Written by Anya Nowakowski, NACo Research Assistant.
Food insecurity is a problem that hits every corner of the nation and affects families in counties across the country. Moreover, county officials have the power to help their communities gain access to this most basic staple while making their local economies more resilient, by promoting local food systems and collaborating with public and private partners in overcoming this challenge.
The lack of access and limited and uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate food – in other words, foods insecurity – is a national problem. Fifty million people are food insecure in the United States, of which 17 million are children. There are many factors contributing to a household’s access to food including poverty, income, unemployment, homeownership and food prices. The federal government pays special attention to household income and determines a household eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – more commonly known as food stamps – based on this indicator. However, more than a quarter of food insecure individuals have incomes higher than the eligibility threshold for most food assistance programs, creating an even greater need for additional solutions to this challenge.
The issue of food security has transcended the federal level and caught the attention of NACo and its county members. NACo conducted a webinar on regional food systems last month that facilitated a conversation among county officials and with federal stakeholders about innovative local food solutions and access to food.
Here are some examples of county innovative solutions in promoting local food systems featured in the webinar.
In 2008, county supervisors in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, formed the Pottawattamie County Local Food Council, which consists of growers, distributors, health care providers, elected officials, grocery retailers and culinary professionals. The goal of this public-private partnership is enhancing the health and economic vitality of the community and providing resources to assist start-up local food operations. The Pottawattamie board of supervisors pledged to provide financial support and staff at a rate of $30,000 a year for five years to the council. In this way, the county would help quench the demand for fresh food – estimated at over 80,000 pounds of fresh produce a week for Council Bluffs, Iowa, alone – and help local growers like Old Nelly Farms and 3 Bee Farms .
In 2011, Franklin County, Ohio founded the Franklin County Local Food Council (FCLFC) to connect growers with consumers and support a resilient local food system. In 2012, the FCLFC surveyed the community about the current state of the local food system and potential areas of growth. The assessment showed that lack of convenience of access to food was the biggest obstacle facing the community. Based on the results of this survey, the FCLFC worked with other local food councils in central Ohio and convened a working group that established the Central Ohio Local Food Plan. The common strategy encourages local governments to support the growth of local farms by helping farmers control the initial costs of expansion through partnerships.
Some communities have started mobile farmers markets as a low cost way to provide citizens with access to healthy local food. In Baltimore City, Md., many residents do not have access to nutritional foods or grocery stores in their communities. In an effort to combat this problem, Baltimore City gave Civic Works, a non-profit organization, the rights to start an urban farm in Clifton Park in 2009. The city chose Civic Works because the non-profit grants access to healthy, affordable foods in low-income communities through mobile farmers markets. These markets provide monetary incentives to residents including matching the first five dollars a customer spends, and accept food stamps (SNAP). This experiment follows a larger, national trend - in 2013 over 2,000 farmers markets accepted food stamp payments.
As these examples show, counties collaborate with a wide range of public and private stakeholders to increase their communities’ access to food and in the process, become more resilient. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers grant opportunities to local governments and nonprofit organizations to create local facilities that provide residents with access to locally grown food. By encouraging local and regional food systems, county officials can help feed their residents, boost their local economies and in the process, make their communities more resilient.