Relocalizing food for Resiliency (pt. 1)

This month we were fortunate enough to have a presentation by Chuck Marsh at our monthly Friends of Agriculture Breakfast.  Chuck is the founder of Useful Plants Nursery and is the senior partner in Living Systems Design, a permaculture and restorative land design consultancy.  Chuck is currently working with Groundswell International to develop local initiatives to address rural childhood poverty and malnutrition through permaculture based garden projects.

At the breakfast we discussed how to rebuild community resiliency and nutrition through local food projects.  Because we covered so much, this blog will be broken into three separate posts.  First, we will cover food security issues on a global, statewide, and regional scale.  Next we will discuss key ingredients needed to develop a regionally “resilient” food system.  We will conclude with a discussion on how our county can begin to address food insecurity and build a resilient local food network.

Chuck began by stating there is a…

“critical need for local and regional food system design strategies to address the challenges we face from a fragile, risky, even dangerous corporatized modern food system”

A resilient food system is one that has the “ability to thrive and respond effectively to change.”  Our diet today consists of foods that travel on average 1500 miles, often being picked 7 days before even arriving at the store.  If shipments are hindered, our grocery stores only hold enough food to support a community for 3 days!  That itself is quite alarming, but doesn’t even touch on the issues we now face with health and access.

Food Insecure:

“lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food”

Globally, food security faces many challenges.  For one, there is global competition for fuel, a resource that is unpredictable in its cost and availability for the future.  Additionally there is declining soil quality and productivity, increasing food and transportation costs, climate instability, reduced food diversity (increasing food vulnerability), and declining nutrient content of available foods.  Food grown in depleted soils and shipped long distances loses many of the valuable vitamins and minerals our bodies need.

Nationally, North Carolina was rated the 1st in local food insecurity in the USA, sourcing less than 5% of our food products locally.   One in four kids face hunger issues in NC, and one in three children are obese.  With our state’s strong agricultural heritage there is no reason for our communities to be malnourished or hungry.

On a regional level, food insecurity in Western North Carolina has some alarming statistics.

Based upon the 2011 Gallup Survey on Food Insecurity in 100 US Metropolitan areas, the Asheville Metropolitan Area  was the 7th worst in the nation in 2010.  In 2011 this area was rated the 3rd worst!  One in five people in Western North Carolina are food insecure (that’s approximately 106,000 people).  Poverty rates are soaring in Western NC, with the largest increase occurring in Polk County with a 73% increase from 2007-2012.  In 2010 44.9% of students in Polk County were eligible for free lunch.  Obesity rates in our county are also rather high, with 14.5% of children and 23% of adults being overweight (source: USDA).  In a county with a population around 20,000, nearly 3,000 receive Federal Food and Nutrition Services (DSS 2012-2013 annual report).  SNAP Redemptions for 2012 amounted to $88,659.95!  Yet even with federal assistance, 14.2% of Polk County residents are food insecure (source: Feed America),  Thermal Belt Outreach served 9,145 Polk County residents in 2013 alone!  Clearly there is a gap in food access and affordability.  Educating residents on how to grow even a small portion of their food at home while simultaneously scaling up local farm production and variety could begin to fill these gaps.

Other countries have addressed these issues, for example: Geneva, Switzerland; Angola; and the Ukraine.  Our own country used to be very food secure, with home food production intensifying during times of crisis; for example, Victory Gardens during World War II.  Is it because many do not realize the fragility of our food supply?  Or are we as a society, losing touch with our food and agricultural heritage.  We could not live without farms, and it is time for citizens to step up and make the changes they want to see, rather than being dependent on a broken food system.  Chuck’s presentation showed that addressing food security will require re-skilling, education, and community champions, but it is feasible.  Research shows that working in gardens can decrease depression, help with ADHD and Alzheimer’s patients, increase overall health, and lead to social bonding, neighborhood improvement, and increased volunteerism.  Creating a  strong regional food system would not only help to alleviate hunger in our region, but it could give us our identity back, empower citizens, and build community.