"You Are What You Eat" Takes On a Powerful Meaning

Richard Smaby

On Thursday, Jan. 17, the 2013 South Sound Food Summit added dimensions to our notion of food. The conference explored the whole spectrum of our food system and encouraged the attendees to take control of their food system. The ideas presented and discussed covered the spectrum from philosophy to practical examples of how to operate an equitable and sustainable food system.

Dr. Monica Dickson of Healthy Communities of Pierce County opened the conference by connecting food to many other components of our society. Obviously, food affects a person’s health. But digging deeper we find that it affects how you perform in school, how likely you are to end up in prison and how likely you are to end up back in prison, how likely you are to be a gang member. The list is long. When we change our food system, we change our community. We need to deliver healthy food to our homes, our schools, our universities, our hospitals, our restaurants and hotels, our prisons, and our food banks.

Dr. Dickson introduced Dr. Anthony Chen, Director of the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department. He described a Community Transformation Partnership grant awarded to TPCHD from the Center for Disease Control for the purpose of building a healthier Pierce County. There are 5 components to the grant, each administered by a local organization: healthy eating and physical activity, active transportation, tobacco-free living, clinical and community health, and health equity. Details are available at the TPCHD website.

The keynote speaker was Esperanza Pallana of the Oakland Food Policy Council. Her topic was building an equitable and sustainable food system in Oakland, California.

She outlined in detail the principles behind the progress of the Oakland Food Policy Council from a gleam in the eyes of the founders to the present council. The context is Oakland, California, specifically West Oakland and East Oakland, which are poorer parts of the city underserved by grocery stores and medical and health services. Higher rates of disease in those areas are caused in part by poor nutrition. Hence, one key goal is an equitable food system. The vision of the OFPC is groceries within walking distance, food literacy, sustainable local economic development, a healthier populace, and fostering a national dialogue.

She listed the principles of creating such a council

  • Food system representation: Seek partners in the various sectors of the food system, i.e., from business, labor, community residents and youth, rural and regional organizations, health and education, and local governance.
  • Representation from the community served: Seek members for the council that represent the diversity of the community you wish to serve. It is more important that these representatives speak for their communities than they have an expertise in food systems.
  • Depth and variety of structure: Establish a variety of ways for people to participate in the council. OFPC holds council meetings, work group meetings, organizes community projects, and advocates for change.

The ideas that led to the OFPC came out of the Oakland mayor’s office in 2005. The Oakland City Council approved the concept and allocated some funds to study the food system. Various sponsors came on board, some with dollars and some with in-kind support. In 2008 Food First provided an incubator grant to help fund the early planning. In 2009 Food First and the Community Food Security Coalition published Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned based on an in-depth survey of 48 Food Policy Councils established in North America over the past 30 years. OFPC held its first official meeting in 2009. In 2010 they carried out a food policy scan to identify factually the needs and stakeholders. In 2011 they published a plan for action. The moral of this timeline is: Take the time to do the careful groundwork and make use of work already done.

What are the challenges in forming a food policy council?

  • Credibility: your proposal has to be reasonable and well-grounded in research.
  • Capacity: you will be limited by your resources, personnel and finances. Plan within those limitations. Manage your people professionally. Plan for high turnover among the volunteers. Manage finances professionally. You will always be seeking funding.
  • Impact: evaluate your project honestly and prove clearly its impact on the people.
  • Political climate: you will need government and popular support.
  • Government constraints: work with the government departments to develop your plan. Don’t show up with a fully conceived plan you are lobbying for.
  • Shared leadership: Avoid depending on a single strong leader.
  • Diverse programming: Avoid focusing on a single issue or program. You need multiple issues and projects to attract a large following.

What are the successes of the OFPC to date?

  • Fostering urban agriculture.
  • Sponsoring a mobile vending truck with healthy food.
  • Fostering local procurement of food.
  • Having supported the California Homemade Food Act.
  • Maintaining funding.
  • Attracting a great range of members.
  • Being a go-to organization.

Tacoma Council and Cascade Land Trust member Ryan Mello described current issues influencing the South Puget Sound food system. We have acounty of roughly 800,000 population. There are 1448 farms in our county producing $84 million in agricultural products. In 1945 we had 5564 farms, in 1974 1140 farms, and in 2007 1448 farms. Fifty-eight percent of farmers work off their farms for their principal occupation, in order to supplement their farm income. We have to figure out how to protect the people who produce our food. We have potential; we have some of the best soils in the nation. We have to preserve our farmland in the face of pressure to sell to developers for high prices. We have an aging farmer population and need to encourage younger farmers. We lack local infrastructure for processing agricultural products and distributing them.

Our consumers are experiencing tremendous food insecurity. 54 percent of infants are supported by food stamps. Since 2009 there has been a 40 percent increase in the use of food stamps.

We can turn things around, if we have the political will to protect our soils, build healthy, livable, walkable communities, expand markets for local farmers, get schools, prisons, and restaurants to buy local, and support agri-tourism.

Tricia Mortell and Theresa Cross described the Clark County Food System Council. It is different from the Oakland Food Policy Council, notably in being under the Clark County Public Health Department. They provide an umbrella for community organizations: faith communities, food banks, universities, schools to create healthy food opportunities. They have a paid staff dedicated to supporting member organizations, suggesting and evaluating food policy, educating the public, and advocating. They have rescued the County Poor Farm with its rich soils, so its 80 acres can employ and teach military veterans and youth about farming. They actively seek more projects to assist. Download their Policy Road Map.

Lucy Norris, Director of Marketing for Northwest Agriculture Business Center led a panel discussion describing how to effectively connect small farms with large customers. The system they have come up with is working well. It is based on making ordering and delivery efficient. It provides the software for the farmers to post their produce on the web with pictures, text, quantity, price, and contact information. The large food customers peruse the offerings and place their orders. A customer might assemble their broccoli order from multiple farms. Then comes the second part of the equation. Northwest Agriculture Business Center has access to space at the 21 Acres food hub. The farmers all deliver their food, not to the individual customers, which would be very inefficient, but to the food hub. Northwest Agriculture Business Center assembles the order for each customer from the various farm deliveries and delivers to the customer within a two hour window.

The rest of the panel consisted of a farmer and food consumers. They uniformly praised the efficiency of the system and were pleased to be able to buy local. Susan Soltes of Bow Hill Blueberries testified that, as a small farm owner, she simply did not have the time to deliver to all her customers and run the farm and the bookkeeping and all the other activities a farmer needs to do. Northwest Agriculture Business Center makes her farm possible. Kristin Cole of Madres Catering needs the fresh produce, but would not have time to shop at each farm directly. The website makes it possible for her to get local produce. The food department of the University of Washington Hospital is able to buy a significant percentage of its food locally because of Northwest Agriculture Business Center.

A panel of Tacoma participants in the food system discussed the impact of our food system on their endeavors. Matt Stickle, Executive Chef at the Hotel Murano, presented his experience buying local and organic, as did Melissa Flood, Assistant Director of Dining Services at the University of Puget Sound. The other panelists were Emily Garafalo, Gleaning Coordinator from Pierce County Gleaning Project, Dean Jackson, Founder of Hilltop Urban Gardens, Emma Brewster, Northwest Regional Coordinator of Real Food Challenge, and Derrick Rhyan, President of Go Local. They all responded to a series of questions from the moderator. Matt Stickle reported it is difficult to get enough fresh foods locally for the size of the hotel restaurant, but customers are quite impressed with the local food, when it is available. Melissa Flood reported that about 36 percent of their food is sourced locally. Colleges and universities are the largest institutional consumers of food products in the U.S.A., buying five billion dollars’ worth per year. Derrick Rhyan said that Go Local has five hundred local members. Emily Garafalo reported that their gleaning of people’s fruit trees and farmers’ fields is very successful, the main problem being to get volunteer pickers to the opportunities in time. Dean Jackson described the successes of Hilltop Urban Gardens in educating youth and the community to farming and social issues. She also stressed that there is an amazing amount of space available inside cities for urban agriculture. All the panelists agreed there are lots of opportunities for connecting to food locally, and, thus, promoting health and equity.

The closing keynote speaker was Valerie Segrest of the Muckelshoot tribe. She connected the food system with the cultural in general, describing how food teaches us about ourselves and our society. Each culture should have sovereignty over its own food system. The Muckleshoot Tribe is working on a food sovereignty project. The project increases understanding of native foods and builds community food security by exploring the Muckleshoot Tribe's food assets and access to local, healthy and traditional foods. Their foods link the Muckleshoots to their land and their history. Plants and animals, more than just being a source of food, teach by their example as living beings.

The conference ended with a study session in which the attendees worked in groups to come up with actions to advance our food system in Pierce County. You may also find a place to get involved in changing our food system at some of the above links to organizations.