Local Lessons About Local Food: A Call to Invest in Local Food Infrastructure
This op-ed was originally published by the Montecito Journal on June 4, 2020. See the original version here on page 41.
Food is such a basic human need, but as the COVID-19 pandemic has so sharply illustrated, despite our region’s bounty, our ever more complex food supply chain is not something we can take for granted.
In 2016, Santa Barbara County stakeholders (including the CEC) completed a comprehensive, community-driven strategic plan that provided recommendations for how we grow, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. The pandemic and its impact on our food system has put that groundwork to the test, spotlighting lessons we can learn from failing to adequately prepare for the current crisis.
One of the best ways to support and strengthen our local food supply chain is to purchase regionally-produced food. Look for independently sold, responsibly sourced, fresh and seasonal food. As a result of COVID-19, the market is in flux, but our local farmers markets and some individual farmers, ranchers and fishers are still operating with social distance guidelines in place.
While buying regionally is critical to maintaining a local food supply, that is only part of the puzzle. Like other short-term disaster response efforts, it’s only a Band-Aid to a longer-term problem. To have a truly sustainable and robust local food system that is less vulnerable to outside forces, we need to promote investment in and a regulatory structure that encourages smaller scale, local and/or regional food processing. Local food needs to stay local. Under the “old normal” circumstances, growing food here and then transporting food for processing is highly fossil fuel intensive and wasteful. When cracks in that system start to surface, as they have recently, it becomes even less efficient and even more illogical.
It will take effort and time to begin to regionalize our food processing, but it can be done.
For example, the Thomas Fire and the subsequent debris flow delayed White Buffalo Land Trust in harvesting their persimmons and getting them to market. Rather than let the fruit go bad, they created a persimmon vinegar product with a local distillery and solidified a new business venture. We’re seeing similar examples today: distillers and other small manufacturers are transitioning their equipment to create emergency products like hand sanitizer and personal protection equipment.
The resilience, ingenuity and grit it’s taken for these businesses to pivot is impressive, but time was lost and perhaps other product lines sacrificed to make this happen. If our region had a grainery, seafood or meat processor, or other food processing systems needed to keep the locally produced food local, we could lighten our carbon footprint, keep more money in the county, have access to the products, and food growers could avoid the price fixing that ensures corporate processors make a profit while local farmers and ranchers barely get by.
As cattle rancher and Oklahoma Farmers Union president Scott Blubaugh told CNN, the problem lies in how the corporate food processors treat their workers and farmers, squeezing the growers to increase their profits. He suggests we, “start enforcing antitrust laws that we used to have on the books…. We need to get away from this huge corporate control and international corporations controlling our food system.”
We agree wholeheartedly. This is yet another example of the policy work we need to do, and continue doing once we’re “back to normal.”
This is an excellent opportunity for local impact investors to provide the capital to build regional food processing capacity. This would have huge community benefits: helping to secure the local food system by investing in business, creating jobs and supporting resiliency. Putting this in place will take political will and a clear community vision for greater self sufficiency and resilience.
We were just starting to recover economically from the Thomas Fire when COVID-19 hit. It’s clear that we can no longer send 95% of our products out and import the same products back processed and packaged up. That adds costs — both financially and environmentally — and is a very weak link in our food system.
The CEC has long been active in taking the steps needed to pursue a sustainable food system that balances the carbon equation to mitigate climate change. As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate so clearly, working together to secure our local food supply (while making sure that our workers are treated fairly) is one of the most important ways we can help to ensure a more resilient community.
Sharyn Main has 35 years of experience in philanthropy and the non-profit sector, currently as the Director of Climate Resilience at the Community Environmental Council. She grew up in Santa Barbara and is a fourth generation County resident.