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Local Food 10 Years After the First Regional Food Plan

 Brian Williams and Jerry Tinianow Local Food 10 Years After the First Regional Food PlanPhotos provided by Jerry Tinianow
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April 22, 2020, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Another anniversary on that date will not get as much press, but commemorates an important event in the Columbus region that was inspired by the sentiments of the original Earth Day.

On April 22, 2010, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), with the assistance of the Columbus Foundation and the George Gund Foundation, released the nation’s first regional food system assessment and plan. The document assessed the state of the food system in the 12-county region in and around Columbus and made a series of recommendations on how it could be improved. 

Before the release of the MORPC plan, a handful of cities had done similar projects, but no one had ever done one for a region. 

MORPC’s decision to prepare a regional plan came from its recognition that people need to have their nutritional needs met every day, all year long. While a city could satisfy some nutritional needs from food grown and processed within its boundaries (for example, produce like fruits and vegetables), it could not meet all of them. It’s almost impossible to grow meaningful amounts of grain and produce meaningful amounts of meat and dairy products within a city. A multi-county region, on the other hand, could produce all elements of a year-round nutritional diet.

Over the last 10 years, Columbus and Franklin County formed a joint Local Food Board to guide the work of local food planners for the city and county. The Franklin County Local Food Council was established and now is part of the Ohio Food Policy Network, which comprises 24 local councils around Ohio. The Ohio State University and Columbus City Schools have made significant commitments to buying food produced and processed in the region and the state.

One of OSU’s new Discovery Theme efforts is the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), and OSU Extension has extensive urban farming outreach in Franklin County. Fairfield County developed a local food plan, and Licking County established the Canal Market District. Union County is home to a malting facility that processes Central Ohio grain for local brewers and distillers. A larger facility is in the works.

The seeds for these endeavors were sown by MORPC’s Central Ohio Local Food Assessment and Plan. The authors of this article had major roles in its production. Brian Williams wrote the plan and recruited the volunteers who assisted with it. Jerry Tinianow directed the MORPC division, the Center for Energy and Environment, that produced the plan and began implementing it. Both subsequently left those positions, but have maintained their involvement in local food issues.

At the time of its release, the MORPC plan drew national recognition. It was released on Earth Day 2010 at Franklin Park Conservatory, in a ceremony attended by Ohio’s governor, Ted Strickland. Later that year, National Association of Development Organizations awarded its annual Trailblazer Award to MORPC in recognition of the innovative nature of the plan.

The local food movement has expanded and diversified in the years since the MORPC plan was released. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues of how food is produced and distributed, and what the vulnerabilities of the present system are, have moved local food to the forefront of conversations about community preparedness and resilience.

The impetus behind MORPC’s development of the plan came from a concern about resilience, but was driven by a subset of resilience that in retrospect seems outdated – “peak oil.” There was much discussion ten years ago about whether the world was going to hit a peak in the amount of oil that could be produced economically. If that happened, so the argument went, the availability of petroleum products would shrink and the price would rise in the face of ever-growing demand. This would put a big burden on a food system that relied on long-distance, often intercontinental, transport of food product, supported by cheap oil. We thought we needed to shorten supply lines to protect against this.

Today the world is awash in oil, while increasing fuel efficiency standards and purchases of electric vehicles are pushing demand down. Peak oil is off the table. Food system resilience, however, remains of concern. The problem we have seen during this pandemic is not what we thought it would be – how to move food products around. Instead, it’s how to pick crops and process food when so many of the workers involved are coming down with COVID-19, or just aren’t allowed to work closely with others.

During our work on the plan 10 years ago, we found that there were multiple food-related agendas, of which local food was just one. These agendas didn’t always connect well with each other. Some people, for example, wanted a connection between local food and healthy eating, but the fact that food was more local did not of itself mean that the food was healthier. Some wanted food to be both local and organic, but good, organic food wasn’t always, or even often, available locally. A more recent issue is the desire for a diet that is more plant-based, but again, plant-based foods aren’t inherently more local. 

As in many other areas of sustainability, promotion of local food became a branch of the movement to prevent the worst effects of rapid climate change. The idea was that if supply lines could be shortened, the food system would require less energy and produce less greenhouse gases. This argument seemed logical, but reality was more nuanced. Local distribution systems were often not very efficient, particularly when the absence of local “food hubs,” where local food could be sorted, processed and stored, made it difficult for farmers to bring perishable goods to urban farmers markets for sale. 

Recent research has suggested that local sourcing of food has far less influence on greenhouse gas emissions than other aspects of the food system, in particular the role of meat in that system and the huge amount of food that is wasted every year. 

In the seminal 2017 book “Drawdown,” noted environmentalist Paul Hawken and his team examined 80 different strategies to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and reduce the amount already there. They ranked them in order of potential for significant reductions. “Reduced Food Waste” ranked third; “Plant-Rich Diet” was fourth, and “Silvopasture” (raising beef in forested pastures instead of in combined animal feedlots) came in ninth. There were many other food-based strategies on the list, things like “Regenerative Agriculture” and “Managed Grazing.” By comparison, “Local Food” was…well actually, it didn’t even make the list.

This is not to say that the day of local food has passed; only that local food systems are important for reasons other than greenhouse gas reduction. They boost the local economy (“buy local”), provide a greater sense of community (urban gardens and farmers markets), and provide a degree of greater local resilience.  

In the current system, 60% of all pork in the country is slaughtered at just 15 plants. One of these alone – a plant in South Dakota shut down by the COVID-19 outbreak – processes 5% of America’s pork. Farmers who sold hogs there have no alternatives. The MORPC plan called for increased capacity at Ohio’s many small plants, along with new ones, working in a loose network to serve Ohio’s livestock and poultry farmers. This would be good for the local economy because much of the impact of local foods is in the added value of processing – which allows even more of our food dollars to recirculate in the regional economy.

Local and regional food plans are not a panacea, but they still build stronger local economies, communities and resilience. The regional food planning concept that MORPC first advanced 10 years ago continues to move forward. In 2017, for example, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report entitled “Planning for Equitable Urban and Regional Food Systems.” In it, the FAO concluded that local and regional food systems were “a space and a lever for equity and justice.” The next year FAO published its “City Region Food System Toolkit,” providing guidance to urban regions around to world on how to do assessments and plans of the type MORPC did eight years earlier. These developments show that the National Association of Development Organizations was indeed justified in recognizing the MORPC plan as a “trailblazer.”

A lot can happen in a decade. The next decade in local food will be influenced substantially by lessons learned during the current pandemic. 

View the full plan from MORPC here.

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