When you’re shopping at your local farmers’ market or picking up this week’s CSA box, do you get this nagging feeling that there’s something more you can do to promote local food in your community? Feel the urge to active some activism for local food, but don’t know where to start?
Consider Patty Cantrell your local foods campaign advisor. No hidden lobbying agenda or smoke and mirror political agenda, Cantrell wears her passion for growing healthy, economically vibrant communities through strengthening local food channels on an open sleeve. “Food is one of the most powerful ways to push the building of a healthy, local economy,” explains Cantrell, Program Director of the Michigan Land Use Institute and a Food and Society Policy Fellow. “But this requires a significant shift in what economic developers and planners traditionally chase and prioritize, such as smokestack industries.”
Communities with a healthy local food base will form the next generation of desirably, sought after places to live, argues Cantrell. “Increasing numbers of people today, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, prioritize where they want to live first and foremost, not just where they can get a job,” explains Cantrell. “A healthy local food community proves to be an attractive, authentic appeal for moving to a certain area. With increasing numbers of retired Baby Boomers resulting in less people in the workforce, communities will start competing to attract residents and those with a vibrant local food economy, from farmers’ markets to restaurants showcasing area fare, will have a marketable advantage.”
Cantrell believes we stand at a hopeful crossroad. “I see this economic shift in our near future from products to relationships where people consciously prioritize where and how something is grown or manufactured,” Cantrell predicts. “Having a strong network of local producers gives authentic meaning to a community, and that is where the true value lies.” In the process of building local food assets and attractiveness, communities can grow green jobs in food and farm production and marketing, too.
Take your own food activism up a notch with these starter tips to grow your community’s local food roots:
1. Do Your Homework
Research and collect examples of what’s working in other communities and see what might apply to your community. Woodbury, Iowa provides an inspiring example of a small Midwest community coming together to change their food system. The Michigan Land Institute and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) provide additional strong case studies and other resources.
2. Connect with Community Cash
Cantrell recommends seeking out community groups whose mission is to promote economic vitality, such as the chamber of commerce or county economic development association. “You will find allies out there, but sometimes it does require bringing new information to the table,” advises Cantrell. “Economic developers historically have viewed farms and agriculture as part of the USDA, not as small businesses. That perspective needs to change.”
3. Organize a Task Force
Get together your local friends and allies and establish a “task force” to examine these local food issues. Ideally this would be under the chamber of commerce or other community organization to give legitimacy and authority to your mission.
4. Rethink Land Use
Similar to economic developers, land use policies need to be reevaluated to better support local foods. “Agriculture has been defined from a zoning perspective as strictly producing commodity crops, which often works to the detriment of small-scale, on-farm start-ups such as agritourism enterprises,” adds Cantrell. “Working with your planning and zoning officials to allow for more farm business activity, such as artisan cheese making or canning classes, is a great way to start” And here’s a fine new resource from the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute on how communities can encourage healthy food systems through zoning improvements
5. Continue Educational Outreach
“Keep an open mind and keep connected with a variety of groups and organizations in your community, from University Extension to small business educators,” Cantrell comments. “The positive spirit and intent of the local foods movement has the potential to bring diverse segments of the community together.”
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