Ask A Researcher

February 2015

Community Food Systems: Food Charters and More

Abby Gold is an Associate Director for the Master of Public Health Program at North Dakota State University and a Nutrition and Wellness Specialist for NDSU Extension Service. She received her doctoral degree in Communication from NDSU and her Masters of Public Health from the University of Minnesota. Her research areas of interest include: nutrition and health education, food access, health promotion and communication, and diverse populations.  In this article, she describes the food landscape in the United States and in North Dakota and discusses four promising community-grounded strategies to build a community food system.


Community Food Systems: Food Charters and More

            The buzzword in the foodie world is “local.” Many see local as synonymous with sustainable. The emergence of a local food movement has brought some deep thinking around where our food is grown and how our food is produced. I prefer to refer to local food as “building a community food system” from the ground up. Promoting local food saves resources by reducing the amount of fossil fuels burned to deliver calories to our table; keeping local dollars in the local economy through direct marketing, local processing, and value added activities (i.e., slow money, which highlights investment in local food systems); providing ways to reconnect with the food supply; and strengthening social, economic, and physical health. Furthermore, building a community food system adds much needed diversity to a system that emphasizes efficiency and large scale operations.

            “Access to Healthy Food” key measure can be found on the North Dakota Compass website under the Environment topic. North Dakota Compass recognizes that access to healthy food is fundamentally part of our built environment and infrastructure. For example, 31% of North Dakotans have low access to healthy foods as defined by the percentage of people living more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store if in an urban area, or more than ten miles from a supermarket or large grocery store if in a rural area. Broken down further, we see that ND ranks 47th out of the 50 states (with first being best), and children and elderly have the least access. Low access crosses all incomes. The built environment such as transportation and distribution networks affects the ability of grocery stores to stay well-stocked with healthy foods. Remedying the problem of low access involves community action to influence policy.

            Early in the local food movement, the now nonoperational Community Food Security Coalition secured USDA Community Food Project funding to promote justice, democracy, and sustainability in the food system. This article will describe four promising practices that develop these priorities, keeping in mind that building a community food system involves a multitude of well-documented, community-grounded strategies. The four strategies include: food charters, food policy councils, rural grocery stores and food coops, and urban agriculture.

Food Charters

            Food charters drive visions, actions, and strategies for civically engaged food systems. Michigan’s Good Food Charter was the first statewide charter in the nation. Minnesota launched its food charter in October of 2014. Both charters highlight what various levels of government can do to stimulate access to healthy foods for all, but in very different ways. The Michigan charter focuses on ecological sustainability and the Minnesota charter focuses on health and access. Whether it’s promoting local investment through microloans, starting a networked system of food policy councils, driving efforts to preserve rural grocery stores, promoting food coops, or creating policies that support urban agriculture – a charter recommends to decision makers at all levels of government where to put their efforts.

Food Policy Councils

            One way to increase people’s knowledge and trust about food and then to also increase access to healthy foods is through thoughtful planning of local food systems to accommodate consumer and producer needs. Food policy councils, as citizen-based advisory groups, have the capacity to bring ideas and best practices to the governmental level. Government officials require information in order to make evidence-informed decisions, which a food council can easily facilitate through its role as information-gatherer and networker.  Rebecca Schiff (2008) in her paper The Role of Food Policy Councils in Developing Sustainable Food Systems states, “One potential role for food policy councils to fulfill is to raise the awareness of government as to policy, changes to policy, and implementation mechanisms that can enhance food systems sustainability.”

The first food policy council in North Dakota, the Cass Clay Food Systems Advisory Commission (CCFSAC) is about to be launched. The goal of the CCFSAC is to impact all levels of our community’s food system to assure that residents of Cass and Clay Counties have access to safe, nutritious and affordable foods. The commission’s work will be to research and then provide recommendations regarding best practices, ordinances and policies that will improve the production, distribution, sales and consumption of healthy and locally grown foods within our region.

Rural Grocery Store Initiative and Food Coops

            In North Dakota, two food coops are in the planning and development phase, BisMan Community Food Co-op in Bismarck and Prairie Roots Food Coop in Fargo. USDA Rural Development’s manual Coops 101: An Introduction to Cooperatives says, “Members unite in a cooperative to get services otherwise not available, to get quality supplies at the right time, to have access to markets or for other mutually beneficial reasons. Acting together gives members the advantage of economies of size and bargaining power. They benefit from having these services available, in proportion to the use they make of them.” Food coops are great aggregators of local food. Not only do they serve as retail outlets for smaller producers, but they also serve as business incubators for local food entrepreneurs. Kansas State University’s Rural Grocery Store Initiative advocates for rural grocery coops as the solution for the mass closure of rural grocery stores across the nation. Developing a network of coops that can purchase in greater quantities is one way to solve the distribution and low quantity problem.

Urban Agriculture

            By the summer of 2013, Detroit’s population dipped below 700,000, a record low after 60 years of exodus from the city. This population decline has left almost 30,000 acres of blight. What to do with the empty lots is a big question. Over time, though, almost 2,000 garden plots have emerged. Some of the plots are small gardens, others are full-fledged diverse farms with animals and acres of vegetables. Detroit has led the urban agriculture movement and now a greater number of U.S. cities see urban agriculture as a way to bring healthy food closer to consumers. Urban agriculture efforts include actual city farms, municipal composting programs, backyard composting, community gardens, farmers’ markets, aquaponic facilities, animal husbandry, chicken keeping, and rainwater harvesting (just to name a few popular activities).

No single definition of urban agriculture exists. In short, urban agriculture is the growing, processing, and distributing of food in and around cities. Urban agriculture can also include farms that surround a city and contribute to the area’s food security and economic health. The Metropolitan Food Systems Plan for Cass County, ND and Clay County, MN highlights the need for “strong support for zoning and policy changes that would expand the potential of urban agriculture to expand access to healthy, affordable food options.”

The four strategies mentioned in this article cover a wide breadth of the current work being implemented around the United States and within the State of North Dakota. Many resources exist to help us get involved including NDSU Extension Service, the North Dakota Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Initiative, USDA Rural Development, and the nonprofit organizations of FARRMS, Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, and the Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture. We should all take advantage of the great food bounty the Great Plains can provide.

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