What Does the Next Economy Look Like?
Contributed by Bob Dandrew, Director of the Local Economies Project
At LEP, we talk a lot about building a new economy that reflects the values that are most important to our families and communities. This is no small task, we realize, and one that will ultimately require a commitment from people in all facets of society. There are many ways to begin this process. For us, the pathway starts with our food system. The fundamental act of eating serves as our springboard for making change – first at the personal level, secondly within our communities, and finally in our region and beyond.
Talking about economics can quickly become an academic exercise, and I think many of us are looking for concrete examples of change. I thought it would be helpful in this issue of our newsletter to share some on-the-ground activities that are changing the way we do business in the food system.
As a friend of mine says regularly, you don’t know where you’re going until you understand where you came from. It’s important to remember that our current economic system isn’t working well for many of us – particularly those in the food system. Our farmers have to compete unfairly with a global marketplace that favors low prices and consolidation. Regenerative agriculture – that which takes best care of the soil- and those who practice it lose out in the process.
The route from “farm to fork” is also longer than it used to be because of the way our national food industry has developed. In the Hudson Valley where we work, our infrastructure is has shrunk dramatically. Seventy-five years ago, every community had its own grain mill, creamery, and slaughterhouse. Today, these critical resources are scarce. Such shrinking necessitates more fossil fuel use to transport the food. Adding insult to injury, more than 40 percent of the food we grow nationally is wasted because of inefficiencies.
What’s most unfortunate, I feel, is that we have relatively few options when it comes to accessing food that aligns with what we value, notably food security for all, the care of our environment, and equity for workers. This is true both at the individual level and at our larger institutions like school systems, universities, and hospitals. At LEP, we feel these groups are a potential key to building the new food economy, and we are working hard with our partners to clear roadblocks that prevent these institutions, and those who are served by them, from accessing local, healthful food.
From our perspective, the future of our food system lies in a local and regional orientation. Numerous studies have shown how local ownership of business creates the platform for everything from growing jobs to increased civic participation. As more independent businesses grow, we also see better stewardship of the natural world. Business decisions are made by local people with the community in mind. Isn’t this what we all want?!
It is a fundamental truth that our current economy exists because we agree to support it – either by actively participating in it or passively accepting it. Some say there is no alternative to our current system – that it is governed by minds wiser than ours and will collapse if not maintained exactly as is in perpetuity. My colleagues and I beg to differ, and we celebrate efforts that are grounded in deep values, paving the way toward a future that I believe we all want. Within the last year alone, several new enterprises have launched or evolved substantially in the Hudson Valley, some with human and financial support that we’ve been able to give. Here are some examples:
- School districts, such as Rondout Valley and Poughkeepsie, are dramatically increasing farm to school programming and the amount of local food served in their cafeterias.
- Red Tomato and Ginsberg’s Food Distributors are pioneering a partnership that is getting more local food to area grocery stores.
- Etsy.org has identified the Hudson Valley for an innovative entrepreneurial training program that is centered on food-related business.
- The Hudson Valley Farm Hub is launching our professional farmer training program (ProFarmer) this April with an explicit focus on regenerative agriculture, social justice, and economic security.
- The Farm Bridge (formerly Farm to Table Co-Packers) one of a small number of locally-owned food processing companies, has recently become a B Corp. (Check out B Corps if you don’t know them already – they are a new corporate structure that requires their boards to measure financial, environmental and social impacts.)
Our food system will change when there is sufficient will from consumers. This is the nature of markets. I invite you to join LEP in saluting this sampling of outstanding ventures that are operating in our region. Patronize as many as you can, spread the word to neighbors and friends that a new breeze is blowing through our region, and visit us online for continued updates on our developing work.
Here’s to a productive 2016 for all of us!