By Tom Parker
Helen Schnoes was on a return leg from western New York State when she stopped in Omaha, Neb., to meet supporters trying to develop a community food system similar to the framework of the Douglas County Food Policy Council, of which she was the Sustainability and Food Systems Planner. It was there that she met Debra Tropp, the USDA’s Deputy Director of the Local Food Research and Development Division, and first learned about an upcoming book on the social, environmental and economic benefits of investing in regional food systems.
While that was enough to sell Schnoes on the book—after all, it was the exact narrative she had heard across the nation—the fact that it was being published by the Federal Reserve puzzled her. Wasn’t the Federal Reserve responsible for conducting the national monetary policy and overseeing the stability of the financial system? What did that have to do with food?
Everything, it turns out.
“Regional food systems represent a promising avenue for economic growth for both rural and urban communities through the creation of new, or the enhancement of existing, jobs and businesses,” the preface read. “With appropriately targeted policies and support, the attendant opportunities can advance the economic and financial security of lower- to middle-class households and communities. The approaches that support the development of regional food systems not only contribute direct economic benefits to the community, but can also open the door for improved access to healthy food and other positive outcomes that could result in improved community health and a more productive workforce.”
Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities was nothing less than a blueprint for the future of regional food systems planning. Within its 300-plus pages was a comprehensive compilation of research, essays and reports by community development experts around the country designed to better understand consumers’ increasing interest in where their food comes from, how their food dollars could provide greater support for local food-related businesses and farmers, and the partnerships needed to support those prospects.
Schnoes couldn’t wait to apply its findings to her work in Douglas County. But then she had another idea: why not share it with the rest of the state of Kansas?
Schnoes, along with Marlin Bates, K-State Research and Extension County Extension Director for Douglas County, shared a presentation on “Harvesting Opportunities in Kansas” during the Kansas Farmers Union’s annual convention. The two have extensive experience in growing local food systems. Bates has worked across the Kansas City metropolitan region to develop and grow the local food system for the benefit of farmers, consumers and communities. Schnoes oversaw the City of Lawrence’s Common Ground community garden program, and in 2016 and 2017 led the creation of a countywide food system plan by the Douglas County Food Policy Council.
The book, along with supplemental studies on food in Kansas, got the two thinking of what needed to be done across the state to develop local food systems. Though progress had been made, they all wished that more could have been done. One of the things they particularly liked about some of the recommendations was that they didn’t restrict their focus to farming or food production, but also incorporated human health and community health. “A lot of things were being taken into consideration beyond agriculture,” Bates said. “We feel that’s an important component of how we have these conversations in building local food systems.”
At the same time, the USDA had put together a local food economic tool kit and was providing training through the state, along with working with national agricultural economists to help communities better understand the economic impact of regional food systems. Their message was clear, Schnoes said—demand for local foods were increasing.
“It’s not a fluke, it’s not a fad, it’s there and there are opportunities to enter into those markets,” she said. “Regional food systems can be drivers for economic development. You don’t have to be a local or regional food advocate to be interested in it. If you know what goals are important for your community, there are strategies to meet those goals.”
Investments in local and regional food systems create impacts beyond just food production, but capital is necessary. You can’t do it for free, or with good stories or good food. You have to invest in it.”
Those investments are needed for the necessary technical assistance and support as well as programs, grants, innovative financing, training and transition support for farmers, she said.
Bates and Schnoes moved the conversation to agricultural organizations such as the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Rural Center, and to health organizations around the state. The culmination of their efforts was “Harvesting Opportunity in Kansas: A Symposium on Building Community Wealth,” held May 31, 2018, at the University of Kansas School of Business. Guest speakers included Becca Jablonski, Assistant Professor and Food Systems Extension Economist at Colorado State University’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics; Dara Bloom, Assistant Professor and Local Foods Extension Specialist at NC State University; Rosanna Bauman, operations manager for Cedar Valley Farms; and others. About 150 people from around the state attended.
Marlin Bates, County Extension Director for KSRE-Douglas County.
Douglas County Sustainability and Food Systems Planner Helen Schnoes
“We were able to tell the story in a way that a lot of people wanted to participate in,” Bates said. “Most importantly, we wanted to make sure that we were catalyzing conversations, not just bringing in speakers who talk about how to do these things, but who spent the afternoon diving deep into different issue areas that ran the gamut of understanding the economic component and how to fit it into your community.”
Guest speakers and experts shared resources and data that they had compiled, explored other innovative enterprises, and discussed ways to build resilience into local food systems and communities.
“The idea was to equip people with another tool to understand the economic component and how to build community around food systems,” Bates said.
“That was the beginning of the conversation. We hoped for something that would get people thinking more critically about the need for these sort of investments, and not just at a state level, but at a community level as well.”
Priority goals included identifying strategies and funding needs to make fresh and affordable locally-grown foods more accessible; identifying existing infrastructure for processing, storing and distributing food, as well as potential expansion; developing farmers markets, roadside markets and local grocery stores in unserved or underserved areas; and to improve the clarity and coordination of policies, programs and planning.
The symposium was a promising start, Schnoes said, but more importantly it brought people together from across the state to identify community resources and connections, to build a shared knowledge, and to make new bridges with food councils, economic developers, community coalitions and others who are engaged in local food systems.
“We wanted to have real stories in it,” she said, “and we were able to do that. Here’s the Kansas story.”