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Planet  |  Food

Reflections on a Growing Local Food Movement

The movement to transform our country’s food system is picking up steam–and the political environment has never been better.

Pike Place farmer, photo by brian glanz

Can the local food movement become a political movement?

Photo by Brian Glanz.

In April, more than 20 people from Seattle and surrounding King County attended the Kellogg Foundation’s annual Food and Community Networking Conference in Phoenix, Ariz. The conference, which brings together more than 600 local food activists from around the country, promotes healthier communities by furthering the growing transformation of the American food system. Seattle and King County’s goal is to move towards a model that is healthier, more local, less chemical and pesticide intensive, integrated with healthy lifestyles, and aligned with the principles of social justice.

I had the good fortune to be asked to attend in my role as the sponsor of Seattle’s Local Food Action Initiative and cheerleader for the many community efforts around Seattle that are transforming our local food systems. Although many attendees reported that they had the support of their local elected leaders—Michelle Obama even made a video appearance to cheer us on—I was one of only two elected officials at the conference. In my closing remarks to the group, I urged participants to broaden their reach and help make this social movement into a political movement.

Innovative and flexible business models that can fit into the existing system make a huge difference.

Here are some key observations I took away from the event:

  • The national environment for this work has never been more promising. The full engagement of the White House—and new legislative initiatives moving through Congress—may not get much notice in the mainstream media, but the support is real, and there is leadership from the federal government in ways that have never existed before.
  • There is great momentum and enthusiastic response from youth engaged in this work. Seattle’s own youth movement—the Food Empowerment, Education, and Sustainability Team—based in the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, is a great example of this. About 100 of the conference participants were youth delegates, and their consistent message was: “Work with youth, don’t just talk at them.”
  • Transforming the food system will require careful analysis and understanding of food chains in order to truly bring about change. It’s easy to suggest, for example, that buying local food will reduce your ecological footprint, but that’s only true if the local growing and transportation system is designed to minimize the use of fossil fuels. For example, local farmers carrying their produce directly to consumers in pick-up trucks is often less efficient and ecologically positive than bringing farmers together to pool their resources and use larger, more fuel-efficient trucks. The details really do matter.
  • Innovative and flexible business models that can fit into the existing system make a huge difference. Farmers, wholesalers, and food users can count on the current food supply chain to be reliable. That reliability is critical to farmers, and it is risky to try to create a whole new supply chain. It often works better to figure out ways to insert healthy local food sources into the existing chain.
  • Social justice is a critical element of a successful new food system. The current system uses workers who are underpaid and often here illegally; many are exploited because of their legal status (what recourse does an undocumented immigrant have if the employer cheats him on the paycheck?). There are models for producing and distributing food that do not rely on this unjust pattern, but in order to get more food produced under socially just conditions, the production, distribution, and marketing systems must be designed to achieve that goal.

At one of the concluding sessions, a representative of the Pima Indian Nation reminded us that even the vocabulary of change can often reflect values that are in conflict with local sustainability. She noted that urban areas that do not have stores that carry healthy food are referred to as food deserts. "This seems odd to us," she remarked, "who have been living on the bounty of the desert for hundreds of years! And, of course, in many of these communities, urban agriculture is even easier than it is in our desert."


Richard ConlinRichard Conlin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Richard is president of the Seattle City Council and a YES! Magazine board member.

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