Food Security - It Takes a Community

Activists adopt "community food security" to begin to solve the problems facing households, food producers, and the larger food environment.

Food Security - It Takes a Community

Applied originally to agricultural assistance in developing nations, "food security" was later adopted by academics and anti-hunger activists as a more accurate description of the threat of domestic food insufficiency facing U.S. households.

While food security, both globally and domestically, was defined, in C.C. Campbell’s words, as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life," its primary field of concern was the individual or household.

In reaction to a variety of emerging U.S. food and agriculture issues — e.g., low farm prices, questions about agricultural sustainability, the relationship between diet and health, and limited access to affordable food in many U.S. communities — activists and scholars began to adopt "community food security" to describe the merger of the problems facing households, food producers, and the larger food environment.

Its generally accepted definition, first developed by Michael Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University, is "a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice." Community food security, in other words, recognizes the importance of a host of community-based institutions and sectors — agriculture, community development, public health, government assistance — to achieve true food security in a given area or region.

At a policy level, attention to community food security has emphasized the historical connection between the economic viability of the farm sector and the food security of lower-income households. This relationship has its roots in Depression-era New Deal programs, which distributed farm surpluses to hungry Americans. That precedent was later followed by President Harry Truman, who established the National School Lunch Program after World War II for national security reasons, and President George H. W. Bush, who established the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program in 1989 to increase low-income families' use of fresh produce at farmers’ markets.

The growing interest in the meals offered in public schools and the growing problem of obesity raise again the relationships between food security, nutrition, and local agriculture. The American School Food Service Association estimates that 30 percent of the nation’s 23,000 public schools sell fast food. To partially offset the impact of unhealthy food environments on children, nutrition advocates and school districts have turned to sourcing food for school meals from local farms ("local" in this context is generally understood to mean within the state or sub-region where the school district is located). The link has had two important benefits: children start the habit of eating more fresh, locally produced food early in life — especially when their eating is supported by food and farm education activities, including gardening — and farmers develop new markets with often higher returns for their goods.

While measures of the results from this approach to child nutrition, commonly referred to as farm-to-school, are still preliminary, evidence suggests that children will significantly increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables (and other healthy food) from local farms when the food is prepared and served in a tasty and attractive manner. Similarly, farmers have expressed satisfaction with selling to local schools, generating income from nearby customers. At least 400 school districts around the country currently operate farm-to-school programs, with many more planning to do so. The interest in farm-to-school is evidenced by the first national Farm-to-School Conference held in Seattle in 2002, which drew more than 300 people. Another conference is planned for June 2005 at Kenyon College in Ohio.

To facilitate the development of farm-to-school programs, the Community Food Security Coalition proposed a provision for the federal Child Nutrition Act, which was reauthorized by Congress in 2004. Known as Access to Local Foods and School Gardens (Section 122), the provision established a competitive grant program of up to $100,000 per school district for development and start-up costs associated with farm-to-school programs. These could include the purchase of equipment and storage facilities, staff training, development of procurement and delivery systems, menu planning, the development of experiential nutrition education programs including farm tours, and the construction of school food gardens.

In spite of the success of advocates who won passage of this provision — technically an authorization — Congress has yet to appropriate any funds for this purpose. As Congress moves into the next cycle of appropriations for the 2005/06 federal budget, it is important to tell members of Congress — both senators and representatives — how important farm-to-school programs are to the health of children and the well-being of farmers. A few million dollars annually for the next five years would allow literally hundreds of school districts, especially those in poorer areas of the country, to start farm-to-school programs. The impact could be enormous!

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the Child Nutrition program, which includes the National School Breakfast, School Lunch, and Summer Meal programs. Collectively these programs funnel more than $16 billion annually to local school districts through state departments of education. The annual food portion of that funding is more than $8 billion, a small portion of which, if directed through school meal programs to farms, could make a significant impact on the vitality of local agriculture. These programs offer hope that schools can help children develop a lifetime of healthy eating behaviors, while supporting farmers and developing viable local agricultural businesses — truly a community response to the issue of food security.