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:
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