When it comes to food, everyone has a stake in the game.
Whether local residents are selling, producing or simply eating the stuff, theyre impacted by the infrastructure that surrounds local food systems, Terry Brunner, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said at a recent Farmington food summit that drew more than 200 interested participants to discuss how to better build food systems in the region.
The food system is really a chain, and the USDA is trying to make the links of the chain stronger, Brunner said.
Its critical that the chain get stronger, said Evert Oldham, area director for USDA Rural Development, because the nations current food system is unsustainable and broken.
Were literally killing ourselves with the way we manage our food, Oldham said.
In a nation plagued by food-driven illnesses, such as diabetes and obesity, and one that has spent the last few decades persistently scaling up the business model to commercial sizes that make it hard for small farms to compete, Oldham says our food system is built on the same precepts as the nations recently bailed-out financial system.
Our food is working on the same model as our financial system. Both are failures and have a very short life span, Oldham said.
Oldham argues that bigger is not better when it comes to food production and distribution. And the food industrys transition to a system where most all industry assets are leveraged with debt is a dangerous economic proposition, he said.
Gone are the days when a dollar spent on produce turned over seven times in a community, creating good jobs and economic prosperity, he said. Instead, the nation and communities such as the Four Corners have turned to a big-box model that provides a small savings to consumers up front but takes a huge toll on the local economy as the money inserted in the big-box cash registers moves out of the area within hours sometimes minutes.
Adopting a new game plan will take community-building, Oldham said,
If youre going to be in a position to evolve into the next generations food-system model, you have to talk to each other, Oldham said
And talk is exactly what the more than 200 summit attendees did. Food producers, distributors, retailers, medical professionals and social-service providers spent the day figuring out how to restructure the local food system to make it more sustainable and effective.
It was very encouraging to see so many people there, said Jim Dyer, director of Healthy Community Food Systems. That kind of community discussion is really essential as we try to rebuild the food system.
Dyer and others at the summit said the answer is the reverse of what we have today. The current system works with a top-down approach, Dyer said, with expansive marketing efforts working to control consumers eating and buying habits while alliances flourish between government and big players in the agriculture industry.
Were being manipulated on many counts, and we saw some of that realization and frustration at the meeting. That revelation is the first step, Dyer said, We have to start taking back control of our food system.
Among the first steps ahead are creating a regional food system plan, the structure for which will be presented at the agriculture expo in Cortez in March, Oldham said. Attendees at the summit built a list of things they felt would be critical. And many local organizations, schools and businesses offered up their services to match the needs.
The progress made at the summit gave the region a solid start in building a new regional food system, Oldham and Dyer said.
Tawnya Laveta, from the Sante Fe-based Farm to Table program, also had high hopes for the road ahead.
Well show the rest of the world how its done, Laveta said.