Columnist Philip Korman: Think Big to Create a Better Food System

Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 30, 2020, by Philip Korman


Nine months into the pandemic, even with vaccines on the way, it is evident that its impacts will be with us for years to come. The most basic aspects of our lives have been upended, including how we feed ourselves. More and more people must rely on emergency food distributions — many of whom are the same people who are still working, often in unsafe conditions, to grow, pack, process, ship, and sell our food. The weaknesses of our national industrial food system have been laid bare.

A handful of companies control every aspect of our national food system, thanks to a “get big or get out” approach to agricultural policy implemented by the federal government in the 1970s and a lack of will to enforce antitrust laws. According to Michigan State University’s Philip H. Howard, “At almost every key stage of the food system, four firms alone control 40% or more of the market, a level above which these companies have the power to drive up prices for consumers and reduce their rate of innovation.” This includes companies that dominate the seed, farm equipment, meat processing, and retail outlet industries.

As a result, small farmers face huge challenges making a living and paying fair wages, farm workers face exploitive conditions, farmland is degraded, and consumers are left with a food supply that is easily disrupted in a crisis, like a pandemic.

There’s a lot we can do to address these challenges on the state level, on behalf of the over 7,000 farms and 25,000 agricultural workers in the commonwealth. We must press our elected and appointed government officials to think big in this crisis to create a better food system for the future and to invest now in start-ups and established businesses.

The effort has begun. Based on recommendations from the Baker-Polito administration’s Food Security Task Force, a $36 million COVID-19 Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program was created (in addition to more funding for food banks and more access points for households using SNAP and the Healthy Incentives Program, or HIP). The response was overwhelming: over 1,300 grant proposals were submitted by farms, fisheries, public schools, corner stores, nonprofits, and more. To date, the program has funded over 190 projects, representing 60 percent of the monies, with more grant awards to be announced.

The farm projects that received funding will strengthen local farms’ ability to grow, process, deliver, and store food, thereby improving food security and food access in the region. One awardee is Reed Farm, Sunderland, which raises chickens and processes poultry raised on other local farms. As misgivings grow about the national meat supply, demand within the region for high-quality local poultry has increased. The funding will allow Reed Farm to make significant upgrades to its existing poultry facility, which will increase the poultry processing capacity available to local farms and make locally raised poultry more available to consumers.

Another project, by Our Family Farms, will allow the dairy cooperative to purchase milk processing equipment and refrigerated delivery trucks. With our state losing upward of 90 percent of dairy farms over the past 30 years, this is an important investment.

Riquezas del Campo is an immigrant- led, worker-owned cooperative farm in Hatfield that was established in 2019. Their grant will enable them to install a wash station, potable water connection, purchase a tractor and implements, and install mobile cold storage and high tunnels.

As the governor and our legislators start crafting next year’s policies, we need to build on this program and ensure that it is not merely a single moment of wakefulness in the midst of a dark night. The investments we make in our food system should aim for long-term improvements and resilience, not merely returning us to the “old normal.” We cannot wait for antitrust action at the national level but rather must invest in our local farms and businesses now. The chances for success are promising; the Food System Caucus is now the second largest caucus in the state legislature. And the good work of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative has provided a framework to move forward (see its new publication, Massachusetts’ Local Food System: Perspectives on Resilience and Recovery).

As always, the light that pushes back the darkness comes from all of us committing to a larger good. We invite you to join us and our sister groups and legislators to build a local and state food system that has vibrant farms, just and fair working conditions for farm owners and farm workers, and access to local food for all.

Philip Korman is Executive Director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)