Setting the Table

Traditionally, food supply problems have been seen as a challenge reserved for the world’s poorest countries. But even before the 1990s federal spending cuts, one U.S. child in five was either hungry or nutritionally at risk.

So during the 1990s, a growing stream of practitioners have begun to deal with food insecurity in communities in the United States. From community gardens in Watts, California, to rooftop tomato patches in Chicago’s Englewood district, farmers’ markets in inner-city Austin, Texas, and ecological farms in rural New England, food security has come of age.

Community food security (CFS), a banner concept that links together a large number of disparate emerging projects, means all people have access to a nutritious diet that comes from ecologically sound, local, non-emergency sources. The growth of CFS has focused on two distinct types of local innovations. First are small-scale agricultural projects in the inner city, ranging from local farmers’ markets to organic community gardens.

A second type of CFS innovation consists of small rural farms with strong community links. Dubbed community-supported agriculture (CSA), these organic farms are funded by local consumers in exchange for a season’s worth of crops. In the last 10 years, more than 600 CSA farms have sprouted across the country.

ON FIRST GLANCE, dealing with food access and food supply problems should be the least of America’s problems. The United States has one of the world’s most advanced systems of producing, processing, and distributing food. Outside of commercial channels, food is given away to poor and hungry people through a strong but swamped emergency safety net (often anchored by churches) that operates in diverse needy communities.

So how has community food security become such a powerful national movement? First, the U.S. food industry is tightly controlled by a few giant holding companies, tends to avoid locating or investing in inner-city communities, and relies too heavily on long-range transportation of processed community crops. CFS aims to reorient the food system to be more community based and locally controlled, and farming to be more ecologically based and protective of farmland.

A second impetus for the growth of the CFS movement is that citizens are eager to find new ways to tackle hunger in the United States. In 1996, President Clinton signed legislation to reduce federal spending on emergency food assistance programs. As these reductions take effect, community food banks are expected to be overwhelmed. For example, in 1996, federal funding for Los Angeles’ Emergency Food and Shelter Program was cut 28 percent while demand for such funding nearly doubled. The current policy environment is a "kick in the pants" for communities to become food-secure.

In 1994, a surprisingly large number of constituents converged from the sustainable agriculture, environment, anti-hunger, and urban social justice movements around what Mark Winne of the Hartford Food System called "a fairly spontaneous recognition of mutual interest." A conference in Chicago that year galvanized diverse organizations to commit to long-range, community-driven food security programs at a time when other progressive groups were in retrenchment.

CFS practitioners are seeking ways to encourage broader changes in the U.S. food system, with some small but promising initiatives. The U.S. Congress passed the Community Food Security Act in 1995, authorizing funding for a handful of food security projects across the country. The Act built on earlier steps like those taken by city governments in Hartford, Connecticut; St. Paul, Minnesota; Austin; and Los Angeles to adopt parallel food security ordinances during the 1990s.

To keep the momentum, food security advocates in the United States will need to make new connections with their peers in developing countries. Vast potential exists for a learning exchange to enrich and invigorate practitioners and programs on the ground in both the United States and developing nations.

What about the future? The international movement for food security may face a constant assault from food industry lobbyists for de-regulated trade and be forced into a reactive posture in which it becomes possible only to limit, rather than prevent or reduce, the damage done by breakneck commercialization. But an organized food security movement across borders can press for an alternative global food system in which small farmers and their communities in different countries can work together for a self-sustaining, locally controlled production system of fresh, nutritious food.

GRANT POWER is policy and planning director of the West Angeles Community Development Corporation in Los Angeles, and a member of Pasadena Mennonite Church. For more information on CFS, contact Andy Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition, Box 209, Venice, CA 90294; (310) 822-5410.

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"Setting the Table"
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