Building Resilient Regional Food Systems

Hooray for our resilient regional food system! The pandemic has exposed the failure of our centralized industrial food system. Shelves in chain stores stand empty while mega-farms plow under mono-crops and pour milk down the drain. In contrast, our regional food system keeps growing stronger. Working together, rural farmers and urban eaters have found ways to connect directly, utilizing practices that promote organic, pesticide-free produce and humane treatment of farm animals, while building local supply chains that will have a lasting impact on our region’s capacity to feed ourselves and our communities. The following recent stories demonstrate how our farmers and local food entrepreneurs have adapted during the pandemic for the benefit of all of us.

When the Riverwards Produce Market (pictured above), in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, was unable to purchase flour from their national supplier due to shortages, owner Vince Finazzo turned to the Pennsylvania Grain Coalition, a project of All Together Now PA, led by Local Food coordinator, Katherine Rapin.

Through the coalition, Vince connected to Small Valley Milling located near Halifax, PA. Owned and operated by the Steigman family, the mill processes heritage grains grown on their organic family farm and neighboring farms. Vince drove 35 miles to the mill to pick up 2,500 pounds of organic flour, which is now available in his grocery store Riverwards Produce Market (left) for his Philly customers who are doing more home baking during the pandemic.

Another exciting development happening through the Pennsylvania Grain Coalition is the launch of the PA Pantry Box, which is a selection of freshly-milled flours, quick-cooking grains, dried beans, and cooking oil sourced from local growers. Instructions to sign up can be found via the All Together Now Local Food Guide: 

Ian Brendle (left) hands off a Green Meadow Farm food box.

Farmers, too, have shown resilience. When restaurants were forced to close during the pandemic, Green Meadow Farm lost most of its customers. With a greenhouse full of produce, chickens laying eggs, and the first rhubarb of spring poking up from the ground, the Brendle family needed to find a new market. They began making food boxes of their farm products (and those of their Amish neighbors) for individual households. Using social media to spread the word, they connected directly to customers and are now taking orders online and by phone for food boxes containing fresh greens, pasture-raised meats and eggs, cheese, butter, and other groceries, which can be picked up on the farm or at three urban locations. Some of the Brendle’s restaurant clients, who have remained open for take-out business, serve as distribution points for these food boxes.

Sarah Clark Stewart picks up Green Meadow Farm box by bicycle

Industrial Animal Agriculture Endangers Us All! It’s not surprising that industrial slaughterhouses, where workers stand shoulder to shoulder in stressful conditions, have become hotspots for Covid-19. Driven by a desire to maximize profits, industrial slaughterhouses process up to 20,000 animals a day on fast-moving conveyor belts, showing no reverence for the lives of the animals nor respect for the largely immigrant workforce. After thousands of workers became ill, spreading the disease to their communities and resulting in numerous deaths, the plants were forced to close by local health authorities. In this centralized industrial system, monopolized by a handful of large corporations, the closure of a single slaughterhouse affects the entire country and has caused a logjam in the system. With no place to go, millions of healthy pigs are being euthanized and discarded, while grocery stores and food banks experience meat shortages.

Not only do industrial animal factories cause untold suffering to farm animals, but the concentration of manure pollutes our air and water and the animal products we eat contain antibiotics and hormones. On top of all that, industrial animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change. Studies show that animal agriculture produces anywhere from 18% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, as reported by the UN, to an astonishing 51% according to the World Watch Institute, which takes into account deforestation in such places as the Amazon in order to graze animals for the global meat industry.  Whether for health, morality, or climate change reasons, it’s important that we greatly reduce our consumption of animal products, and when we do eat meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, to consume only that which is raised sustainably and humanely on family farms.  

Photograph courtesy of Primal Supply Meat

Meanwhile, local butchers like Heather Thomason, who owns Primal Supply Meat in Philadelphia, are operating at full capacity. When restaurants were forced to close, Heather pivoted to an online business with deliveries made directly to residents. Unlike the industrial system, where animals are cruelly raised in cramped factories, Heather sources her meat and poultry from local diversified farms where animals enjoy plenty of sunshine and fresh air in pasture-based systems and are processed at small, family-owned slaughterhouses, which handle animals one at a time.  

The failure of the industrial food system to demonstrate resilience has debunked the theory that only a centralized system of large corporate farms with their chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and cruel animal factories can feed the world. On the contrary, as the pandemic reveals (and numerous studies from the UN and elsewhere confirm), it is a decentralized network of regional economies made up of diversified, organic family farms, which act as true stewards of the land and farm animals, that has the capacity to feed the world.  By working together and supporting the growth of local farms, and the food enterprises who buy from them, we build regional self-reliance to reduce carbons, enjoy a healthy diet, and protect our environment and ourselves. 

All Together Now: Let’s source our food locally!

P.S. To better understand the issue of animal agriculture and climate, we recommend

The book: We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins with Breakfastby Jonathan Safran Foer

The article: The End of Meat is Here New York Times Opinion by Jonathan Safran Foer, May 22, 2020