Participation in Local Food Systems

Steve Bosserman's picture

Participation in Local Food Systems

Numerous references are made in the USDA-SCRI grant to networking and
collaboration--the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at
anytime and work effectively together on activities of mutual
interest.  These social behaviors are essential to the development of
local food systems and their logical extension to local and regional
economies.  Such behaviors are frequently labeled social networking
This term is rapidly becoming part of our everyday usage as more people
gain access to the Internet through mobile phones and computers and are
associated with particular areas through GPS mapping and location-based

In effect, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) already
provides the foundation upon which society, government, and commerce
function.  As a result, exponential advances in the scope, depth, and
degree of ICT's suite of systems, processes, and tools are transforming
what we do, who we do it with, and how we get it done.  It enables us
to participate as social networkers regardless of where we are, who we
are, or what we are trying to achieve.  The intent of the grant is to
provide the forums, tools, moderation, and training to help everyone
who so chooses become more proficient in a social networking role. 
Doing so opens the door to widespread participation and creates the
opportunity space we need for local food systems to gain traction.

The diagram above proposes five "vectors"--personal motivation,
purchasing preferences, value-chain contributions, community
and political involvement--along which people can
participate in local food systems.  Such localization emanates from a
center that is rooted in a status quo supportive of the global food
system, corporate farming, and "Big Ag".  Movement towards the
periphery indicates increasing involvement and commitment to the topic
of that vector.

Placing a "dot" on each vector gauges the relative degree and type of
"investment" a person is making to that vector's subject.  The orange,
blue, and green-colored rings radiating from the core indicate ranges
of magnitude.  When all five vectors are plotted and lines are drawn to
connect them, the resulting "spider" or "radar" chart, provides a
snapshot of where a person currently participates or intends to
participate in the near future.

While it would be unrealistic to expect uniform investment at the
highest level in each vector, obvious red flags go up when one or two
vectors are particularly strong and the others show far less
attention.  However, when such an imbalance becomes evident, the same
diagram can be used to plot an alternative set of dots that reflect
greater attention being placed on the weaker vectors.  This can be done
by expanding personal horizons to become more proficient at those
behaviors in the lower-ranked vectors or by closely collaborating with
others who register strong in those areas.  Either way, a more balanced
approach ensues which significantly increases the potential for
positive impact and change.

The above illustration builds on the previous diagram by including
possible actions that indicate degree of involvement and commitment to
each vector:

•    personal motivation:

•    health (nutritious, fresh, organic food)

•    lifestyle (family farm, dietary and culinary choices, religious tenets)

•    aspirations (environmental sensitivity, reduced carbon footprint, location value and place brand)

•    purchasing preferences:

•    farmers' markets

•    direct sale via grower-to-consumer subscription services like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups

•    in-store retail outlets (locally-owned independent grocers and
large chains featuring food stuffs) that integrate local and regional
foods with global varieties

•    value-chain contributions:

•    volunteer (community gardens, food banks)

•   invest (offer land or provide equipment for gardens in either non-profit and for-profit endeavors

•    own and operate food-related operations (food production,
processing, or preparation in restaurants and institutions such as
schools, medical centers, and correctional facilities)

•    community engagement:

•    search for organizations with online or local
affiliations--oftentimes non-governmental organizations, read email and
publications and lurk

•    join the organization or online group and post content or make administrative contributions

•    convene people around topics of shared interest, charter an
ongoing group, lead the group to fulfill its purpose or transfer the
mantle of leadership to the next person

•    political involvement:

•    voting (casting ballots on issues that affect local food systems)
and lobbying (influencing elected officials to introduce and support
legislation that benefits local food systems)

•    public service employment within a government agency that has direct bearing on the interests of local food systems

•    hold office as an elected official.

As the list suggests, there are ample ways to participate.  However, it
is useful to return to a point about imbalance raised earlier.  A rule
of thumb is that a strong measure of "investment" is required in a
minimum of three vectors to influence the development of local food
systems.  However, a caveat is that changes in policies, regulations,
licensure, and inspection procedures regarding food safety and quality
in food production, processing, and preparation are required to sustain
these food systems.

Too Little, Too Soon

Consider the very recent example in Lorain County, Ohio with concerns
about appropriate licensure and inspection brought against Manna
, a family-owned and operated food co-op in Pittsfield
Township, by the County Sheriff's Office, the County Health Department, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.  There is significant
personal motivation and extensive purchasing preferences made by
customers in favor of Manna Storehouse.  Their operations were viable
and demonstrated a high degree of involvement along the vector of value
chain contributions
.  Lastly, in reading the number of blog postings
and related comments there seems to be no shortage of community
activities in support of Manna Storehouse.  So, what's wrong
with this picture?

Concerted activity along the vector of political involvement is
essential for success.  That means purchasing preferences and personal
--two vectors of independent action taken by individuals, not
the collective action of a group--plus community engagement or value
chain contributions
will not bring enough to bear on policy-makers.  If
the policies and regulations don't change, the formal system will
prevail and behaviors exercised outside those of the formal system run
the risk of having the same fate as Manna Storehouse.

By the same token, to make a frontal assault on food policies and
regulations in an effort to change them prior to taking further action
along other vectors is fraught with difficulties.  To do so assumes
that people invested in the status quo are willing to divine what
changes to make in the formal system rather than experiencing potential
alternatives before making such decisions.  While nurturing the
involvement of policy-makers along the community engagement and value
chain contributions
vectors may seem unnecessarily time-consuming and
overly frustrating, it lays an important experiential foundation that
garners the commitment of stakeholders and leads to substantive,
positive changes soon afterward.

Participation in Change

This brings us back to social networking and the strategy outlined in
the USDA-SCRI grant.  As the Ohio Local Food Systems Collaborative
evolves, members will have sufficient Information and Communication
Technology (ICT) infrastructure in place to define and engage in
meaningful projects focused on the development and sustainability of
local / regional food systems. The experience gained by participating
in these relevant and well-positioned projects will provide the insight
and confidence necessary to make orderly changes in the current
governance structure assuring food safety, quality, and security. 
Participation in local food systems is about making constructive,
positive changes to the prevailing global food systems such that the
two systems complement one another, both are sustainable, and all
stakeholders own and support the process and the outcome.  This is the
real purpose of the social networking associated with the USDA-SCRI
grant project.  Looking forward to your participation!

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