GLEANINGS
Examining the roots of food insecurity . . .
. . . and local solutions for creating true food security

By Mark Winne, Executive Director of the Hartford Food System

February 3, 2003: At a recent bio-terrorism conference sponsored by the Harvard University School of Public Health, several participants expressed concern that America's agricultural sector was the most vulnerable to biological attack. "It's the perfect target and the perfect weapon," said Tom McGinn, assistant state veterinarian for North Carolina.

In a world that feels as unstable as ours does today, where the omnipresent words "security" and "bio-terrorism" and "threat" have turned all of us into hyper vigilant citizen consumers, an additional measure of safety can be gained by knowing where and how your food is produced. This is why the development and maintenance of more regional and community-based farming systems should be at the top of our homeland security agenda.

It has been through the overwhelming force of the marketplace, supported in large part by federal policies, that the United States has developed a highly industrialized form of agricultural production, food processing and distribution that is potentially susceptible to bio-terrorism and other acts of human depravity.

With more of our food produced by fewer and larger farmers who are increasingly concentrated in a couple of major agricultural regions, we may very well have increased our vulnerability rather than our security.

On the other hand, a large number of smaller farms, diversified by size and type of production and scattered generously throughout all regions of the U.S., stand as a prudent bulwark against a catastrophic assault on our nation's food supply.

While efforts to increase security may be called for in these edgy times, policies of support for a local agriculture offer as much promise of thwarting bio-terrorism as any of the more lavish and expensive proposals put forward by the federal government to date. Maintaining a strong local and regional agriculture base, for instance, requires a steadfast commitment by federal and state government to the preservation of prime farmland, especially near metro areas where it is most threatened by development.

Farms such as the Holcomb Community Supported Agriculture Farm, located just 30 minutes from Hartford, Conn., are one example of how we can support local communities and farmers. Members of this subscription-style farm visit once a week from early June to late October to pick up a share of the harvest. These shoppers have the added advantage of knowing the farmer and knowing how the food is produced.

Similarly, there must be more public support for the development of on-farm enterprises--such as cheese making and greenhouses--that will give farmers a higher return from their products. These programs would help support the Town Farm Dairy, just down the road from Holcomb, where Bill and Agnes Walsh milk 40 Jersey cows, bottle and sell the milk right there on the farm in old-fashioned glass containers, and turn what they don't bottle into cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

Such efforts can also aid meat-producing farmers who wish to gain a greater share of the food dollar by selling directly to the consumer.

There must be an increase in public commitment to the development of other direct market outlets for agricultural producers, such as the 3,100 farmers markets that have sprouted across the country. The growing trend of schools buying locally produced food should be encouraged, not only because it helps farmers but because it also gives students the opportunity to also learn where their food comes from. Without a substantial commitment to local agriculture, the security of our homeland will remain at risk. Through our choices as consumers and our actions as citizens, we can influence the future of local agriculture as well as the safety of our food supply.

As shoppers, we can ask that our supermarkets carry and identify locally produced foods. As voters, we can ask our elected officials to stand up for small- and medium-size farms at least as much as they already do for large corporate farms.

By viewing the farms tucked away in the hills and valleys of our home regions as a vital part of our extended "supermarket," we will not only rediscover the pleasures of eating locally, but also ensure a greater measure of food security for this and future generations.

Mark Winne is the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford, Conn., and a Food and Society Policy Fellow. The fellowship program is administered by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute in partnership with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. To visit the Fellows web site and browse articles by other Fellows, go to www.foodandsocietyfellows.org and click on “fellows in the media/by fellows” from the drop-down menu.