For a while I’ve been thinking about national security and the importance of maintaining vibrant local food systems – especially in today’s increasingly chaotic national and international environment. I am also intrigued with the term “locavore.”

Checking in with my friend Webster, I learned that the term means “one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible.” The term “community food system” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “local food system.”

In general, we can think of local food as food that travels the entire supply chain from production to consumption in the same general locality. If you examine food systems (or just look at the labels on your produce), you will learn that food systems exist at different scales, from global to national to regional to local.

One big advantage of purchasing local food – in addition to freshness – is that growers who cater to local customers aren’t constrained by harvesting, packing, transport and shelf-life quality issues. They can ensure the highest qualities of freshness, nutrition and taste. Given the adoption of season extension technology available today, growers can lengthen the production of certain local foodstuff into winter months (or at least extend the season of production).

I believe having a strong local food system component is just part of the greater picture of being prepared for what may confront us in the future. Connections and local networking form the basis of thinking locally and working together with others to sustain oneself in case of a natural weather disaster/emergency or chaos caused by our own government that has caused a disruption in the food supply, etc.

If the tractor trailers stop bringing food to the terminal markets or food warehouses in our urban centers, I believe that within a week store shelves would be empty and cities would run out of food. That is not a pleasant thought at all. Just think of COVID and the shelves empty of toilet paper, paper towels and other foodstuffs. Policies have consequences that can impact our food system both positively and negatively. Remember that water and food are both necessary for our survival.

I started thinking about this because of way the government is pushing to mandate electric vehicles (EVs) and the potential impact of that on long-haul trucking of produce across country. Think about a load of produce traveling from California over the mountains in winter in an EV rig. I don’t think that is going to work out too well.

In this case, government itself can be the disruption in the food supply chain by implementing policies that can be disruptive to the transportation of food. The freedom to choose what kind of vehicle truckers should be driving should be based on personal preferences, not driven by government mandates.

USDA has long linked local food production to many of its key priorities, such as food access and nutrition, enhancing rural economies, the environment, addressing consumer demand, improving the profitability of ag producers and strengthening markets. USDA recognizes that consumer demand for local foods has been growing in recent years and that federal, state and local policies are responding to this interest by the consuming public.

I recently read in a congressional mandated report that “Producer participation in local food systems is growing, and the value of local food sales, defined as the sale of food for human consumption through both direct-to-consumer (e.g., farmers markets) and intermediated marketing channels (e.g., sales to institutions or regional distributors), appears to be increasing.”

Practically, many local food system efforts also include a focus on nutrition and health or community development, from community and school gardening to economic development. Therefore, beyond the supply chain, support for local and community-based food systems is far-reaching and far-ranging.

For years the American Society for Horticulture Science (ASHS), an organization that I was actively involved in over the years, has had a Local Food Systems Interest Group and an Urban Farming Systems Interest Group. Here, persons interested in these topics can associate and exchange ideas and report on new developments in the fields to further educate and enlighten each other. I thought I would reach out to the groups to see what the latest discussions have centered on.

Dr. Curt Rom, a friend and professor at the University of Arkansas, agreed that the interest level in local food systems is indeed increasing – for many reasons. One is that people feel more secure dealing with their local food producers. Certainly the increased freshness and nutritional advantages of consuming this produce is a big part of the attractiveness of accessing local produce. You see the “Support your local farmers” bumper stickers on many cars.

One problem Curt pointed out was the loss of valuable farmland to development around many metropolitan/urban settings. This is a fact of life and many states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, have active land preservation programs. This is also where local governments can play a decisive role in encouraging the continued existence of farming in their municipalities and not overregulating these farms to death in the urban/suburban interface.

Another important point Curt made was about the large corporation that resides in his backyard. Money spent on produce at Walmart goes back to Walmart and then goes to the payment of growers scattered around the country. If you spend your money on local produce – say at a local farm stand, farmers market or community support agriculture operation – then those dollars get recirculated into the local economy and are taxed in the local environment. It is a local, circular system that benefits many more people.

Having worked for many years in putting high tunnels in inner city Philadelphia, I knew I was not going to feed the population of the city, nor was I going to end food insecurity or lack of food access. I was going to bring food production into focus for the communities that were near the high tunnels and create an awareness of the value of local food production to one’s health and well-being.

The high tunnels and urban farms were also an educational opportunity to reach out to the local schools and teach the young boys and girls about where their food comes from and why it is so important to their good health.

Our national security is based on many factors, but one is the ability to feed and support our population with abundant and nutritious foodstuffs. We need to be prepared to have a continuous supply of food and keep a strong local food system in place. It is one way to be prepared for whatever could be coming down the road.

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