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How to Localize Our Food Systems

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Source: Independent Media Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the shortcomings of our mega-food industries and the necessity to localize food production.

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April M. Short is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor. She is also a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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Food sovereignty is an urgent issue in communities around the world, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic led to further disruptions in the already fragile global food supply chains. The realities of the pandemic demonstrated how easily the current major food systems can break down. A movement to relocalize food is building in communities around the U.S, and the world. Communities from the Pacific Northwest, to Chicago, to Palestine and beyond are creating models of food sovereignty that will be increasingly vital in coming years, given the worsening realities of the global climate crisis, and the likelihood of more unexpected disasters like the pandemic.

How Rural Communities Are Building Food Sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest

What follows are several examples of how farms and mills in the Pacific Northwest, from Northern California to Canada, are creating a replicable model for small-scale, regional food systems.

While the U.S. was once a haven for small-scale, family farmers. Today, food giants have gobbled up most of those family farms, creating the monstrous and unsustainable food industry known as Big Ag. The extent to which this massive, industrialized, global food system falls short became especially unmistakable in 2020. The current food system is “fraying.” It relies on the horrendous treatment of laborers, a wasteful allocation of resources, worldwide environmental devastation—and in a pinch, can quickly devolve into near-collapse of the entire system, as evidenced by the delays, shortages and pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deepening hunger crisis in America. Among the many necessary systemic changes the pandemic years illuminated is the need to majorly restructure the way communities cultivate and access food.

Given the lack of substantial response by many governments to food insecurity, it has often fallen to individuals to step in and feed their communities. Neighborhood-based volunteer groups across major U.S. cities and beyond have come up with strategies to support themselves from within, working to curb hunger with creative initiatives like community free-food fridges, volunteer grocery deliveries and other mutual aid efforts.

For those living in remote rural areas, the pandemic has shed a glaring light on the fact that a few weeks of delayed food shipments can have significant impacts on daily life. There is a clear need for regions to cultivate and strengthen local food options and become less reliant on shipments from far away.

Re-Localizing Food Supply Chains

Faced with the shortcomings of the current food systems, food producers across the Pacific Northwest have been innovating ways to reestablish locally sourced, regional food systems. In the process of localizing the food supply chain, they aim to establish food security for their communities, create local jobs and support the surrounding ecosystems.

During a free, online event called Festival of What Works, which took place in November 2020, entrepreneurs from an array of backgrounds shared their success stories to demonstrate how it is possible to build and scale local food production across geography as well as institutions and create more food-secure communities.The festival was a project of a newly launched eco-trust network called Salmon Nation. It gathered a collection of voices from various cultures and focuses, to showcase solution-oriented projects from Northern California through Alaska (a region called “Salmon Nation” by many of the area’s Indigenous people) that offer place-based responses to the current political, economic and climate realities.

Here are three examples of localized food projects successfully challenging the current system—all of which lend themselves to replication in other regions.

1. Localizing Flour Mills Across a Region

When food giants wiped out family farmers, mills were no exception. Just about 120 years ago there were 24,000 mills in the United States. Today there are only 180.

Both Indigenous groups and small-scale, independent farmers in the Pacific Northwest have started to bring back regional grain farms and flour mills. These mills process non-commodity grains that are meant to grow within the specific regions where they are cultivated, and a regionally oriented food supply chain is beginning to reemerge around flour produced by the mills.

Kevin Morse, the founder of the regionally sourced and operated Cairnspring Mills flour mill in the Skagit Valley in Washington, said he founded the company as a way to bring back small-scale, local flour milling and respond to the ecological problems and issues of climate resilience associated with large-scale production.

The Cairnspring Mills sources from grain farmers across the region between Northern California and Northern Washington.

“[Regional food supply chains will be key into the future] when it comes to climate resilience because we’re going to have food deserts and food shortages,” Morse said. “By bringing back local supply chains and local production capacity to turn that crop into food, we automatically make the community more resilient because we’re not relying on imports.”

A video on the company’s website details how Cairnspring Mills was instrumental in keeping flour in production in the region during the COVID-19 outbreak. When many food supply chains were interrupted and grocery aisles sat empty, many of them without flour for months, Cairnspring stayed in operation and supported other local businesses in the process.

“Our supply chain is local, our grain storage is local, so we never skipped a beat on production [during the pandemic],” Morse said. “We were able to keep people employed and were able to help businesses that relied on flour to stay in operation. We were [also] able to keep the farmers farming and give them contracts so that they could go to the bank and get their financing. [Having a local mill] really brings back control [and] resilience.”

During the Food Democracy at Scale panel discussion on November 16, 2020, at the Festival of What Works, speaking about Cairnspring, Morse said that it is “the first craft mill in this country,” and currently operates at a similar scale to some of the early craft beer companies and small coffee roasters. He said the mill is doing for flour what “Starbucks did for coffee and Sierra Nevada did for craft beer.”

The mill has the capacity to make about 7 million pounds of flour per year, and it sells its flour to the surrounding community via commercial customers and craft bakeries—both locally and down the West Coast region into Northern California. In comparison, a single mill belonging to the large-scale milling companies in operation today can make the same amount of flour his mill produces in a year, in just two days, he said.

He, however, pointed out in the panel discussion that the flour produced by these large-scale milling companies is “a very different flour… What they have brought us, unfortunately, is grain that’s not healthy. What they have brought us is grain that’s oftentimes polluted with chemicals or grown in monocrop environments, which are contributing to other issues we have with water quality and disease resistance… They can source grain from Kazakhstan, Canada and Kansas, and that could all be in that white bag on your shelf.”

He said Cairnspring is doing the exact opposite by sourcing from farmers and paying them premiums above commodity pricing so that they can stay economically viable while being incentivized to steward the land. They’ve helped provide a market for regionally viable grains that have long been used as a financially unsustainable rotation crop. And, they’re focused on producing a quality, flavorful craft product rather than driving down prices with mass production.

Morse said when the pandemic hit, more people began to understand the importance of local food systems for community resilience and in the six months since March, the business has raised $2 million.

“There’s been a shift in consciousness—not only of people seeing the need for this, but more people are seeing that it’s just a better product and it has real market potential,” he said.

Morse has a background in farming, economic development and conservation ecology. Prior to founding the mill, he worked for a decade with the Nature Conservancy and was director of the Puget Sound Working Lands Program. It was his job, he said, to find ways to align conservation and farming, “to achieve conservation outcomes on private land.”

After working in various fields for 35 years, he came to see that all of the things he cared about—from regenerative and sustainable farming to conservation—were in response “to a food system that wasn’t serving us well.”

He explains that as the food system was centralized, local communities lost their access to local food processors. This, in turn, forced farmers into the commodities system, or into single-buyer markets, making them more vulnerable to market changes, and pricing out the majority of small-scale farmers. He came to realize that many of the environmental issues he came across in his work—like issues with water quality or wildlife habitat—stem from that commodity system.

“Modern farming and chemical agriculture were destroying habitat and not giving farmers an alternative market to take care of their lands,” he said. “I’ve never met a farmer that said, ‘I’d really love to use more chemicals on my land,’ or ‘I really don’t want to see any wildlife on my land.’”

He came to realize that in order to rebuild local food systems, there was a need to rebuild local processing infrastructure. He also realized farmers would need to get a higher premium for their “higher-value, better-tasting, more nutritious products.”

“Thankfully, we’re at a time where the consumers are demanding cleaner food and they have more awareness of the challenges with some of our modern agriculture,” Morse said.

The idea to create a local mill came out of community interest in adding value to local grains, which were seen as “a crop that farmers have lost money on for a hundred years, but they’ve used in cereal grain rotations as a way to break disease cycles and add organic matter to the soil to maintain a high quality in their other cash crops like potatoes or brassicas,” Morse adds.

At the time Morse had the idea for the mill, the Washington State University Bread Lab as well as port officials at the Port of Skagit, farmers and other interested stakeholders were already looking into better ways to utilize the grains grown in the region.

The mill provides a local, resilient model of producing flour using those undervalued regional grains—and the model encourages ecologically supportive farming practices.

“[Farmers] have a market incentive to improve their stewardship of the land for healthy soils, water conservation, carbon sequestration,” he said. “They’re incentivized to implement those best practices instead of pushing them to the side because they can’t afford them in the current commodity system.”

Looking at the next five years or so, Morse said the company is considering expanding to bring small, locally operated mills with similar models into other regions—but not before the current mill is well established.

“We’re looking at a half-dozen places around the West, maybe one or two on the East Coast that are prime for partnerships and collaboration with new communities to build new mills.”

2. A Regenerative Way to Farm Chickens

An innovative chicken farming model in British Columbia could help pave the way for a new standard of poultry farming that is regenerative and solar-powered. The system is referred to as poultry-centered regenerative agriculture (PCRA). Skeena Energy Solutions (SES), a project started by the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition (SWCC), is putting it into action. It has 1,500 chickens living in sustainably built, solar-powered coops, with free range to wander during the day under a low canopy of brush, which encourages increased egg production and healthier birds while also fertilizing and replenishing the soil where the birds graze.

“Canopy is really important as we discovered because chickens are jungle fowl, [not pasture animals],” said Kesia Nagata, energy coordinator for SWCC. She notes that even if poultry farms are free-range, but the range does not have a covering canopy to allow chickens to hide from potential predators, chickens’ wandering range will stay limited.

The regenerative poultry model gives the birds free access to rotating, fenced grazing areas. Rotating the area where the birds graze allows chickens to fertilize and nourish the soil while avoiding damage to the land by overuse, Nagata explains. The chickens are given locally grown feed from small-scale producers, and the project has hired local workers, the majority of them Indigenous people, who are paid living wages.

One of the big incentives for SWCC to explore the regenerative chicken farm concept is that it models a potential way for communities to stimulate their local farming economies. Ideally, it provides a method of raising 1,500 healthy, productive chickens at once on plots of land that are two acres or smaller, which keeps the cost of entry low.

“With this set-up on 1.5 to 2.5 acres, a single farmer can work three hours a day to produce 4,500 four-pound, free-range chickens in nine months, along with thousands of pounds of nuts, berries, and other cash crops… [translating] to over $80,000 (meat) or $250,000 (eggs) gross income per year, per single plot,” states an article by BC Local News while quoting a description of the project provided by SES.

The idea behind the pilot chicken farm program was to demonstrate a sustainable, land-based, inclusive, ecologically and socially viable way of farming, Nagata said.

She said the idea to incorporate a chicken farming model for an organization like SWCC, which is usually focused on salmon, was inspired by a similar regenerative farming project in Minnesota that works to pair Indigenous and immigrant farmers with small land plots.

“The focus of [SWCC] is to look at community economic development as a basis for salmon conservation, and it’s all holistic. If you don’t have communities that are healthy and wealthy and connected, they don’t have the privilege to protect the land that they depend on,” she said.

The pandemic, intense weather and other unforeseen hiccups delayed certain aspects of the project as it was getting set up through 2020, and Nagata said one of the goals for SWCC is to work through all the potential kinks so that they can eventually offer a streamlined, regenerative chicken farming model that small-scale farmers might be able to replicate across the region.

Nagata said while the project’s first months illuminated the challenges inherent to straying from the current food system, they also ended up stimulating the local economy in some unexpected ways.

“I’ve been really humbled by how hard it is to make such a tiny little dent in such a huge problem—as well as having to be part of the problem in some ways in order to make it work—but I get excited about the fact that one project like this has inspired so many people to think about how else they can tag onto it,” she said. “Supportive jobs, businesses, and products can be created around this one idea—and that’s where the real economic development part is for me. Like, okay, great, there are some chickens. But there’s also a chicken soup and a chicken pie company. There are also local grain growers. We’ve got the local feed store interested in helping out. There are also all the administrative jobs involved in running things. There’s also the potential for pet food—and whatever else. There’s so much potential for change from a single project like this.”

3. Sustainable Livestock Ranching

The American meat industry is unsustainable, and beef alone carries a significant carbon footprint. During the Food Democracy at Scale panel discussion at the Festival of What Works in 2020, Cory Carman, a fourth-generation cattle rancher, shared how and why she operates Carman Ranch, which is spread across 5,000 acres, as a sustainable, grass-fed, locally oriented meat business.

Carman Ranch, located in Northeast Oregon, is a century-old family business that raises grass-fed cows on an open pasture. The main focus of their business is on building healthy, carbon-sequestering soil while producing beef that is more nutritious and healthier than many of the mass-produced options.

As of 2020, the ranch had recently begun to partner with other family ranch producers across the greater region in order to stay afloat in a meat industry saturated by major conglomerates.

Carman said as she took charge of the family ranch and looked at what the fourth generation of the farm would need to look like into the future, she realized partnerships with other producers would be key.

“Individuals doing their own thing is not how you create change,” she said in the panel. “I started marketing grass-fed beef from our ranch and added additional producers from our region. Now we work with eight to ten producers in the Northwest, from Montana into Idaho, Washington and Northern California, to provide a year-round supply of grass-fed beef.”

The operations of Carman Ranch are also unique in that they ship cattle directly from the farm where they are raised to the meat-processing plant. From there, the meat goes directly to wholesale, or directly to the customer—and all of these steps happen within the local region. These steps are highly uncommon in the meat industry.

Carman said in the panel that the ranch produces 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of meat per week, on average. This is far less than what industrial cattle farms produce, and Carman said the biggest meat players can produce in a single day or even half a day what their ranch produces in a year. What they do provide, bolstered by regional partnerships, is enough to meet the demand for their product, which remains niche, and has a dedicated customer base.

“[Our customers] share our vision… [about] what the food system could look like and the values the food system could deliver,” she said during the panel discussion. And, through the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve already proven more resilient than the large-scale meat industry.

“When it comes to food security, with the huge processing [plants] shut down [due to COVID], we weren’t impacted at all,” she said in the panel. “We have been a family-owned, smaller-scale processing facility, and a smaller crew that could take much more precautions… Nothing about our supply chain was impacted at all through COVID.”

Rather than focusing on expanding or scaling up their production to drive down costs, the company is focused on carving out a space in the market with their present setup, and investing the time to develop a successful long-term alternative to the unrealistic mainstream model.

“There is absolutely a vision toward changing the whole food system,” she said. “My biggest hope is if we have some success it will only make it easier for other people who want to do that same type of work.”

Their ultimate goal is to serve as a model or “learning laboratory” for sustainable meat production that future farms can pick up and replicate, Carman said. And, according to her, Carman Ranch is in a unique position to explore what does and doesn’t work well, as they have investors who support their larger vision of a more sustainable future for meat.

“We have a really distinct theory of change, [which] is that the food system of the future will be more distributed, more regional, and it will be scaled to ecological realities, not processing realities,” she said in the panel. “In that, we think about something like livestock production, we think about the places where it makes sense to [raise] livestock and how different regional companies could be connected to each other. In our vision of the future, there are a lot of regional grass-fed beef companies and they collaborate to potentially trade cuts, to do things like value-added co-packing that would benefit from aggregating products, maybe they do marketing together.”

She said that collaboration with other regional producers is what keeps the larger vision alive and inspired.

“The biggest breakthrough moments and things that bring me joy, they have to do with our alignment as a group around things like regenerative agriculture, soil health principles, carbon sequestration, animal welfare,” she said. “All these disparate producers are aligned; we’re doing things like nutrition testing on our beef to help us internally understand… what the relationship is between the soil health and nutritional density of the beef. Those are really esoteric things for the customers, but that sort of foundation of all of us working together, around these shared goals and vision… is the success that we feel every day.”

How One Rural Community Creatively Solved Keeping Its Residents Well Fed During a Pandemic

Residents of Comox Valley in British Columbia broke many molds to keep people fed through the COVID-19 pandemic and got the government’s attention on food security. For those living in remote rural areas, the pandemic shed a glaring light on the fact that a few weeks of delayed food shipments can have significant impacts on daily life. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a clear need for regions to cultivate and strengthen local food options and become less reliant on shipments from far away.

The first few months of 2020, when a variety of basic foods and supplies disappeared from grocery store shelves around the world, served as a wake-up call to address the potential disasters that could occur should the production and shipment of food get interrupted on a larger scale. A growing movement to bring back local food production and distribution methods has expanded out of the necessity of the moment. One community in the Comox Valley, British Columbia, Canada, came up with some particularly flexible and forward-thinking solutions that offer models for resilience and food security in rural places.

Pooling Resources

“[When the pandemic began] I saw unprecedented demand for local food, as people were really scared that their food supply was going to disappear,” said Arzeena Hamir, co-owner and co-founder of the 26-acre Amara Farm on Vancouver Island. In addition to running a local farm, Hamir is also an elected official, serving as a director for the Comox Valley Regional District. “[From] the example of the toilet paper shortage, people could easily see what could happen with food.”

The Comox Valley, which has a population of about 65,000 people, is spread out over roughly 666 square miles. It has three municipalities: one city, one town and one village, and Hamir said that almost half of the population lives spread out in rural areas. Being on Vancouver Island, the population is somewhat accustomed to experiencing supply chain interruptions or delays, and typically keen to support local farmers. However, Hamir said 96 percent of the community’s food is shipped in from outside the island.

“We were watching what was happening with agricultural workers who were unable to safely plant or pick food—especially in the U.S., where a majority of our food is coming from—and we were all thinking, ‘Is this the collapse of the food system?’”

Prior to the pandemic, Comox Valley already had some structures and support systems in place around food security, including a Food Policy Council, which is comprised of elected officials, supportive services organizations and other stakeholders. The regional district government supported the local nonprofit LUSH Valley Food Action Society to create the council, and its role has expanded significantly since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Maurita Prato, executive director of LUSH Valley, said as the pandemic began, the Food Policy Council and the organization’s food supply disruption subcommittee was watching closely what was happening locally, provincially, nationally and globally around food supply, and sending briefings to elected officials.

“We were concerned about what was happening with the global supply chain… the worry was what happens when there are disruptions with one or two of those players in the global supply chains,” Prato said. “Looking back, that system has actually been resilient, but it did get a lot of people thinking about food supply. There’s not a lot of transparency in the [global food supply chain] system, and those of us that have been doing [work around food security] for a long time know from the food growers’ and producers’ perspective that farmers aren’t making a fair wage. Shortening that supply chain is always a part of what we aim to do [at LUSH Valley], and we offer brokerage between the farmers and the producers to make the process more efficient.”

Hamir said LUSH Valley—which also educates the public about local food systems and works to increase public access to locally sourced foods—already had the necessary relationships in place with farmers, officials and organizations to ramp up its operations in a big way in response to the pandemic.

“We do have this community that has been working toward food security for a long time, not predicting a pandemic but [because we are located] on an island,” Hamir said. “We’re lucky that these things were already in place.”

Hamir said when an unprecedented demand for seeds began to cause shortages for some local farmers in the early months of the pandemic, the local Comox Valley Growers and Seed Savers played an important role. Their seed bank stores seeds in freezers across the valley—particularly storing seeds for high-demand crops like tomatoes, kale and squash.

“Gardeners and farmers had a huge crunch in the supply of seeds as everybody was gardening [in 2020],” she said. “We put out a call to the seed savers and they began packing more seeds and making them available to the community.”

One factor contributing to worsening food insecurity during the beginning of the pandemic was the fact that the usual volunteers in food services—places like food banks and soup kitchens—are typically elderly.

“[They] were not comfortable volunteering when [COVID-19], which was affecting the elderly in particular, was first starting out,” Hamir said.

In its first meetings in March 2020, as the pandemic began to spread, the Food Policy Council began to hear the stories of how people on the ground were being impacted by slowdowns and closures of public spaces. Prato said during these meetings, the Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness shared that many people lacked basic access to toilet facilities, clean water and food. In response, the council switched from monthly to weekly (sometimes biweekly) meetings and began turning up some creative solutions.

LUSH Valley sprang into action, funded in part by the regional district (which Hamir said reallocated about $400,000 in administrative funding it had planned to use for in-person events and travel expenses in 2020, into LUSH Valley and other local service programs focused on pandemic recovery and response). The majority of LUSH Valley’s funding for the Good Food Box program came through federal sources, and they also received community donations.

Also, Bo Del Valle Garcia, the LUSH Valley community garden coordinator, worked with Hamir and others to create the Grow Food Everywhere Comox Valley Facebook page to help pivot LUSH Valley gardening and food growing work to offer online options for new growers.

LUSH Valley worked closely with Indigenous Education, which is a branch of the public education system in Comox Valley, and Wachiay Friendship Centre, a nonprofit.

LUSH Valley also received a number of community donations to support its efforts, and its team, composed of younger volunteers, began to coordinate with farmers and restaurants to create meal boxes for those in need.

The effort found a water tap in the community garden and made sure that people were aware of its location so they could have access to fresh, clean water. The local government helped convert regional district buildings that were sitting empty into volunteer spaces. The school district reallocated its school buses, and drivers volunteered to deliver food to people in need. Volunteers packed and delivered boxes of food to go out each week, via their Good Food Box program, and by April 1, 2020, the effort was delivering 1,000 meals per week to homeless communities and other people in need, Prato said.

“Then, we started having conversations about getting food to people that were living in isolation,” Prato said.

As the effort grew, it needed an aggregation site.

The regional district turned over the local curling rink, which was closed and emptied of its ice, to the cause. It was converted into one of the main hubs of operation for the food security effort.

“The connection with local government was so important because as we grew, we didn’t have space to run our programs,” Prato said. For example, the organization was able to start a hot meals program because the city agreed to open up the local recreation center’s kitchen, and a cook who was out of work volunteered for the job.

“We just started pumping out meals and connecting with all the agency programs that had shut down,” she said. “We started out [by] trying to aggregate food and as much as possible stick to local food.”

By mid-May 2020, the effort was relying on 100 percent local foods, adds Prato, and by December they’d delivered about 11,400 units of food to people’s doorsteps.

“What’s so amazing about it is that everybody came to the meetings with their whole self, their whole heart, just asking, ‘What can we do to address what’s happening?’” Prato said.

Hamir notes that while different branches of the local government, businesses and community organizations typically tend to be siloed and focused on the given parameters of their jobs, when the pandemic hit, everybody began to break out of their normal molds to figure out tangible, on-the-ground solutions.

“It gave our staff permission to think outside the box and creatively solve problems,” Hamir said. “That was amazing.”

Prato said that as the operation grew in scale, she was moved by the many unprecedented collaborations and relationships that developed.

“The school district’s bus drivers that weren’t driving kids to the schools started driving food out to people that needed it, we had schoolteachers and other support workers come and volunteer. It was such a generous, collaborative machine,” Prato adds. “Arzeena [Hamir], as well as my staff who worked in the community garden, noticed that we had a ridiculous waitlist at our community gardens as people really wanted to learn how to grow food, so we started gardens in other locations.”

Prato said because of the collaborative nature of the effort, their volunteer programs were actually able to respond to community needs as they arose. Hamir worked with Garcia to start the Grow Food Everywhere Comox Valley Facebook page that offered online tutorials, and it had 2,000 followers within a week. LUSH Valley started seed libraries and soil distribution with its various partners, including Indigenous Education and the Wachiay Friendship Centre.

Getting the Government to Address Food Security

Hamir said if the pandemic has any silver lining, it is that it has made more elected officials aware of the necessity of local governments to address food security.

“I’ve been advocating for more agricultural plans and more work around food security since I got elected, and initially I was getting a lot of pushback from my fellow elected officials, and even staff, that this is not the role of local governments,” she said. “What the pandemic showed was that it is nobody’s role apparently, and if it continues to be that way, we are going to have some very hungry, angry people. Thankfully our local government decided to take up that slack. Now, the food hub is on the top of the list for our economic recovery task force to work on.”

Hamir said after advocating with the provincial minister of agriculture for providing funding for a food hub in Comox Valley, the regional district received funding to create a business plan for a food hub.

“The idea is to bring all of the players—LUSH Valley, farmers, the folks who would be buying—together in one room to figure out what the needs are, what systems are missing, and then come up with a plan of how a site like this would work. The government has said if we get our plan in by June 2021, there should be some funding coming up later on [in 2021] to actually [create] a proper food hub in Comox Valley.”

Hamir said in 2020 that the higher levels of government seemed to be beginning to pay more attention to food security because of the advocacy of many groups making it clear that food is a crucial issue for people. She added that food security could be an economic driver for Comox Valley.

“This is not a charity kind of model,” she said. “We want farmers to be paid; we want everybody working in this to be paid a living wage. We think that there is an actual business model here, where everybody benefits. We’re excited that it’s happening, and sadly, it did take a pandemic to kick us in the butt a bit, to show how vulnerable our community is and what can happen when we don’t pay attention to food security.”

How a Cooperative Run by the Formerly Incarcerated Would Reshape Chicago’s Food Industry

Megacorporations tend to dominate food contracting with schools and other large facilities in America. In Chicago, Black formerly incarcerated people are prepping locally sourced meals for schools, nursing homes and transitional housing facilities.

Most School Meals Come from Big Corporations

If you went to public school in the U.S., chances are good that you remember school lunch as tater tots, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, burgers with fries and pizza slices so soaked through with oil that kids would pad them with napkins in attempts to soak up the grease. Then there were the chocolate milk cartons, a variety of soda choices, giant cookies, Hostess brand baked goods, many types of candy, and Frito-Lay brand chips of all varieties, among other unhealthy snacks and beverages schools regularly served.

These school meals were supplied by megacorporations like PepsiCo Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, Cherry Meat Packers Inc., Central Valley Meat Co. Inc., American Beef Packers Inc. and Jennie-O Turkey Store LLC. As detailed in a 2020 article by Jennifer E. Gaddis in the professional journal for educators Phi Delta Kappan, 95 percent of U.S. public schools participate in the government-subsidized National School Lunch Program, and this program is made up almost entirely of contracts by giant corporate food brands. Gaddis writes:

“Since the 1970s, Big Food has colonized the school cafeteria. From signing lucrative food service contracts to promoting their corporate brands and dishing out chicken nuggets and other mass-produced, heat-and-serve items, the food industry has done quite well for itself by selling goods and services to schools across the United States…

“Big Food companies—and their industry associations—have spent millions of dollars lobbying the federal government to weaken or change its nutritional standards, and these efforts have paid off handsomely. It happened in 2014, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) caved to industry pressure and made it easier for schools to serve French fries and pizza. It happened in 2018, when the USDA loosened restrictions on the amount of sodium, flavored milk, and refined grains that could be served in school meals.”

It happened again in 2020 when the Trump administration proposed making the rules more flexible, Gaddis adds.

Megacorporations do not just supply food to schools. Big companies, including Aramark Corporation, provide much of the food served in hospitals, long-term care facilities, prisons and other places in the U.S. that offer large-scale prepared meals.

In addition to nutritional shortcomings, foods mass-produced through large corporations tend to be put together by undervalued and underpaid employees, cheaply and unsustainably sourced and produced, then shipped over thousands of miles, creating a significant environmental footprint. The Big Food industry is unhealthy, environmentally disastrous and lacking in innovation. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the many supply chain interruptions throughout the pandemic, and the exacerbation of food insecurity across the country, these mass food systems are frayed at best. They do not have us covered in a pinch. It is clearer than ever that there is a widespread need to rethink and relocalize food systems.

Starting ChiFresh Kitchen

The Chicago worker cooperative ChiFresh Kitchen works to do just that for the food contracting industry in Chicago. They model a, locally grown-and-sourced way of supplying food to local schools, nursing homes, and transitional housing facilities.

Owned and operated primarily by Black, formerly incarcerated women, ChiFresh prepared healthy, culturally relevant meals with food that is grown or raised at nearby farms. They are 100 percent employee-owned and operated, and all employees are eligible for ownership stake after 18 months on the job, after which they can start paying toward a $2,000 membership share.

Of their first day of operation in May 2020, they made jerk chicken strips and red beans and rice, with onions and peppers, as a practice run for friends and family, and as founding member-owner Edrinna Bryant told NextCity.org that week:

“‘We were so excited about the fact we were going to cook our first meal together and people can taste it,’ Bryant said. ‘That’s so exciting to me as a young Black mom who was incarcerated. For my child to know that his mom was in a situation that felt like the end of the world and look at her now… Ain’t no food going to go wasted here. … Each day each of us will pick somewhere on the South Side or West Side and bring some food to people who need it.’”

In addition to providing an alternative food contracting option to local facilities by introducing a locally sourced and prepared food option, they are also providing jobs, agency and ownership stakes to one of the most commonly marginalized groups in the country.

ChiFresh Kitchen is part of a BIPOC-led movement, via urban farms, food operators, worker centers, policy advocates and other community organizations in Chicago focused on food sovereignty, racial justice and equitable food access.

While the business planning for ChiFresh began in 2018, the business became operational just prior to the pandemic. They’d initially planned to launch in the summer of 2020, but launched earlier than planned in March 2020 via a contract with the Urban Growers Collective, which had received funding to address pandemic-related food insecurity in their communities. Less than a year into operations they were prepping 500 meals per day.

The demand for what ChiFresh offers has only grown since, and in December of 2020, they bought a 6,000 square-foot building (their current space is about 600 square feet), which they are working to renovate, funded through a series of grants. They plan to move into the new space in the spring of 2022, and expand their capacity so that they are able to prepare 5,000 or more meals per day.

ChiFresh Kitchen founder Camille Kerr—a workplace democracy/worker ownership/solidarity economy consultant—said the project began when a small group of people, herself included, were looking into the ability of worker cooperatives to create a “liberatory, dignified workplace for formerly incarcerated people, and specifically Black women.”

In a 2022 interview, April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute spoke with Kerr about ChiFresh Kitchen and future potentials of local, worker-owned food sovereignty projects like this one to bring the food industry up to date with the real, current food needs of communities across the U.S. and beyond.

BONFILS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How Small Farms Work to Reclaim Culture and Food Sovereignty in Palestine

Palestinians have been organizing CSA programs and small farms in order to become food sovereign and protect their culture against colonialism.

Food sovereignty is an urgent issue in communities around the world. In Palestine, where traditional farming has been a way of life for millennia (and perhaps where farming began, according to historians), connections with land and food sovereignty are intrinsic to cultural identity. Palestinian people’s access to land and food has been seriously strained since long before the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020, due to Israel’s policies and practices directed toward Palestine. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on global food systems heightened pre-existing food insecurity issues in the region. Small farmers around the world have faced struggles for years, but as a Washington Post article put it in 2017, “Palestinian farmers really have it rough.”

“In a century of Palestinian struggle against colonialism, land, in all of its forms and meanings, has constituted the ethos of our struggle and culture,” said Soheir Asaad in a 2022 webinar held in honor of Palestinian Land Day that Palestinians commemorate on March 30 every year. Asaad works as an advocacy team member for the Rawa Fund that supports local, community-led solutions to the issues Palestinians face. She was the moderator of a free online webinar on April 5 2022 titled, Blossoming in Palestine: Community Organizing Around Land.

“The Zionist dispossession of our land, theft of natural resources, and ethnic cleansing have been part and parcel of a systematic, holistic targeting of the very existence of a Palestinian society,” she said during the webinar.

An article by Carly Graf published by the Pulitzer Center in 2019 opens with the story of a 60-year-old Palestinian woman who has lived in her family farm home in Burin, a village in the West Bank, her entire life, subsisting on the family’s heirloom olive harvests. She awakens one morning in May 2019 to see smoke rising some distance away and finds her olive orchards burning to the ground. There was nothing she could do but cry, as her land had been “swallowed” as part of Israel’s expansion of its nearby Yitzhar settlement in the 1980s. She can no longer “access this property freely.” As the article explains, this scene is familiar to Palestinians in the West Bank:

“In the name of security, Israel systematically removes… [Palestinian families] from the land and erases their historic rootedness to this geographic place. For Palestinians, food and agriculture are not merely a pastime; they are a way of life. Without it, they’re rendered powerless economically, voiceless politically and devoid of their own cultural legacy. Yet that’s exactly why a sovereign and self-supporting food system is an early target of Israel.”

Asaad said in the webinar that land continues to be central to Palestine’s “deeply rooted culture,” and in the recent years leading up to 2022 “we not only witness the Israeli attempts and policies to control Palestinian lands, to forcibly displace Palestinians; we’ve also seen an escalation in targeting those who organize around land.”

Community-led initiatives related to land and food justice in Palestine today are aimed at reconnecting people with the land and encouraging them to economically support locally grown food. These efforts seek to support food sovereignty and strengthen cultural roots through community-led food and agroecology projects in response to the degradation of land, culture and ways of life, and the widespread displacement of Palestinians on the part of Israel.

During the webinar, a panel of four speakers—Yara Dowani, Lina Ismail, Jamal Juma’a and George Korzom—discussed practices and models of land reclamation and strategies for political organizing against settler aggression and colonialism via agriculture and agroecology.

Community Supported Agriculture in Palestine

First to speak on the panel was Dowani, a farmer, activist and researcher who has been managing Om Sleiman (meaning “ladybug”) Farm, an agricultural cooperative in the West Bank, for four years. Dowani spoke about the challenges that come with operating a small local farm and attempting to address food access and food sovereignty in the West Bank.

The farm, she explained, started as a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) program, connecting farmers directly with consumers by allowing people to subscribe to a harvest and have baskets of food delivered directly from the farm. She said that Om Sleiman also works to educate people through workshops and courses about natural farming techniques. Dowani said the project of Om Sleiman Farm is focused on regenerating the land of the farm as well, which is particularly rocky and dry to work with—but represents a culturally symbolic location close to an Israeli settlement. This land, she said, was “liberated by the Palestinians from the village.”

Small community-led agricultural initiatives like Om Sleiman are particularly significant in Palestine as Israel continues to expand its settlement efforts in a region that has traditionally been the “food basket” of Palestine, known as Area C in the West Bank. Palestinian farms in the region have been shrinking and disappearing for decades, due to tactics of intimidation as well as direct destruction by Israeli forces, as the panelists explained in the webinar.

Asaad said in the 2022 webinar that in recent years Israeli policies had gone beyond controlling Palestinian lands and forcibly displacing people. They have also been targeting organizers, particularly popular organizing around land initiatives and farming. “We’ve seen violence and specific targeting of land initiatives, popular organizing around land, organizing with farmers, especially in Area C in the West Bank.”

She mentioned an Israeli internal report, titled “The Palestinian Campaign for Area C: Shaping a Security Reality on the Ground,” dated June 7, 2021, which she said discusses “how to better annex Area C and ‘control’ the Palestinian invasion.” She said the report “indicated clearly that some of the targets are Palestinian organizations and organizers working under the pretext of ‘terrorism,’ but the reason is very clearly to push forward the plan of annexation.”

How Colonialism Threatens Local Farms in Palestine

Jamal Juma’a, co-founder of various civil society organizations and movements such as the Palestinian Agriculture Relief Committee (PARC), the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network and Stop the Wall, said in the webinar that Palestinian farmers and agricultural organizers are currently being targeted because their lands are located in a resource-rich zone that Israel would like to control.

“These communities—pastoral settlements and outposts—are located where the resources are, so for Israel’s project of settlement they are the main obstacle,” he said, noting that every week he hears cases of sheep and cows being attacked on farms or killed by projects to erect Israeli structures.

“The Israeli project is not just a military occupation and the violence that comes along with it,” Juma’a said in the webinar. “It is a permanent ethnonational and settler colonial system that’s deeply rooted in the Zionist ideology and practices that aim at establishing an exclusive Jewish state, from the river to the sea. That’s where all the Israeli policies started, from 1948 up to now.”

He said in the webinar that Israeli forces will often conduct military exercises on or close to farms and plantations operated by Palestinian Bedouin, which force entire communities to leave, and crops and livestock are destroyed in the process. He explained that farmers and agricultural organizations are also regularly labeled as terrorist groups in order to justify Israel’s settlement expansion plans, and these practices are often designed to intimidate farmers out of organizing for better legal and economic protections, or pressure them to leave their lands, he said.

“What we see today in the West Bank is an apartheid colonial system,” he said. “I’m talking mainly about Area C, which is 62 percent of the West Bank where most of the Palestinian resources are located, which is under full Israeli control.”

Juma’a explained in the webinar that the development policies in the area have focused “first on obstructing Palestinian development of Area C by military orders, which bar Palestinians from registering land, forbid them from building, forbid local and district planning committees and councils from working properly. They deprive the Bedouin communities from having any infrastructures like roads, health clinics, schools, water networks, etc.”

He noted that meanwhile, Israel has been building its own settlements and highway infrastructure, “while confiscating land and destroying Palestinian houses.” And, he said, the situation has been escalating since 2020.

“If the situation continues like this on the ground, we will have a serious problem of food security, because we are talking about the food basket of the West Bank, from livestock and agriculture,” Juma’a said.

Ethical, Local Shopping to Support Community Food Sovereignty

Lina Ismail, a researcher and environmental activist who works as the community programs officer in the community-based Dalia Association spoke in the webinar about ways for people in Palestine to better support the local economy and help move away from extractive capitalist structures, including following ethical consumers guides.

“To add to what… Juma’a mentioned, when we look at the lifestyle in Palestine, it is shifting toward more consumerism and more individualistic way of life,” she said, noting that colonization and the increasingly globalized world are major factors at play in this shift. “We are shifting our lifestyle patterns. This is coupled with of course the international, conditional aid system,” she said, noting that the influx of aid at certain times all at once has created a dependency on aid projects in Palestine, and “a sense that we are not able to do anything on our own.”

“With regard to agricultural projects, many new agricultural projects came with this kind of mindset,” she said. “Big agriculture, big spaces planted with monoculture imported seeds and chemicals, destroyed our traditional way of farming and disrupted our relationship to the land. In a sense, it commodified the land. It became commercial.”

She noted that discussions of economic empowerment in Palestine have often come from a “very specific lens” that does not consider the colonial context Palestinians live in, nor “the emancipatory vision we aspire to.”

She said what Dalia Association means by “food sovereignty” is, “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced in ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own agricultural and food systems,” she said. “It’s also about our right to reclaim our own way of agriculture… When talking about the liberation of Palestine we talk about the basic sources of existence, and one of them is the production of food. When we are deprived of that, we cannot be thinking of emancipation or liberation.”

Ismail emphasized the importance of creating food sovereignty in Palestine, and referenced a 2021 report by Abdalaziz Al-Salehi, published by the Dalia Association, titled “Palestinian National Food Sovereignty in Light of the Colonial Context.” The report discusses “the reality of agriculture and food production in occupied Palestine” and “the importance of supporting smallholder farmers who constitute over 75.3 percent of total holdings in order to face the Israeli occupation’s policies that include land confiscation and use of resources.” Near the end, the report also includes a list of “Practical Techniques to Achieve the Principle of Food Sovereignty.”

Ismail said the work she and her organization have been doing is talking to farmers about creating “linkages between partner farmers and consumers,” such as CSA, and producing the research materials that talk about agroecology, the use of local resources, local inputs and local seeds, natural material, “and how this regains our autonomy over the land and also our independent way of food production.”

“There is a growing movement [of local cooperatives and agricultural initiatives], and we are documenting it,” she said. “Many are refusing this kind of idea or not seeing that it is already present. It is happening on the ground, and more and more youth and women are entering this movement. But what’s needed now is to consolidate these efforts… and what we are doing is organizing field visits supporting these kinds of initiatives and getting to know each other informally rather than only formally and through organizations. This network is spreading.”

She mentioned the 2021 documentary Untold Revolution about the growing movement of agroecology in Palestine, which is directed by filmmaker Ameen Nayfeh and produced by the Dalia Association in partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Asaad said often when talking about the economy in Palestine, people focus on efforts to boycott Israel. In a question to George Korzom, she asked how people might expand the discussion to focus on local initiatives that do exist and “economic models that strengthen the resilience of people, particularly at a revolutionary moment and turning point as we’ve seen [in 2021], and the question of solidarity and popular protection.”

Food Sovereignty As "Emancipatory Political Process"

Korzom is director of the research and environmental media program at MA’AN Development Center. He spoke to the idea of localized initiatives—like Om Sleiman Farm, CSA programs and efforts toward localizing the economy—as part of an emancipatory political process.

“Within that resistance production strategy we can always encourage our relatives, our friends in different areas to go and buy vegetables and fruits directly from young Palestinian farmers and support their organic fields and their agroecological initiatives,” Korzom said in Arabic, through a translator, noting that a number of young farmers are setting up networks to sell their products in different towns and shops. He said small cooperative efforts in Palestine had been growing to support young local farmers, including CSA programs in various towns.

He noted that community contributions to cooperative farming efforts do not necessarily need to be financial.

“For example, the consumer can volunteer time working on the project, planting or harvesting,” he said, noting that the popularly supported and subsidized model is a way to strengthen small-scale, organic farming and move the economy away from large supermarkets and back to local people.

“This process replaces the chain of supermarkets and the high cost of packaging and transportation and marketing, and supports small farmers by giving them more independence away from the greedy traders and their businesses and companies, and thus provides consumers with healthy, organic products of high quality,” Korzom said. “So this a qualitative change and shift in our production and consumption patterns toward establishing an economy that is resistant in nature. And this is the responsibility primarily of youth who are the main driver and engine for revolutions and revolts throughout Palestinian history.”

He said youth are already spearheading efforts to move to cooperative farming models that resist chemicals and help reconnect with land.

In the webinar, Juma’a spoke about how small-scale initiatives like CSAs and support for local economy might add up to support those who struggle against land confiscation displacement. He emphasized the need for a larger movement of organizing for farmers, and policies that protect farmers’ rights in Palestine.

Unfortunately, he said, there is a “bigger problem” Palestinian farmers are facing that needs to be solved at a higher level, “to stop this deterioration.” He said “serious efforts to organize farmers movements to stand up and fight for their rights” are necessary in order to confront the impacts of colonization on Palestinian life.

Juma’a called for a popular movement led by farmers organizations, in order to force the support of the Palestinian Authority, get the attention of the international community, and begin to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of Palestinian farmers.

“The land is shrinking and livestock numbers are dropping dramatically,” he said. “Shortages of water for cultivation and drinking is a serious problem. Agriculture workers and families’ initiatives are very important… in order to sustain agriculture in getting back to the roots… Our fathers and grandfathers and families used to work on the land, so it’s important to regain this knowledge and regain this way of cultivation.”

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