The Green Column #4

A Sustainable Community Nurtures Local Food

June 7, 2009—Food provides the perfect example of thinking globally, acting locally.

This year we may see an international food crisis as low world stockpiles collide with rising demands and limited credit. In six of the last nine years, world grain production has fallen short of consumption. China for the first time in its long history is importing food.

Lester R. Brown, writing for Scientific American in April, said falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures were undermining world agriculture. Brown warned that failure to deal with food shortages could cause governments to fail and the global economy to splinter.

Diversion of corn to fuel production in the United States does not help.

Americans have many other reasons to be concerned about food:

•  Federal food inspection has become a scandal. About 76 million Americans suffer foodborne illnesses each year, estimates the Centers for Disease Control. About 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.

•  Energy waste in transporting food an average of 1,500 miles to the buyer. Meat and other Nebraska-grown food often must be exported to out-of-state distribution points and re-imported to local markets.

•  Increasing imports from countries with different laws allowing, for instance, use of chemicals banned in the United States.

•  Federal food labeling laws are confusing to consumers and contain many loopholes.

•  Corporate giants continue to battle a wary public on all continents over genetic modification of plant materials, endangering organic farming and protection of natural seed banks.

•  Quality issues such as commercial tomatoes bred to have a red ripe appearance even though still green in taste.

•  Business practices such as privatized inspection, confined livestock, antibiotics abuse, illegal labor, etc.

•  Fast food and other eating trends cause unhealthy obesity.

•  Sprawl development for city subdivisions and commuter acreages consumes U.S. farmland at the rate of two acres per minute.

Against this industrial food system there is evidence of revolt.

Few among us will move to a farm for the purpose of growing our own food, although enough are drawn to the idea to make Barbara Kingsolver’s family story, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,’s 21st best-selling book of 2007.

The Associated Press reported recently that sales of garden seeds are sky-high, interpreting this as a response to the recession. Perhaps it also indicates shrinking confidence in commercial food. In any event, the White House is not the only house to put in a new garden this spring.

Certainly the success in Lincoln and elsewhere across the country of farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture and roadside produce vendors proves that rising numbers are willing to pay a premium for local food.

Organic food has become mainstream enough to sustain the explosive growth of Whole Foods Market from a single Austin, Texas, store to a national chain.

Open Harvest, which has retailed natural foods in Lincoln for years, is expanding. Open Harvest supports community programs and partnerships aimed at providing high-quality foods to all economic levels of the community. About a dozen local farms supply produce.

CROPS (Combining Resources, Opportunities and People for Sustainability) now has 15 gardens around the city by which Lincolnites can supplement their diets. CROPS strengthens the local economy by teaching job skills, life skills and training at-risk kids.

The Lincoln Neighborhood Alliance has applied for a grant in partnership with CROPS to expand this program to more neighborhoods next year using city park land.

New words are entering the language. A “locavore” eats mostly local products grown in a “foodshed” of 100 or 250 miles radius. Locavores consciously seek connections to the growers, land and environment and shun petroleum and other chemical inputs.

The Nebraska Food Cooperative has been organized to connect producers and consumers in the eastern third of Nebraska, a market of one million people. Dozens of sellers of free-range chickens, brown eggs, grass-fed beef, pork, goats, milk, vegetables, fruits, nuts and berries are ready to deliver monthly to members.

The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society advocates healthy land, local foods, communities and quality life.

The Good, Fresh, Local program, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s sustainable food project, is a popular residence hall dining alternative serving meals where the ingredients come mostly from small local farmers using sustainable practices.

Despite these hopeful signs, serious problems persist in Nebraska. Since 2006 the Food and Drug Administration has not conducted required annual audits of state-run food inspections in Nebraska.

The Lincoln Food Bank reports chronic and rising hunger across southeast Nebraska despite the state’s abundant cropland.

The Air Park industrial area west of the airport was the best farm ground in the county before World War II. Rather than paving it over with factories, warehouses and parking lots, the city and the Airport Authority might be wiser to put this rich soil to its highest and best use, possibly adding greenhouses to lengthen the growing season.

Perhaps in some not very distant future, everyone in Lincoln will be grateful for local food pioneers who kept alive the potential for feeding their neighbors.

One of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina is how fragile modern civilization is. Grocery stores and distributors’ warehouses contain about three days supply of food. If anything disrupted the steady stream of semi-trailers motoring into Lincoln each day, we would all consider food our number one priority within a week.

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