ITHACA, N.Y.—Deeply considering a plate of food could mean tracing the winding journey each morsel has taken to arrive there, thinking of the multitudes of people that find nutritious food unaffordable or wholly unavailable, or trying to count the many hands that played a part in the labor of cultivation. The exercise can be dizzying and perhaps feel a bit irrelevant to a hungry stomach.

But it helps to illustrate the broad definition of the term “food system,” which is the complex web of systems and infrastructure that are involved in people being fed: the farms where food is grown or livestock raised; the facilities where food is packaged; the vehicles that transport it; the grocery stores and shops where food is sold; and how food waste is dealt with.

The big question of how people are fed is underpinned by complex systems and big implications for environment, health, the economy, and how communities function. Although the makings of a food system generally spool far beyond the borders of any one town or region, a growing movement to address intersectional issues through localizing and regionalizing food systems has made national strides, and is seeing a new growth budding in Tompkins County. 

The project is known as Tompkins Food Future (TFF), and comes from the Food Policy Council of Tompkins County, a citizen-led advocacy group. There are a lot of names involved in the council and development of TFF, but two figures at the center of the work are Don Barber, chair of the Food Policy Council, and Katie Hallas, the Community Food System Plan Coordinator. 

“What’s exciting about this project, and also challenging, is that when we think about stakeholders, it truly is everyone in our community,” said Hallas. “We’re all eaters. it’s something that we make decisions about multiple times a day.”

The Food Policy Council formed in 2016 with the goal of making the food system in Tompkins county more sustainable, equitable, healthy, and affordable. With funding from the Tompkins County Legislature and the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, Tompkins Food Future launched in February of 2020. 

The planning process is now nearing the end of “Phase 1,” which is supposed to be an assessment of the current challenges and opportunities of the food system as it is in Tompkins County. To develop this baseline, the Food Policy Council wanted to emphasize a strong element of community engagement to “ground truth” the inferences the council might be able to make from hard data sets from sources like the USDA.

The Food Policy Council has been making the rounds presenting its preliminary findings to the likes of the Tompkins County Legislature, as well as at community gatherings where they’ve drawn input from the public for what they would like to see in a food system. They’ve been sharing the barriers and opportunities they have identified and trying to incorporate public input to shape the plan they form.

The Council is aiming to publish full reports by the end of the year on its findings before it moves onto developing the food system action plan, which they aim to present to the County Legislature in May 2022.

Credit: Jimmy Jordan

The initial findings of the Food Policy Council show that of the 523 farms in Tompkins County, 94 percent are for growing animal feed. About 75 percent of them are under 180 acres, leading the Food Policy Council to classify them as small farms. According to the USDA, the average size farm in 2020 in the U.S. was about 444 acres. 

Barber said that most of the feed grown in the county stays within the municipality, going to a few largy dairy and beef operations that are mostly within the northern part of Tompkins. But it would appear that many of these feed farms are not succeeding.

Around 70 percent of the farms in the county sell less than $40,000 of agricultural goods annually. The Food Policy Council found that 55 percent of farms in the county are reporting net losses. 

One of the core points that the Council wants to make is that localizing aspects of a food system, like the production and distribution of food, presents an opportunity for economic development. 

“We have a great climate, and we have lots of land that is still available for producing food. And so we have the resources available, and we’re not taking advantage of it,” said Barber.

In its baseline assessment, the Food Policy Council estimated that the total market value of the agricultural goods produced in the county is around $65M. It’s unclear how much of this money leaves the county. The Council shared that large food businesses operating in Tompkins won’t share the information they need to accurately calculate those figures.

The Council found that only about 19 percent of farms are selling directly to consumers in Tompkins, an indication of what both Barber and Hallas have called a robust local agriculture scene, but one that has room for growth.

While the Food Policy Council is in the early stage of thinking about policy and planning, Barber and Hallas said that tapping into purchasing power of institutions has been a promising idea to catalyse growth for the local farmers and food producers. 

“If you look at the main institutions in our community—public schools, higher education, hospitals, elder care facilities—it amounts to something like close to half of the population being fed at these places,” said Hallas. “There’s just a massive opportunity to unlock that buying power.”

The Food Policy Council also identified a number of barriers to farmers growing their business. The development of value added products, like pickles, jams, and hot sauces are prohibitively expensive due to limited access to facilities, technical and regulatory expertise. These sort of ventures “extend the season,” and elongate the period of time farmers could sell their products throughout the year. The council also made note of the lack of incentive for small and medium sized farms to sell to grocers, like Wegmans or Tops, which require high volumes of food from their producers and are not as flexible with seasonal crops.  

Barber stressed that in local financial institutions, he’s seen dwindling expertise in the business of small and medium scale farming, which he said makes it difficult for young farmers to get loans suitable for their businesses. The Food Policy Council found that the average age of farmers in Tompkins County is over 56 years old.

These sort of barriers are a matter of investment and effective planning, said Barber. 

“If we can make food become a priority, then I think we need to have the economic facilitators spend more time with it.”

“Food is something that just kind of happens. We haven’t been intentional, and we need to change our thinking about that on every level,” said Barber. “We are more than willing to put money in bridges. How about a food system?”

Part and parcel to the Food Policy Council’s mission to localize the county’s food systems is to improve access to healthy foods within the community. The Food Policy Council presented in their baseline assessment that 11.6 percent of Tompkins residents are food insecure, which as defined by the USDA, means “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Tompkins trends ahead of the national rates of food insecurity, which according to the USDA, was 10.5 percent of households.

Tompkins County, although far behind national averages, contends with obesity as well. The council shared that 24 percent of Tompkins residents are obese and 12 percent of children in Tompkins are obese. The impacts obesity can have on an individual’s health are myriad, and is linked to many of the leading causes of death in the U.S., like heart disease and some types of cancer.

The Food Policy Council found that SNAP benefits are not utilized by 62 percent of the residents that are eligible to enroll, and that a third of food insecure Tompkins residents that aren’t eligible for federal assistance. The council identified that increasing access to healthy food is the highest shared priority among Tompkins county community members.

“We’re the only developed nation with such a significant hunger and food insecurity problem,” said Hallas “And at the same time, we’ve got this food waste problem.”

Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all food that’s produced in the U.S. is wasted. Hallas referred to the three conditions of food insecurity, health issues, and the large volume of waste as “the American paradox,” and one of the intersections of issues that the Food Policy Council will be looking to plan around.

“Given that those three conditions are so closely linked, what can we do to address each one of them through solutions that get out all three of those problems,” said Hallas.

Perhaps the most pertinent benefit to a more localized food system is the insulation it can provide from supply chain imbalances. The COVID-19 pandemic created barriers to access and supply shortages for food and other goods, demonstrating issues that the United Nations, among others, contend are bound to come with the devastating effects of climate change.

“The pandemic made this all so real for all of us,” said Barber. “This is not an abstract thought. This actually happened to us. It’s still happening to us.”

Barber and Hallas said that as they prepare to develop policies and plans to presented to the Tompkins County Legislature in May, they intend to shine a brighter light on the benefits localizing the county food system can bring to the fight against climate change. 

“It’s a public health issue as much as an environmental issue as much as an economic issue,” said Barber. “It covers all aspects of our lives.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn