A Foodshed View of Resilience

By Philip Ackerman-Leist, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Masters in Sustainable Food Systems*, Green Mountain College, Vermont, USA

As July transitioned to August, the Landscapes Blog concluded its second Roundtable, focused on urban food systems. What many of the authors alluded to, and what the rest of this month’s posts will hone in on, is how agriculture and food systems weather stresses and what it actually means to be “resilient”. Today Philip Ackerman-Leist provides a segue into this discussion of resilience through an example his work in the United States of what resilience means in the context of a “foodshed.” Looking forward to further exploring the topic in the coming weeks, with specific attention to climate change, water, and institutional resilience? Stay tuned.

“Resilience” may be a somewhat new term in the lexicon of forward-thinkers, but the concept is by no means entirely new, and it has a direct tie to another useful word: “foodshed.”  The photograph above depicts New Yorkers lining up in front of a rail station in 1916 in order to accumulate as much food as possible prior to one of many threatened rail strikes during the early 1900s. It was the threat of those rail strikes and their potential impact on New Yorkers’ food security that caused Walter Hedden to come up with the term “foodshed.” As chief of the Bureau of Commerce for the Port of New York Authority, Hedden equated the notion of a foodshed to the concept of a watershed in his 1921 book, How Great Cities Are Fed: “…the barriers which deflect raindrops into one river basin rather than into another are natural land elevations, while the barriers which guide and control movements of foodstuffs are more often economic than physical.”

“Foodshed,” then, can be an analytical tool that helps us unveil not only the systems that underpin food security and access within a given geographical area, but it can also provide a means by which to explore the holes, fractures, and potential instability within our region of focus. Building resilience into a foodshed requires us to look not just at agricultural production, but also processing infrastructure, distribution mechanisms and ownership, food waste, etc.—in other words, all of the components and interactions that comprise the food system. It requires multiple lenses that create a kaleidoscopic view that is at once beautifully complex but also dizzying. In Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems, I attempt to help the reader take a hard look at local food systems through the lenses (chapters, in this case) of energy, the environment, food security, food justice, biodiversity, market value, and marketplace values. Assessing the potential fragilities of a food system requires us to use these multiple lenses in order envision and build more resilient foodsheds.

In researching examples of resilient local food systems throughout the United States for this book and the Post Carbon Institute’s new website resilience.org, it became increasingly clear to me that the most successful models are actually better defined as “community-based food systems.” Note the infusion of some democratic principles inherent in that term: the solutions are not just new economic models but also new just economic models.

It’s been fascinating traveling around the US on book tour these past few months, comparing notes with individuals and community groups working hard to rebuild their foodsheds. Throughout it all, two questions constantly arise, seemingly in contradiction. However, I think that they are linked and are, in many ways, integral to any resilience-oriented effort, whether the focus is local food, local economy, or local energy.

  • Why local?  We have spent the last two to three generations unraveling the delicately woven fabric of local food systems in the US, and locally-based production, processing, distribution, marketing, and nutrient reclamation (composting, manure management, etc.) collectively serve as a broad, stable foundation for resilient regional, national, and international food systems.
  • Why not just local?  With the historic unraveling of local food systems came the gradual weakening of healthy regional food systems. While a certain amount of agricultural self-reliance is an important goal in community-based food systems, isolation only increases vulnerabilities, and urban communities are inherently dependent upon their connection to other food-producing areas. Therefore, as we rebuild our local foodsheds, we must also embrace the even more complex task that follows: rebuilding regional food systems that can further resilience through increased scale, efficiencies, and impact.  It is in our connections that we find strength and elasticity.

Agriculture is arguably humanity’s longest-running (and still imperfect) experiment in resilience. The long-term trends are often difficult to discern, but the feedback loops can be cataclysmic. Creating and connecting resilient, community-based foodsheds is perhaps our greatest accomplice in softening the blows, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

Read More:
Rebuilding the Foodshed: Fields of Energy – Resilience.org

Post Carbon Institute has published a book in their Community Resilience Guide series on each of the topics: local food; local economy; and local energy.

*Green Mountain College’s Masters in Sustainable Food Systems is the first US-based online course of its kind.

Photo credit: George Granthan Bain (Library of Congress Collection)
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