Instead of seeing the local food movement and fighting hunger as two separate causes, the “pioneers” in the Valley view these two issues as two sides of the same coin: America’s dysfunctional food system. Why is it cheaper and more convenient to buy heavily processed, calorie- and fat-laden fast food than fresh, healthy food that was grown right down the street? Why are so many of the foods we eat shipped in from other parts of the country or the world?
The Pioneer Valley Food Security Advisory Committee and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission recently drafted a Pioneer Valley Food Security Plan. The plan’s two overarching goals, “No One Goes Hungry” and “We Grow Our Own Food,” reflect a widely shared vision that joining forces to fight hunger and increase local food production will further both causes. For example, collaboration between farmers and emergency food providers has already helped increase the amount of fresh foods that the food banks offer. Many farmers markets and CSA farms already accept SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), but not everyone who’s eligible for food assistance receives it and many food outlets don’t accept SNAP, WIC coupons and other programs, so there’s more work to be done here.
The plan also embraces the Food Solutions New England objective for the six New England states to produce 50 percent of the food consumed in our region by 2060. It suggests a variety of strategies for Pioneer Valley to contribute to achieving this objective, such as preserving farmland, supporting urban agriculture, building hydroponic greenhouses that can produce food year-round, promoting composting, and increasing direct farm sales to schools and other institutions.
Pioneer Valley already has a network called “PVGrows,” which seeks to create an ecologically and economically stable food system in the Pioneer Valley. While some network members work at places like the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts or other food pantries that are focused on getting food to hungry people, others are farmers and food entrepreneurs who are focused on growing, preserving, distributing and selling local food, and still others work at nonprofits, government agencies, academic institutions, or funding organizations.
By holding forums, operating a listserv, and creating working groups on various topics, PV Grows is already fostering knowledge sharing and collaboration between the anti-hunger and local food communities. For example, speakers at the October, 2012 PV Grows Fall Forum that I attended included “Gardening the Community” (a youth-led food justice organization based in Springfield), the Food Bank of Western Mass., and some of the people involved in creating the PVPC Food Security Plan. (For more on the presentations, visit Kirsten Bonanza’s blog.)
While some of the strategic thinking and collaboration involved in the PVPC Plan and PV Grows also takes place in Boston and other cities, it’s much less developed. I’d love to see an equivalent network start up in eastern Massachusetts, so we can coordinate our efforts better.
So why does the Pioneer Valley seem to be so far in front in this way of thinking and working? Well, as the Plan points out, thanks to favorable growing conditions and the hard work of many people, the Pioneer Valley’s local food system is “relatively mature,” compared to many other similar-sized regions. Therefore, instead of starting from scratch, they can use this process to catalyze existing food planning efforts.
While this is certainly part of the reason, I suspect there’s something in the soil of the “Happy Valley” that fosters creativity and collaboration. Many of the vegetables that we eat in eastern Massachusettsare grown in western Mass. So maybe all that collaboration will rub off on us eventually. At any rate, it’s another good reason to eat our veggies.