The Expert View
Food systems expert and author
Taking the Pulse of a Community's Food System
By Sandy Graham
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mark Winne writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics, including local and regional agriculture, food assessments and food policy. From 1979 to 2003, he was the executive director of the Hartford Food System, a private nonprofit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Conn., area. He is the author of "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty" and "Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin' Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture." Winne lives in Santa Fe, N.M., where he serves on the Santa Fe Food Policy Council and the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance.
You wrote recently that we're in a battle for the soul of the food system that pits "industrial food" against "alternative food." Who's winning?
It's still a battle. I guess in terms of sheer dollar volume and size, the industrial food system is winning. But the fact that there is this consciousness emerging around sustainable food, healthy food and social justice suggests there's hope we can change the food system to one that is built around those three ingredients.
In one sense, we're winning the battle for more local and sustainably produced food, and in some cases, healthier foods, and we're becoming more aware of how the industrial food system manipulates us. At the same time, our analysis of what the problems are – the underlying problems of sustainability, health and social justice – continues to be weak.
How can communities best take the measure of their local or regional food systems?
A lot of people want to start with an assessment. [Assessments profile food needs and resources as well as social, cultural, agricultural and environmental factors affecting the food system.] I like to start with my hands in the dirt. We did do food assessments in Hartford, but they were very targeted. We knew that food was more expensive in the city than outside the city. We'd documented it with comparative price surveys. We knew that the transit system didn't serve city people who wanted to get to food. We really targeted our assessment to advocacy such as getting new transit routes connecting low-income neighborhoods to food sources.
What's a good starting point then for a community?
The starting point is bringing together people who already know and are actively engaged in doing food system work and to trust their native knowledge. People don't seem to trust their own experience, so they say, "We need an assessment," and bring in people to gather data who know far less about the community than they do. That doesn't necessarily provide you with the tools you need to either develop new programs or advocate for policy interventions.
I do think there is a role for food assessments, but I think we've gone too far. I've been doing community work for 40 years and I've gotten a little curmudgeonly about food assessments. They take a rational approach to an un-rational process. There's nothing very rational about our government and policies these days, and I'm not optimistic they're going to become more rational.
Would you avoid assessments completely?
I'm not saying throw them out with the bathwater. People need to retarget and focus. I want the minimum amount of assessment I need in order to move forward. I've seen groups who've spent two or three years doing assessments and I think that's unfortunate. There are so many problems out there. If you're spending all that time on assessment, it means you're not doing the change work that needs to take place.
I often advise communities to conduct some sort of policy inventory about how the government works and the role it plays in food. This is often overlooked. People don't know who is operating food stamp or WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] programs, or what a city could do to affect [agricultural] land use, or how many people are served by the local food system or how many pounds of food are being purchased.
A good idea is the tour that the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council took in August 2011. [The trip involved meetings all over the state with local and regional food policy councils and a range of producers, including an urban community farm, a fourth-generation organic fruit grower, a vineyard and the state prison's agriculture program.] This was a nonstandard approach, but participants learned a lot – and it was a good team-building exercise.
When you've assembled a group that is interested in improving the community food system, what's the first step?
The first exercise I do is to ask people what are the strengths and weaknesses of the community with respect to food. I ask them to name two or three things that are working well and two or three things that are not. That allows each person to share his or her perception.
For example, someone might note that there are a lot of community gardens springing up, but not in low-income areas. Why is that? That's an opportunity for more work, a small assessment. Maybe it turns out vacant land isn't available.
Someone else may observe that residents of a certain neighborhood have to take a five-mile bus ride to reach a decent supermarket. The group can quickly do mapping relative to low-income neighborhoods and food availability.
The process involves sharing information among themselves, building on their knowledge and deciding what else they need to know.
Is there an identifiable end to food system work?
I've never yet seen a group put themselves out of business. Part of the job is you become a food system expert. It entails ongoing monitoring of the food system. You're always paying attention to what's going on – talking to people, driving around the community, observing: Why is this community garden's plots only half-taken? Why did this farmers market fail? Why aren't more of our schools starting school gardens like this school did?
That's why I work for food policy councils. It's a vehicle by which we can maintain this monitoring process. In effect, each person becomes a food ombudsman.
Does every community need a food policy council?
There are about 150 food councils in the United States now, up from 50 or 60 five years ago. We've certainly seen growth. And they are certainly more necessary in places where we know food disparities exist. But the bigger picture is that we need to put food on the policy agenda everywhere, even in the most affluent community. The outcome of this effort would be that at some point in the future, every city, every county and every state has food as part of what it does. It becomes second nature in the same way public education and public safety are intrinsic elements of every government. Is food affordable? Is it accessible? Is it the healthiest food possible? Are we using land-use policy to promote farming and ranching? These are all basic questions and functions that government ought to understand. For the time being, they are the duty of food policy councils.