About IATP

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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About Think Forward

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.



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Local Advantage

March 10, 2011

Minnesota schools increasingly eat farm fresh

A new survey of Minnesota foodservice leaders released today shows, in just four years, the number of Minnesota schools participating in Farm to School has sharply increased: From just 10 in 2006 to 123 this year. 

F2s Foodservice leaders representing 50 percent of the K-12 districts in the state responded to the survey, conducted by IATP, in partnership with the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA).

“Minnesota is lucky to have the three key ingredients for Farm to School: dedicated food service leaders,  innovative farmers seeking local markets, and passionate students and parents,” says IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp.

See the press release for more information, or read the full survey results. For more Farm to School resources and information, and to see a map of Minnesota school districts participating, be sure to check out Farm2SchoolMN.org!


Andrew Ranallo

July 27, 2010

What's working in Midwest rural communities?

On August 16 and 17, rural community leaders in the Midwest have a unique opportunity. U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development leaders from Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas will be in South Sioux City, Nebraska at the 2010 Midwest Rural Assembly. And they want to hear about what's working in rural communities in the Midwest.

Join some of the Midwest's leading organizations working for rural prosperity, along with state and federal government officials, at the Midwest Rural Assembly. Topics covered will include how to retain young people in rural communities, cooperative business models, sustainable energy, local food systems, green job creation, rural teacher training, microenterprise programs, integration of immigrants, rural infrastructure projects and more. Policy discussions will cover federal health care reform, farm policy and broadband policy.

Find out more in the press release below, and at the Midwest Rural Assembly website.

Midwest Rural Assembly to bring together community and government leaders
Participants talk strategies for rural prosperity

Minneapolis – Rural community leaders and government officials will gather at the 2010 Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA) to exchange ideas and strategies for rural prosperity.

The MRA will be held on August 16–17 in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Along with rural community leaders from throughout the region, participants will include U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development directors from Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Keynote speakers include South Dakota state representative Kevin Killer and Iowa State professor and writer/poet Debra Marquart.

“Rural communities have been particularly hard hit by these tough economic times,” said Jim Kleinschmit, director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Rural Communities program. “But there’s also a lot of innovation, energy and ideas coming out of our small towns. This is an opportunity for rural leaders and government representatives to learn about what’s working, and as importantly, how we can join together to face many of our common challenges.”

A special area of focus is to identify strategies to attract and retain young people in rural communities. Young rural leaders from Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Kansas will share their priorities. Other leaders will discuss successful examples of increasing rural prosperity through cooperative business models, sustainable energy, local food systems, green job creation, rural teacher training, microenterprise programs, integration of immigrants, rural infrastructure projects and more. Policy discussions will cover federal health care reform, farm policy and broadband policy.

In addition to IATP, coordinating organizations include: Avera Rural Health Institute, Center for Rural Affairs, Center for Rural Policy and Development, Center for Rural Strategies, Dakota Rural Action, Great Plains Rural Policy Network, Heartland Center for Leadership Development, Iowa Policy Project, League of Rural Voters, Meadowlark Institute, National Rural Assembly, National Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Housing Developers Association, North Central Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Renewing the Countryside, Rural Learning Center, Rural Policy Research Institute, South Dakota Rural Enterprise, Inc., and West Central Initiative.

The MRA will be held at the Marina Inn Conference Center in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Registrants will receive a special MRA rate if rooms are booked before August 2. To register, and read the full agenda and speakers list, go to www.midwestruralassembly.org.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. www.iatp.org

Ben Lilliston

July 26, 2010

Farmers market power

Two years ago, we launched Minimarketsan initiative with the help of the city of Minneapolis to help organize small (5 vendors or fewer) farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods without easy access to healthy food. Community organizations took the lead. IATP helped navigate the permitting process and connect with farmers. We had six markets the first year. This summer, we have 21. 

The reasons why community groups are setting up these small-scale markets vary. For instance, the Streetwerks Youth Farmers Market serves a northside Minneapolis neighborhood and includes produce from a youth garden project run by Emerge Community Development. The Brian Coyle Community Center hosts a market primarily serving the Somali community on Minneapolis’ West Bank. St. Olaf Community Campus hosts a market at a senior nursing home and apartments. The new market at Children’s Hospital was launched this summer in response to employee requests. Ebenezer Park and Ebenezer Tower Markets serve two high rises that are home to seniors and disabled veterans.

Minnesota Public Radio and the Twin Cities Daily Planet have written great stories on our mini farmers market project. Our press release from today also gives more details.

Community organizations around the country aren't waiting for a new Farm Bill to change our food system, or the next big grocery supermarket to open in their neighborhood. They're teaming up with local farmers to bring healthy food to their communities right now. And they're leading the way toward a new food future.


Ben Lilliston

June 17, 2010

Local food system: Under construction

We know demand for more locally produced food is growing. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study found sharp increases in direct farmer-to-consumer marketing ($551 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2007), the number of farmers markets (2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 in 2009) and community supported agriculture organizations (400 in 2001 to over 1,400 in 2010).

But, as the USDA study also pointed out, direct farmer-to-consumer sales still account for less than one percent of the overall food system. How do we ramp it up? Currently, most local food production comes from small farms. While helping more small-scale farms succeed is critical, we also need to bring more medium-sized farms into the picture.

Last year, IATP began working with Compass Group of North America to design a new “Ag in the Middle” initiative aimed at expanding markets for mid-sized, independent farmers. Compass is a leading food service management company that serves over 10,000 hospitals, colleges, K-12 schools and other accounts in the United States. The Ag in the Middle initiative was launched last year with pilot programs in Minnesota, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Yesterday, the company announced the initiative would be rolled out nationwide. In 2009 alone, Compass purchased $17 million in local food products (Local is defined as food produced within 150 miles or less of where it is consumed.). Compass plans on purchasing from 2,013 mid-sized farmers providing local food by 2013.

“This initiative is about building mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and buyers and creating a new way of doing business with the farming community,” said IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp in a Compass press release.

The Compass/IATP partnership is just one of a number of innovative efforts around the country involving mid-sized farms in local food production. An excellent new report by Farm Aid documents a number of other efforts around the country—utilizing a variety of models—helping mid-sized farms take advantage of local food opportunities. It all makes you wonder what could be achieved if government policy—like the Farm Bill—devoted more resources toward local food systems that work for farmers and consumers. 

Ben Lilliston

April 02, 2010

On job creation—local fruits and vegetables vs. corn and soybeans

It turns out that foods that are better for you may also be better for farmers and local job creation. A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage.

The study, by Iowa State Research Scientist Dave Swenson, looked at the potential for fruit and vegetable production in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It identified 28 kinds of fruits and vegetables that farmers are able to grow in the region. Currently, much of the fruits and vegetables in the region come from other parts of the country or even outside the country.

Some key findings on the economic impacts on the region as a whole:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable production in the six states could mean $882 million in sales at the farm level, and more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same acreage would support only 2,578 jobs.
  • If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people.
  • Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa's counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

Previous research found that smaller sized farms (50 acres and smaller) are more likely to produce fruits and vegetables than standard-sized farms so it is likely that more, smaller farms would be needed. Researchers assumed that 50 percent of fruit and vegetable production would be directly marketed in-state by farmer-owned stores. Local and regional ownership of the food chain will be essential for maximum job creation.  

The study breaks down the numbers by state and metropolitan region so it's easy to get a sense of what your neck of the woods could be doing to create new local food jobs.

The barriers to transitioning toward more fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest are enormous. Farmland is hard to come by as values are seen as a better investment than the stock market. U.S. farm policy greatly incentivizes corn and soybean production in a number of ways, including helping farmers to manage risks and supporting research for those crops. And then there's the lack of infrastructure needed to help local food systems serve a booming market. Despite these barriers, this study gives us a guidepost for the potential economic benefits of a new model for agriculture that produces healthier and more locally grown food.


Ben Lilliston

March 09, 2010

Farm to school numbers up—and rising

A new survey, released today by the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) and IATP, can serve as both encouragement for farm to school advocates and as a road map for schools, administrators or farmers looking to get involved in the growing movement. According to the survey, the number of Minnesota school districts purchasing fresh food from local farms has more than doubled in the last 15 months. Even more encouraging is the fact that 77 percent of the districts currently involved in farm to school indicated that they expect to expand their farm to school activities in the upcoming school year.

“Parents, students and educators know that good nutrition is essential if our kids are to be healthy and ready to learn. Small and mid-size farmers, whose products have largely been absent from America’s lunch trays, can offer our children fresh, less-processed choices and a chance to learn how and where their food is grown,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. “The momentum is rapidly building for farm to school programs and it’s great to see schools and farmers embracing this opportunity.”

Some other highlights of the survey include:

  • Nearly 43 percent of school districts purchasing Minnesota-grown food in 2009 did so by purchasing directly from a farmer or farmer co-op.
  • The biggest barriers to expanding farm to school purchases were the need for extra labor and preparation time in the cafeteria, pricing and tight food budgets, and difficulty finding nearby farmers to purchase from directly.
  • In the future, schools are most interested in purchasing local vegetables and fruit, with growing interest in bread/grains, dairy and meat.
  • The survey also showed strong interest in expanding student education about farm to school and growing food in school gardens.
See the entire survey or take a look at our press release for further information. Also, listen to our newest episode of Radio Sustain for an interview with JoAnne Berkenkamp.

Andrew Ranallo

January 26, 2010

Growing China's local food movement

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China this week.

Tonight I had dinner with two rising stars of the Chinese sustainable agriculture movement, Cheng Cunwang and Shi Yan. Cheng was in the U.S. last fall as a guest of IATP, and he and Shi Yan have just finished translating Elizabeth Henderson’s classic Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Support Agriculture, into Chinese. While in the U.S., Cheng made a pilgrimage to upstate New York to visit Ms. Henderson, and we talked about cooperating on an event to celebrate the launch of the Chinese edition later this spring.

Shi Yan is a graduate student at Renmin (People’s) University who we invited to spend a season working on a CSA farm in Minnesota in 2008. Her blogging about the experience caused a sensation in China, partly due to her infectious enthusiasm about farming and life in rural America, and partly because of the novelty of an intellectual traveling all the way to the U.S. to become a peasant. On her return, Shi Yan promptly started her own CSA, called Little Donkey Farm, on a patch of land in suburban Beijing.

Over dinner, she told me about the challenges of the farm’s first year and plans for this coming summer. Overall, last year was a success, and Shi Yan’s farm has proved as popular with the media as her blog from America was. (You can read out translation of a Chinese feature story on the farm here.) But there were problems, ranging from bugs and more bugs (Shi Yan and her fellow student farmers have limited training in organic pest control) to a local government that would rather sell the land to developers than have it occupied by a scruffy-looking farm. She got some help from the well-connected Dean of her school on the land-use issues, but it sounded like she was still worried about the bugs. Even her newfound celebrity has its downside. A passionate spokesperson for both organic farming and fair prices for “peasants,” Shi Yan has been taken aside more than once by owners of organic food companies who tell her Little Donkey’s low prices make them look bad and she talks too much about the rights of farmers.

As Little Donkey’s fame grew, all sorts of other CSAs, pseudo-CSAs and businesses who thought they had spotted a branding opportunity started to come out of the woodwork. Many wanted to use the Little Donkey name, and one company wanted to list Little Donkey on the Shanghai stock exchange. (This is more a reflection of the current go-go economy here than anything else, but still!) They decided to turn down most of the offers, but as soon as all three hundred of their own CSA shares for 2010 are sold, they will be referring people to two other farms that they think really do share Little Donkey’s CSA and sustainable farming principles. Meanwhile, she told me, she is providing advice to others all over China who want to replicate Little Donkey’s model.

The speed with which this idea is catching on in China is astounding, exhilarating and a little frightening, given the many ways that a good idea can get twisted into its opposite. It is in part a reflection of the anxiety of Chinese consumers about food safety and their wish to have more control over their food supply. But it’s also just one of a number of farmer responses to an agricultural economy in which more and more control is in the hands of agribusiness and farmers’ rights to organize into cooperatives to defend their economic rights are severely constrained. IATP’s China coordinator, Chang Tianle, and I are doing research on CSA and other related forms of direct marketing that should be out later this spring.

Jim Harkness

Ben Lilliston

December 09, 2009

Climate inequity

When negotiators arrive in Copenhagen this week, they will quickly become immersed in jargon and highly technical drafts of text. But they shouldn't lose sight of an important fact: climate change occurs in a world of extreme social and economic inequality.

That is the message of a new briefing paper by IATP's Shalini Gupta and Dr. Cecilia Martinez. The paper looks at the disproportionate role wealthy nations have had in contributing to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, contrasted with the role of poorer nations and people. It also looks at who has benefited the most from GHG-intensive development patterns and who is most affected by climate change. The paper links the eradication of the Indigenous commons in the U.S. and the capture of agriculture by agribusiness to the same market-based philosophy underlying the industrial world's approach to climate change.

You can watch a short video with author Shalini Gupta below.

Ben Lilliston

November 05, 2009

Farm to school programs growing despite challenges

IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan When USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan toured the St. Paul School Commissary earlier this week, the first thing she talked about was how complicated the logistics are when trying to provide healthier school lunches—particularly for larger urban districts. Heads in the meeting room immediately nodded. (see photo: IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan)

Yet, despite these challenges, the urgency of improving school lunch programs is rising. The Centers for Disease Control reported last month that most kids aren't getting enough fruits and vegetables. And the Institute for Medicine also published a paper last month citing school lunch and breakfast programs as critical to ensuring the health of our children.

Healthy school lunch items! Farm to school programs are seen as one tool toward providing healthier food to kids—and communities around the country are recognizing this. There are now over 2,000 farm to school programs around the country.

In Minnesota, we have been working with the Minnesota School Food Service Association to expand farm to school programs. “It’s exciting to see Farm to School participation growing all over the state—in the cities, in the suburbs and throughout greater Minnesota. This movement is growing by leaps and bounds,” IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp said in a press release we sent out today.

This fall and early next year, Congress will renew the Child Nutrition Act—an important opportunity to expand resources for farm to school programs.

As Deputy Secretary Merrigan said, "The need is great, the challenges are great, but just because they're great doesn't mean we're not ready to tackle them."

Ben Lilliston

September 14, 2009

Food, water and filmmaking: this month's Radio Sustain

In the newest IATP Radio Sustain podcast, we sit down with Brother David Andrews to discuss the fundamental human right to food and water and how this right is being established internationally. Next, we talk with Wayne Rogers of the Toronto Food Policy Council about what a food policy council is, and why every city could use one. Lastly, Filmmaker Ana Joanes discusses her new documentary FRESH and the optimism she found after exploring the farms, businesses and people that are changing—and improving— the American food system.

Listen to the entire episode here (mp3).

Andrew Ranallo

August 27, 2009

A New Energy Utility Takes on Climate Change

As Congress debates a U.S. climate bill this fall, and governments around the world are focused on global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, a new community-based approach to addressing climate change is taking hold.

The Sustainable Energy Utility, or SEU, is turning the traditional role of an energy utility on its head in a growing number of states, cities and communities.

In a new article published in Delaware Lawyer, Dr. John Byrne of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and IATP's Dr. Cecilia Martinez write, "The energy utility of the 20th century was invented to rapidly and continuously increase the energy supply. . .The 21st-century energy utility must have a different focus: to help every citizen and every business conserve energy and, when energy is needed, to utilize the energy gifts of our planet—sunlight, vegetation, the winds and the constant temperature of the earth's mantle just three meters below the surface."

But aggregating government, private and philanthropic resources, the SEU differs from traditional utilities by focusing on: 1) a transition to carbon-free energy sources; 2) a reorientation from energy as commodity to energy as a service; 3) the transition to distributed energy infrastructure; and 4) the direct involvement of energy users in energy decisions.

The SEU directly tackles two of the most difficult challenges in shifting our energy system: high upfront capital costs to obtain long-term benefits in efficiency and renewable energy; and the shock of significant energy price increases. Acting as a nonprofit, the SEU coordinates innovative approaches like third-party financing, tax-exempt bonds, revolving funds, federal and state incentives and grants, and funding from other public and philanthropic resources to invest in sustainable energy infrastructure with long-term savings that are shared by the community.

The SEU concept has been catching on and it's remarkably scaleable. The April 2009 issue of the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society reports on applications of the SEU in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. In the U.S., Delaware has become the first state in the country to create a state-wide SEU.

In Minnesota, IATP is working with the small rural town of Milan in western Minnesota, and a community organization on the west side of St. Paul, to explore the SEU model.

The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is working with West Side Citizens Organization to put an SEU into action in their neighborhood. The west side of St. Paul is a densely populated community of 16,000 in a former industrial zone, with a large percentage of low-income households and people of color. This SEU will focus on energy efficiency and on-site renewable projects.

In Milan, IATP is working with community leaders to develop the first rural-based SEU in the Midwest. Milan, a town of about 350 people, with an average annual household income of about $30,000, will be a model for rural communities in promoting energy affordability, community focused sustainability and attracting energy service businesses to their town.

New policies at the national and international level will set the framework for our collective efforts to stop climate change, but it will take transformative models like the SEU, working on the ground, in communities around the world, to get us there. You can find out more at IATP's SEU page.

Ben Lilliston

July 31, 2009

Join Government and Rural Leaders at Summit

Mra75 No part of the U.S. has been spared from the current financial crisis, but rural communities—already among the nations poorest—have been hit particularly hard. Rural unemployment exceeds urban and exurban unemployment, according to a report by the Daily Yonder.

On Monday, August 3, the Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop will conduct a webinar focusing on rural demographics and political shifts in rural districts. The webinar will be from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. CST. Reserve your webinar seat now and learn more about the past and future of rural politics.

Bill's webinar is a lead-in to the Midwest Rural Assembly, scheduled for August 10–11 in Souix Falls, South Dakota. The assembly, sponsored by over 25 Midwest groups, will bring together national, state and local-level policy makers and rural residents to discuss the challenges facing rural communities—and opportunities for change. It will feature USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager; USDA Deputy Under Secretary of Rural Development Victor Vasquez; state rural development directors from Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota; U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin; and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The assembly will focus on rural health care, education, sustainable working landscapes, rural technology access and leadership development.

The registration deadline is Monday, August 3—so register and join us in Souix Falls!

Facebook users: Become a fan of the Midwest Rural Assembly.

Ben Lilliston

July 02, 2009

Food Independence Day

FoodIndependenceDay_statueofliberty Americans are certainly good at one thing during national holidays: consumption of all kindsbut particularly of food. This year, let's make it local.

This July 4, Kitchen Gardeners International, with support from IATP's Food and Society Fellows Program and other individuals passionate about about local food, are calling for a Food Independence Day. To date, more than 5,000 people have pledged to eat a meal made with local food. On the campaign's Web site, people can share details, photos and locations of their locally sourced meals.

Let's all fly our Food Independence Day flag high this Fourth of July.

Ben Lilliston

June 30, 2009

The Middle of the Local Food Chain

One of the challenges of transitioning toward a more locally based food system in the United States is that our current infrastructure disagrees with the idea. During the last 50 years, U.S. farm policy has told farmers to "get big or get out." We've encouraged farmers to grow single crops for export, animal feed or as ingredients in processed foods. Now, even though we're witnessing the problems with this industrial system in the form of food contamination outbreaks, the loss of family farmers, and damage to the environment and public health, it's hard to quickly change course.

We know change is happening on the supply side of the food system. Consumers are demanding more locally grown foods. Farmers markets are continuing to grow in popularity. But the local food market is still a small percentage of the larger food marketplace. Currently, it's difficult for mid-sized farmers to find buyers large enough to guarantee a local food market. And many larger food purchasers are having trouble finding the supply of locally produced food that they need. How do we scale up?

Compass Group is one of the largest food service companies in the U.S. They supply food to universities, restaurants, hospitals and companies around the country. Last week, Compass announced a new effort called "Ag in the Middle." The idea is to expand the company's local food purchasing with a goal to develop partnerships with 2,013 farmers by 2013. IATP is partnering with Compass on the project.

It's time to start smoothing out those bumps in the middle of the local food chain.

Ben Lilliston

June 18, 2009

A Fresh Take on Food

Stepping into the Riverview Theater earlier this month, I didn't know what to make of the scene. The theater was packed: 700 people had come to a sold-out documentary about food. The film is called Fresh. There had been no paid media advertisements. No prominent reviews in the entertainment press. Aside from a few local media mentions, it was primarily a word-of-mouth affair organized on the fly in just a few weeks, led by Birchwood Cafe, IATP and the Land Stewardship Project.

The film does an outstanding job of portraying the local and sustainable food movement in the U.S. But the energy in the Riverview Theater told just as powerful a story about this exploding movement.

We sat down with the film's director Ana Joanes to discuss why she made Fresh and what she hopes the audience will get out of the film.

Ben Lilliston

May 29, 2009

Toronto's Model on Local Food

There are many remarkable, innovative leaders in the local and sustainable food movement around the world. Wayne Roberts of Toronto's Food Policy Council is one of them.

While energized communities in the U.S. are forming local food councils, Toronto has had one since 1991—and they've done some amazing stuff. Their food share program provides regionally raised food to 15,000 residents each month. They work closely with schools and institutions to increase production and purchasing of local food. They've targeted regional land preservation for agriculture and expanded the presence of community and rooftop gardens. And they have long been recycling food waste into compost. Finally, the Toronto area has been instrumental in developing Local Food Plus, a pioneering system that includes working conditions and environmental practices in certifying local farmers, processors and distributors.

When Wayne was in town last month for the American Planning Association annual meeting, we grabbed him for an interview.

Ben Lilliston

May 22, 2009

A Remarkable Shift in Food System Debates

This article first appeared in Civil Eats.

Three recent actions by big agribusiness companies to manipulate public opinion have me almost giddy with excitement. After years dictating the direction of the food system, agribusiness is taking a reactionary stance.

The first sign of this change comes from the world’s largest snack food company, Frito-Lay, which initiated a “Lay’s Local” campaign that features 80 “local” farmers from 27 states. Frito-Lay’s Web site has a Chip Tracker that allows interested consumers to enter their zip code and product code to find out where the potatoes came from. Although Frito-Lay can’t claim that the potatoes are locally grown, the advertising campaign hides the corporation behind the aura of U.S. farmers.

The second is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of a newly formed Center for Food and Animal Issues. The Center attempts to paint feedlot operators as just another group of people who support animals, just like pet owners, hunters, supporters of zoos and local animal welfare organizations. “Ultimately, our goal is to assure that people who rely on animals, either physically, emotionally or economically, have the right to do so,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Jack Fisher. The impetus for the Center came after pork, poultry and veal housing legislation was introduced in state legislatures around the country, and last year’s passing of California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.

And finally, the biotech and pesticide company CropLife.com is protesting an organic garden on the White House lawn. CropLife congratulates First Lady Michelle Obama for her effort to raise food and celebrate agriculture, but takes issue with the garden being organic. Their Web site asks, “What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world—crop protection products?”

So why do I get giddy about these calculated attempts to manipulate public opinion? Because I think about the debate just ten years ago regarding our food system, and how dramatically the conversation has shifted to a positive direction. A decade ago, the hot issue in the agriculture world was genetically modified crops. And despite many legitimate concerns that were raised about health and environmental unknowns, as well as the alarming consolidation of the seed industry, genetically modified crops swept across the Midwest largely unimpeded. Opponents were portrayed as petty reactionaries oblivious to the challenge of “feeding the world.”

This was also a time of incredible devastation in rural America. Crop prices were reaching Depression-era levels, and the promises of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill were nowhere to be seen. I sat through countless forums where agribusiness professionals told farmers to relax—soon the incredible buying power of China will make low crop prices a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we spent years with most commodity prices well below the cost of production, and neither China nor other parts of the world corrected the situation.

I never dreamed we could have made as much progress toward community-based food systems as we have in the past decade. “Locally grown” is the hottest food trend for 2009, so hot that a leader in the snack food industry wants to get in on the act. Ten years ago, consumers concerned about the humane treatment of animals had to work hard to find acceptable meat and poultry; now the confined livestock industry is on its heels because of California’s proposition 2, concerns about the overuse of antibiotics and continued problems with manure pollution.

Most remarkable has been the explosion in gardening and backyard livestock. CropLife’s rather lame objection to an organic garden on the White House lawn reveals the difficult position of the industry. Who can be against local organic production that is efficient, nutritious and cost-effective, while at the same time provides exercise and builds community?

By no means do I mean to diminish the challenges ahead of us. As the Frito-Lay campaign demonstrates, we need to remain vigilant to make sure that words like "organic" and "locally grown" mean what the public thinks they mean. Far too many people around the world and in the U.S. continue to suffer from hunger and diet-related diseases.

But people are no longer willing to let a component of their lives as critical as the food system rest in the control of agribusiness corporations. Today, many people are empowered to make decisions about their family’s food, and a lot of hands are getting dirty in the fresh spring soil. Instead of creating space in the corporate food system for alternative food and farming practices, agribusiness is trying to create space for itself in thriving community-based food systems. This is a welcome transition.

Mark Muller

May 06, 2009

Food and faith

The push for greater access to healthy, locally produced food in the United States continues to get stronger. Today, we released a new report highlighting the role of 11 faith communities around the country that are expanding access to healthy, local foods. Faith communities have the resources and volunteer power to make things happen, and it shows throughout these examples of farmers markets, food pantries, healthy eating programs, community gardens and cooking classes.

“Faith communities are important supporters of healthy eating because of their strong presence in neighborhoods and their commitment to the well-being of community members,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of IATP’s Local Foods program, in our press release. “It is our hope that faith members across the country will be inspired by these stories and take action in their own places of worship.”

The short rundown of the case studies:

• St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Bolivar, Mo., manages three gardens and three orchards from which they harvest and provide both fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables for anyone who wants them.
• Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale, Minn., manages a volunteer-based community garden that provides fruits and vegetables for local food shelves.
• Taqwa Eco-Food, a food cooperative in Chicago, Ill., works to meet the needs of people wanting to purchase local meats raised and processed within the principles of Islam.
• Central Baptist Church and Bethlehem Baptist Church of Columbia, S.C., runs the “Dash of Faith” cooking program to help church cooks prepare healthier foods.
• Sixteen Interfaith Communities in Eugene, Ore., connect urban residents with local farmers and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms in which residents purchase shares and receive deliveries of harvested fruits and vegetables.
• St. Paul Jewish Community Center in St. Paul, Minn., arranges for members to purchase shares in a local CSA farm that uses farming practices based on Jewish beliefs.
• Plymouth Congregational Church and Stevens Square Community Organization of Minneapolis, Minn., operate a community garden, food shelf and farmers market at the church.
• Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul, Minn., provides a weekly healthy community lunch program for members and the surrounding community.
• Upper Sand Mountain Parish of northeastern Alabama operates a food pantry, community and church gardens, cannery and healthy eating education program.
• Body and Soul healthy eating program throughout the U.S. helps African-American congregations improve members' eating habits.
• The Hindu Temple of Minnesota in Maple Grove, Minn., organizes a weekend healthy lunch program for both members and non-members.

Find more details in our full report. We've only scratched the surface of what is happening in faith communities with regard to expanding access to healthy food. We've set up a place on our Web site where others can add what is happening in their faith community.

Ben Lilliston

April 14, 2009

Are Organic and Local So 2008?

In an article in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, author Paul Roberts takes a provocative view of U.S. foodies pushing for local and organic food. Roberts challenges the notion that "organic and local" can ever actually scale up to meet the food needs of billions of people.

Roberts writes, "If we want to build large-scale capacity, we're going to need to broaden our definitions of sustainable practices. . .the local-food movement, too must learn to bend. The reality of 21st century America is that food demand is centered in cities, while most arable land is in rural areas."

"We can't wait for the perfect solution to emerge," writes Roberts. "We need to start transforming the food system today--probably with hybrid models. . .that take the best of both alternative and mainstream technologies and acknowledge not only the complexity of true sustainability, but the practical reality that the perfect is often the enemy of the good."

The article touched a nerve and got a huge response. Now, Mother Jones is hosting an online forum to discuss the issues outlined in Roberts' article. IATP President Jim Harkness, Lisa Gosselin, Ryan Zinn and Paul Roberts will be debating and answering readers' questions all week on the future of food. Roberts' article is worth reading and responding to. 

Ben Lilliston

April 09, 2009

Reducing Our Foodprint

Foodprint_Main_Feature Agriculture has a unique place in the debate on what to do about climate change. Perhaps no sector is more affected by changes in climate. Already farmers around the world are experiencing first-hand the effects of climate change. Agriculture and our food system is also a contributor to climate changeparticularly energy intensive industrial agriculture. And finally, agriculture also has the potential to be a mitigator of climate change through carbon sequestration.

A new IATP paper, Identifying Our Climate Foodprint, examines the entire U.S. food chain, from agriculture production through processing, transportation and consumption. It assesses what we know on each step's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and makes recommendations on how to transition toward a more climate-friendly system.

The paper concludes that throughout the food chain, it is industrial farming systems that depend on massive resource inputs (such as synthetic fertilizers) for crops and livestock that are by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases

“The good news is that by transitioning toward more sustainable practices on the farm, we can better adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change," said co-author Jim Kleinschmit in our press release. "Many farmers, food companies and consumers are already implementing climate-friendly practices. Now we need smarter public policy to make the larger systemic changes we need."

Check out the full report and find out what you can do to reduce your climate foodprint.

Ben Lilliston