SALT LAKE CITY — Healthy farms, food, and communities are intimately connected. Yet many in younger generations have grown up in urban or suburban areas that are often farther from farm and agricultural lands.
In addition, food today can be sourced from producers and manufacturers located many miles away from where food products are sold. Given the current food environment, food growers and eaters may seem like separate parts of a puzzle that don’t quite connect within this large system.
Focusing on the food system on a smaller scale can help connect individuals to their food sources. Food systems on a local level typically involve shorter distances and potentially fewer steps to get from farm to plate.
Local food systems have a variety of features, including the ability to integrate food production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal within a particular region. The growth of local food systems may help increase access to fresh foods and communities benefit economically, environmentally, socially and nutritionally.
The health of local food systems depends on those that produce food, such as farmers and other growers, as well as consumers.
Consumers benefit from local food systems by having consistent access to high-quality, nutritious foods including those that are fresh and in season. Challenges for eaters include time to access and prepare food, distance to travel for food purchases and cost of healthy foods.
In many areas in the U.S., for example, food deserts exist where healthy foods are less accessible. Local food systems help creatively address these challenges by making connections between existing resources to more efficiently transfer foods from growers to eaters.
Some ways to reduce barriers to healthy, fresh foods include farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture. Another way is through the use of food hubs, that Sustainable America states can be a physical or virtual space.
“Food hubs can be thought of as helpful middlemen that connect producers (farmers and ranchers) with institutional buyers (restaurants, hospitals, schools, etc) and end consumers. They help farmers gain access to larger markets so they can focus more on farming and less on marketing, distribution, etc.”
Food Hub organizations have been working together with local growers to improve consumer access to these fresh and healthy foods at a reasonable cost.
Growers may also face a number of challenges within a local food system. For example, small to medium-size farms may have limited land availability as land use shifts toward housing and higher cost of operations for distribution of foods when activities are done on a smaller scale.
Models for the health of local farms are starting to include support for growers through Food Hubs that help aggregate, distribute and market fresh produce to surrounding communities. This distribution may include wholesale to businesses such as restaurants or institutions such as school or hospital systems.
Food hubs are now found in many regions across the U.S. and serve farmers, primarily from local and regional producers. According to a recent report from Michigan State University, “Food hubs are an essential component of scaling up local food systems and a flagship model of socially conscious business.”
As food hubs support the effective distribution of local foods, communities will find even fresher and locally-produced food products at farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs and increasingly at local retail grocery stores and restaurants.
The health of people, as well as communities, grows with more participation in the local food system. In addition, as communities find creative ways to better use available space for growing food, such as rooftops or small plots of land within city limits, consumers that desire fresh local foods will have increased access. This reclaiming of the food system can revitalize communities and help prevent or recover food deserts for the benefit of all community members.
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