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Opinion | Locally grown food strengthens our nation’s security and resilience

We all remember those weeks of food scarcity as the pandemic began its terrible sweep across the nation in spring of 2020. Photos of empty grocery store shelves played across TV screens. The web streamed images of miles-long lines of cars at food pantries, juxtaposed with farmers just miles away plowing under crops because the farmer couldn’t get the crop to market.

When put to the test, our long-distance food supply system, with all its towering ocean freighters, rumbling trains, and muscly semi-trucks proved startlingly vulnerable and struggled to feed our nation.

Jen Schaap headshot, with a farm in the background
Jen Schaap is the food & farming program director at the nonprofit Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

Yet, in the Grand Traverse/Little Traverse region, farmers and others in our local food economy had been building relationships and resilience for more than 20 years, and local farmers came to the rescue to help fill shelves in grocery stores, food pantries, schools, and more.

Food security is national security, and where local food economies were strong during the pandemic, they offered an essential measure of security at a tragically insecure time.

Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture and Congress witnessed the resilience and security that locally grown food provided in pockets around the nation and understood the urgent need to invest more to expand local food economies. 

In Michigan, a region of 16 counties stretching from the Mackinac Bridge to Ottawa County was selected to receive USDA funds to develop and expand local food systems. In early 2023, a small group of regional local food organizations (including Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, the organization I work for) began the first stages of that work—going to areas where local food economies did not exist or were weak and creating programs that would foster markets, build infrastructure, and forge the multitude of relationships needed to establish strong local food economies. 

Especially encouraging was that the USDA was willing to fund the relationship-building piece of local food systems. Relationship-building is nebulous, and it can be tough to convince the government to invest in human networks. But without a multitude of relationships, there is no local food economy, no matter how many farms you have in a region. 

If such a pilot program can give rise to a stable, burgeoning local food economy along 250 miles of Michigan’s west coast, the lessons learned can be shared to speed expansion of local food economies across the nation. 

A successful local food economy brings not only food-supply resilience and greater national security in times of trouble, but also a bounty of benefits year in, year out. Local food economies create jobs in the food supply chain, stabilize farm finances, preserve farms and thereby preserve farmland, broaden local economic strength for a community, and improve child and adult health by increasing consumption of nutrient-dense food. And let’s not forget that local food increases our nation’s joy with delicious and beautiful meals, an important part of culture and togetherness.

Consider for a moment the structure of the internet. The internet was based on the idea that a multitude of small computers tied together in a vast network was far more impervious to technical failure and attack than a centralized system. Likewise, our nation’s food resilience can be strengthened by a food economy that includes a multitude of small and mid-size farms and countless relationships that will connect them to one another, their markets, and their communities. It’s extremely encouraging to see Congress and the USDA support that food-security evolution with research and development dollars.

Because a local food economy grows one eater at a time, you can play an essential role in building personal and family health, food supply resilience, and other benefits of locally grown food. 

  • Select locally grown food in grocery stores and restaurants. 
  • Encourage your child’s school to purchase locally grown food for lunches and snacks. (Check out 10 Cents a Meal and other programs to alleviate school costs!)
  • Volunteer to lead food tastings at your school. 
  • Shop at farmers markets, or sign up for a weekly box of locally grown food through a CSA farm share. 

For national food security, our health, and our farmers, let’s make local happen.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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