What is Community Food Security?
by Andy Fisher

At first glance, America’s food system appears to be exemplary. We can head down to the local supermarket almost anywhere in the country, and purchase whatever we want at any time; Mexican mangoes in May, Chilean grapes in March, or even organic tomatoes in January. Prices are largely affordable; of all industrialized countries, Americans spend the lowest percentage of income on food.

Yet, numerous problems abound in a food system that is highly concentrated in ownership and unresponsive to community needs. Small and medium-sized farmers are regularly squeezed out of business by high operating costs, low prices for their products, and poor access to markets. An increasingly globalized food system not only promotes unfair competition, but is also energy-intensive, threatens regional self-sufficiency, and discourages consumer acceptance of regional and seasonal foods. Suburban sprawl threatens prime farmland in many of the nation’s metropolitan areas. After decades of struggle, farm workers continue to earn poverty-level wages while suffering from high rates of tuberculosis and pesticide poisoning.

Low-income urban areas are particularly marginalized by the mainstream food system. Supermarkets have abandoned the inner cities, making access to healthy and affordable food difficult for the transit-dependent. Those supermarkets that remain often charge far higher prices than their suburban counterparts, due to higher operating costs and a lack of competition. Transportation planners rarely design bus routes around community food shopping needs, leaving residents little choice but to carry their groceries long distances, use precious resources on taxi rides, or make multiple transfers. All of these factors aggravate already high rates of hunger and an above-average incidence of diet-related diseases: diabetes, hypertension, and cancer, endemic among Latinos and African-Americans, two of the primary populations in California’s core urban areas.

Despite these obstacles, community-based ventures such as farmers’ markets, urban gardens, and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are flourishing across California and the U.S. There are now more than 600 CSA farms and 2,000 farmers’ markets in the nation. In Los Angeles County, farmers’ markets bring in more than $25 million in annual sales. Urban agriculture, touted in a new United Nations study, is enjoying revived interest. Together, these efforts comprise the beginnings of community-based food systems, powerful examples of alternatives to the dominant corporate model.

The community food security (CFS) movement links all these efforts together, both politically and conceptually. “Community food security” was first conceptualized in 1994 by a broad coalition of advocates seeking comprehensive solutions to the nation’s food and farming crises. It integrates aspects of many different fields, including public health’s prevention-orientation, ecology’s systems analysis, and community development’s place-centered focus and emphasis on economic development, into a comprehensive framework for meeting a community’s food needs. Central to this approach are five basic principles:
  1. The needs of low-income people. Like the anti-hunger movement, CFS is focused on meeting the food needs of low-income communities. Unlike the anti-hunger movement, however, its goals are much broader, including such objectives as job training, business skill development, urban greening, farmland preservation, and community revitalization.

  2. Community focus. A CFS approach seeks to build up a community’s food resources to meet its own needs. These resources may include supermarkets, farmers’ markets, gardens, transportation, community-based food processing ventures, and urban farms.

  3. Self-reliance/empowerment. Community food security projects emphasize building individuals’ abilities to provide for their own food needs rather than encouraging dependence on outside sources such as food banks or public benefits.

  4. Local agriculture. Protecting local agriculture is key to building better links between farmers and consumers and gaining greater consumer knowledge and concern about their sources of food.

  5. Food systems. CFS projects typically are “inter-disciplinary,” crossing many boundaries and incorporating collaborations between multiple agencies. Fundamental to this approach is an analysis of a community’s food system, and the need to plan for its food security.

On the political front, since its inception less than three years ago, the national Community Food Security Coalition has united diverse constituencies -- community gardeners, farmers, anti-hunger advocates, food bankers, nutritionists and dietitians, public health advocates, environmentalists, churches, and community development corporations -- into a single movement for a socially-just and ecologically-sustainable food system. Its primary accomplishment has been the passage of a new grants program in the 1996 Farm Bill for non-profit organizations to undertake community food security projects. This was a remarkable achievement given the budget-cutting mood of the 104th Congress. Authorized for seven years at $2.5 million per year, the USDA-administered Community Food Projects Program received over 120 requests for funding totaling more than $21 million in 1996, despite the extremely short turnaround time allowed for proposal preparation.

While the development of the community food security movement has generated great enthusiasm among food and farming advocates, and has led to many new initiatives benefiting low-income communities and local farmers, great challenges remain before the concept can become institutionalized. For example, the idea of planning for food security remains foreign to most urban planners. While virtually every city or county has departments that address residents’ basic needs such as water, housing, health, and transportation, no municipality in the U.S. has a department of food. Food-related policies and programs instead are embedded in virtually every city department, unarticulated and disconnected, making food system planning at the municipal level very difficult. The need to develop comprehensive food system planning will only become more urgent as welfare reform forces cities and counties to take a front-line role in averting hunger. Community advocates and planners will need to collaborate and educate one another on the issues, resources, and opportunities involved in building a more equitable and ecological food system.

Andy Fisher is Coordinator of the Community Food Security Coalition. For more information, contact the Coalition at P.O. Box 209, Venice CA 90294; (310) 822-5410; asfisher@aol.com

Reprinted from Urban Ecologist, The Journal of Urban Ecology

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