012.
  • The Student Food Advocacy group and the UMass Chancellor signed the Real Food Commitment, which ensures that by 2020, at least 20 percent of the food purchased for the dining halls will be local, organic, fair trade and/or animal-friendly.
  • The Massachusetts Renaissance Center Garden is a demonstration garden open to the public, featuring the herbs and vegetables grown during Shakespeare’s time.

  • The School Garden Project helps K-6 teachers at nearby elementary schools create vegetable and herb gardens as living classrooms.
  • The Food for All Garden at the new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center is a student-led project that grows food with the help of Amherst community members, and distributes the food through Not Bread Alone and the Amherst Survival Center.

Stockbridge students and alums are committed to building a more sustainable food system focused on environmental quality, social justice and economic vitality. These young visionaries imagine a world where the bulk of one’s food comes from local and regional farms, and production and marketing costs don’t exploit either people or the land. Stockies and thousands like them around the world need help from consumers who are committed to creating a more vibrant, peaceful and sustainable world.  Americans on average spend less than 10% of our income on food.  Many of us can afford to invest in our children’s future by spending a little more on local and regional food, and by doing so improve our personal heath, community health and the long term health of earth.


Dr. John M. Gerber is a professor in the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture and founding member of Grow Food Amherst.  You may find more essays and commentaries on his regular blog at World.edu.  This article was adapted from the original which appeared in the In Close Proximity column of the Amherst Bulletin and was sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project.

Adapted from the Original: http://www.amherstbulletin.com/commentary/15821972-95/john-gerber-new-life-for-an-old-school-the-stockbridge-school-of-agriculture

Where will the agricultural college graduates work?

One of my most popular blog pojobssts has been “Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?”  In this next essay, I share a few thoughts about the jobs situation in sustainable agriculture – based on my experience working with young women and men graduating college.  My conclusion is that while there is much work that needs to be done, well-paying, meaningful “lifetime career” jobs that offer a sense of security are hard to find.  It may be that getting hired for a lifetime job is an unrealistic expectation for recent college grads in our emerging “on-demand” economy.  But that realization might be an opportunity!

Now, might be the time for young people to pursue their vision for a more just and equitable food system, driven by passion and grounded in pragmatism.  This might be the time for more food and farming entrepreneurs to lead us to a sustainable food system.

A national news story about Sustainable Food Jobs for example, provides an outline of the many emerging opportunities in this area.  Among the areas highlighted were:

  • Local and regional farming and marketing
  • Restaurants and food services
  • Media and marketing
  • Law and public policy
  • Public health and nutrition
  • Technology and entrepreneurship
  • Advocacy and community development
  • Teaching – especially community-based education

Many of the students who have graduated from the UMass Bachelor of Sciences program in Sustainable Food and Farming and are doing well have created their own new work, rather than “landed a job” in the traditional sense.  I encourage graduating seniors to search the job boards online, but mostly as a way of creating a vision or coming up with a new idea for a business or service that nobody has ever thought of before!  A brainstorming session in one of my classes  came up with a serious, lighthearted, earnest, and ingenious list of future jobs that included; permaculture consultants, rickshaw drivers, herbal landscapers, wood mill operators, biodiesel processors, vermiculturists, urban rooftop gardeners, microlenders, witch doctors, AAA bicycle workers, compost toilet janitors, alternate transport specialists, population controllers, seed bank managers, urban wildcrafters…

I try to be honest with students when they first arrive at UMass to study Sustainable Continue reading Where will the agricultural college graduates work?

Walmart’s policies are the cause not the solution to poverty

Walmart, the largest grocery store in the world, is often presented as a solution to poverty because of its low prices.  There is a reason for those low prices however and it is because they put ever-increasing pressure on suppliers (including those that supply food) to drive down their costs.  This drives down wages, both for the Associates who work in the stores as well as all across the manufacturing and food production chain.

Walmart is the major player in the “race to the bottom” which keeps full-time employees in poverty.  Other retailers are forced to follow in their footsteps.  When we shop locally and pay a few cents more for our food, we invest in a better quality of life for all.  However, since less than 1% of the food sold in the U.S. is produced and sold locally, this won’t be enough.  We need to require fair working conditions for all workers.  Walmart’s death grip on groceries is making life worse for millions of people!

You can help!

The following is a call for action from the Food Chain Workers Alliance.  We need to recognize that food is cheap in the U.S. because we allow people to be exploited.  When we shop at Walmart (and other “big box” stores for food) we participate and benefit from this exploitative system.

Food workers are particularly vulnerable because of their lack of political voice.  When workers protest to unfair conditions, they are punished.

PLEASE SIGN THE STATEMENT LINKED BELOW!

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Stand with Wal-Mart Strikers
on June 4th! 

Walmart employees will be striking in key locations across the country to protest Walmart’s illegal retaliation against Associates who have spoken up about inequality and have struck. Associates have been calling for Walmart wages to be raised to $25,000. Faith communities, union members, community groups, allied groups and students will be taking action in solidarity with Associates who are standing up against inequality. These actions will be happening at stores across the country and online.

You can support by signing onto FCWA’s Solidarity Statement here. Please sign onto the statement by Tuesday June 3!  You can also participate in a local action in your city or state. To find a local action click here.

To find out more about the campaign and actions on June 4 click here.

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Check out our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts to prepare yourself to work on issues like this.

BIG FOOD wins – we lose

Where does our food come from in the U.S?  BIG FOOD!

I’ve been writing about the “battle” between the Industrial Food System (big food) and the sustainable, local alternative for years.  This post was triggered by a new (and very well-researched) book titled “Foodopoly: the battle over the future of food and farming in America.”  It’s a pretty good survey of the problems with “big food.”  I’ve presented a few facts from this book below.

As I talk with many of my friends who grow food and sell at the local farmers market or our food coop, I’m reminded that this “battle” is hardly a fair fight.  Government policies over the past 60 years have made the playing field tilt dramatically in favor of the Industrial Food System (defined as consolidated, integrated and mechanized).

The fact that there is a resurgence in local food is a testimony to the perseverance of people who dare to dream and work for a better quality of life.  But before we celebrate the growth of local food too much, lets look at some numbers!

  • In 2008, direct sales of food from farmers to consumers hit a high of $4.8 billion
  • Total sales in grocery stores was approximately $1.23 trillion that same year
  • Local sales represents less than 0.5% of the the money spent on food in the U.S.

So, what about this “battle”?  It seems like it is already lost!  BIG FOOD won….

A few more facts:

  • Americans spend 90% of our food budget on processed food
  • We eat half of our meals and snacks away from home
  • One of every three dollars spent on groceries in the U.S. goes to Walmart
  • For every $19 bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken sold, the farmer makes 25 cents

Everything about the Industrial Food System stinks (except for the retail price of food).  Americans spend less than 10% of our annual income on food because our food system has been industrialized – consolidated, integrated, and mechanized.  We have traded the potential for safe wholesome food, good local jobs, quality of life for all, and vibrant communities for cheap food.  And this tradeoff won’t last.  As energy prices go up so will the price of food, since the industrial system is built on cheap oil.

My response to this crisis has always been to “buy local” and invest in a better world.  In fact, my last blog was about the International Year of the Family Farm.  However the authors of Foodopoly have me convinced that “we can’t shop our way out of this mess.”  Policy changes are needed to encourage the growth of family-managed, local farms, but where do we begin?

Well, maybe we start by acknowledging the positive and negative consequences of industrializing the food system.  Next, perhaps we begin to feel sad.  But eventually we’ll need to find a source of motivation to begin to  “join the battle.”   I’ll end with this clip from the classic film Network as a possible source of motivation.

And then take an action!

Here are some suggestions.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments box below – especially if you disagree!

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Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts.

 

We must choose either "cheap" food or a better quality of life (for all)

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm in Central California, when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. Only a few days in the country, this undocumented field worker, who didn’t have easy access to water, shade or the work breaks required by law, passed out from the heat and died two days later. (More).

Maria was 17 years old. The Center for Disease Control reports that heat-related deaths of farm workers are on the rise in the U.S. This deadly trend is unfortunately one of the costs of cheap food.

Our industrialized food system consisting of mega-farms, long-distance shipping and big box-stores has driven down the retail price of food to the point that Americans, on average, expend about 9 percent of their annual income on food. The industrial food system in the U.S. produces relatively “cheap” food, but at a cost. Fortunately, in some parts of the U.S., we can partially opt out of this exploitative and costly system.

In the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, where I live, the locally grown vegetables are generally of higher quality than anything shipped from a distance.  We can enjoy the freshness and flavor of the food available at our local farmers’ markets, farm stands, food coops and some regional supermarkets. Yet most experts agree that less than 10 percent of the produce purchased in our region is grown locally.

I suspect the reason that 90 percent of the consumers in my (fairly progressive) region of the country don’t regularly buy local food is due to its perceived higher price and the convenience of shopping at major supermarkets.

Busy people treat food shopping as just another task, rather than a pleasurable social experience.  Studies indicate that we have 10 times more conversations when we shop at the farmers’ market than at the supermarket.  I know when I stop in at the All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, I always bump into friends and neighbors.

Shopping locally isn’t an “efficient” use of time in my task-driven life – which is one of the reasons I make the effort slow down and shop at the farmers market or local coop.  For me, buying locally is an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).

Some regional supermarkets do try to offer local products. The Big Y in Western Massachusetts, for example, is a family-owned business and a major supporter of the UMass Student Farm, which grows organic vegetables for sale locally. When we do choose to shop at supermarkets, we can support local farmers by asking specifically for locally grown products.

And what about price? How often have we heard the statement that local food costs more?

Certainly, local beef, pork and chicken cost more than meat raised in a factory farm. You just can’t beat the efficiency and scale of the industrial animal factory for low price. The fact that local meat products are generally produced with less stress on the animals may not be worth the higher price to some of us. Of course, if we were concerned about our own health, the health of our community and the health of the environment, we might choose to eat less meat altogether and when we do we can buy local. This would be an investment in a higher quality of life for ourselves, for local farm families, and for the animals we consume.

On the other hand, there is little difference in price between local and shipped vegetables, especially during our growing season.

But “cost” includes more than “price.” The industrial food system that produces cheap food does so at the expense of the workers in the food system, on farms, in factories, shipping terminals, big box-stores, and the fast-food restaurants serving the food. These workers earn near minimum wage. A federal minimum wage law that leaves families in poverty is part of the cost of cheap food.  Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez’s death is also part of the cost of cheap food.

When we consider the quality of life we enjoy in those regions like my own where local food is plentiful, we might also wonder about the quality of life of those who are working to produce, ship and sell cheap food. When we buy food shipped from long distances, we say “yes” to an exploitative system designed primarily to maximize financial returns of corporate shareholders – at the expense of others.

It is true that relocalization of the food system may result in higher (but fairer) food prices overall. At the same time buying local food will create local jobs and build community.

When you buy your food locally you are making an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).  I think this is an investment we can’t afford not to make.

===========================================================

Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.

NOTE: this post  was adapted from an editorial I wrote for the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project and was posted originally here.