Later this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Appalachian Regional Commission, and U.S. Department of Agriculture will be kicking off a round of technical assistance to help small towns improve their residents’ access to locally-produced food. This effort includes the communities of Corbin, KY (of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame); Aberdeen, MS; Pikeville, TN; and Anniston, AL. Some of these communities are looking to launch a local food hub that makes it easier for institutions to purchase large quantities of produce from local growers, while others are looking to launch a farmers market or start community gardens in areas with poor access to grocery supermarkets.

Appalachian Harvest Local Food Hub in Duffield, Va. Photo credit of Appalachian Sustainable Development.
Appalachian Harvest Local Food Hub in Duffield, Va. Photo credit of Appalachian Sustainable Development.

These communities are far from alone. The number of farmers markets in the United States has more than doubled during the last 10 years and food is a growing area of interest among planners and elected officials. This interest reflects both a growing demand for local food and its role in supporting good public health and economic development.

2014 Farm Bill

Fortunately, in an era of declining public budgets, Congress has just given local food projects a substantial funding boost. In January Congress adopted a new Farm Bill after several years of debate. The national media attention has focused its coverage largely on farm subsidies and cuts to food stamps. But quietly, the Farm Bill increases financial support for local food systems by nearly 50 percent over the previous 2008 Farm Bill. Below are some of the highlights, with a big assist from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

  • The Farm Bill more than triples funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (From $33 million in the 2008 Farm Bill to $150 million in the new bill).
  • It quadruples funding for the Value Added Producer Grant Program (From $15 million to $63 million) that helps farmers increase their income through processing (for example, making jams and jellies out of fruit).
  • It more than doubles funding for the National Organic Cost Share Certification program, which helps farmers offset the cost of organic certification.
  • And it creates a new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives program that will match SNAP benefits (food stamps) up to a certain dollar amount for purchases of healthy vegetables and fruits.

The increased funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program is especially important to the communities in Appalachia, many of which are working to create local food hubs that will aggregate products from multiple local farms and store, process, and distribute them to local consumers and institutions. It also brings good news for families and people who rely on SNAP benefits by increasing their buying power at farmers markets and even allowing them to use the benefits to participate in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

Music at the Whitley County Farmers Market in Kentucky. Photo credit: Whitley County Farmers Market
Music at the Whitley County Farmers Market in Kentucky. Photo credit: Whitley County Farmers Market

Breaking Down Silos

While the new Farm Bill provides more resources to support local initiatives around food, planners need to be involved to make sure these efforts realize their full potential for community development. As with transportation and land use planning, food planning has a tendency to exist in a silo, separate from other community efforts to improve transportation, housing, livability, economic development, and the many other areas where planners focus their attention. One key role planners can play is to help communities expand the conversation about how food systems planning and other community goals and objectives can overlap.  By bringing in new voices that represent elected officials, businesses, community development, public health, social services and others, planners can help expand the discussion to integrate food systems planning into broader efforts to improve downtowns and neighborhoods and make them more livable places. Thinking carefully about where to locate local food hubs, markets, and other facilities is a key strategy for doing so. Ideally, the physical placement of these facilities can also support a community’s plans for economic revitalization and the creation of walkable town centers.

Those are just a few of my initial thoughts on the role that planners can and should play in food systems planning. Renaissance Planning Group will be serving as contractors to the U.S. EPA to deliver this technical assistance over the next several months.  I hope to be able to share additional insights and highlight other lessons learned from that work through this blog.

-- Mike Callahan, Cities that Work Blog

Comment