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Chesapeake Foodshed Network reaches out

By WHITNEY PIPKIN
AFP Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 10, 2015) —It’s been almost two years since the idea was first hatched to unite disparate parts of the Chesapeake Bay food system under a common network — one that could share ideas and synergies across state lines.
But, as Christy Gabbard presented at the Future Harvest, a Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, conference earlier this month, that idea is now taking shape as the Chesapeake Foodshed Network.
A food systems consultant, Gabbard began working full-time for the network six months ago, with the help of a grant from the Town Creek Foundation, and helped complete its vision and mission statements in December.
The network aims to help the growing number of entities working on local food systems connect and collaborate on a “sustainable, resilient, inclusive and equitable regional food system in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” 
The concept is loosely based on networks that have taken shape in other parts of the country, Gabbard said.
Vermont’s Farm to Plate initiative has a vision that 20 percent of the region’s food come from Vermont by 2025, and Food Solutions New England wants to see 50 percent of its food coming from New England by 2060.
Each group has issued reports that reach across several sectors of the local food economy about how to reach those goals.
Gabbard said the process in the Chesapeake is just beginning. The network’s initial focus is on gathering data and assembling work groups to assess where the foodshed is before charting where it needs to go.
“It’s going to take time and commitment, but I think people will see a value in it because we are so often disconnected,” Gabbard said at the conference.
Instead of creating a new nonprofit or bringing in a team of employees, the network will connect the organizations that are already operating in these sectors. Its first effort is to assemble a handful of work groups (and find volunteers to serve on them) that will zero in on aspects of the local food system.
The policy work group, for example, has been the first to kick off with quarterly conference calls.
The group will look at policies being made at the state, county and municipal levels to improve local food systems and explore whether any of those efforts can be combined at a higher level or duplicated at a lower level.
Nancy Nunn with the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology at the University of Maryland said she’s eager to see the network she’s helped shape begin helping policy- and cheese-makers alike. Nunn runs a small cheese company in Maryland on the side and said a network like this could help her stay abreast of new policies as they’re applied — perhaps differently — on a county-by-county basis in the state.
“We can network with other organizations and leverage so there’s not 10 of us out there trying to do the same thing and battling for the same funds,” Nunn said. “We’re hoping these organizations can join together and build on each others’ strengths.”
For producers, a network like this could help them connect and combine their growing efforts to meet the large inventory needs of a local hospital that’s just beginning to source local products.
At the conference, Gabbard showed slides of how the network’s work groups will try to represent the various sectors included in the local food system — from waste recovery to marketing.
Amanda Buczynski with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future will chair a work group focused on collecting data across the states to mirror the information she’s already gathering for Maryland. She manages a Maryland Food System Mapping Project that has helped identify where there is a lack of resources like farmers markets, which is the beginning of helping people fill those voids.
At the end of Gabbard’s session explaining the network at the conference, she asked attendees to go around the room and explain how a network like this could help their piece of the local food puzzle. She wrote down their ideas and asked a few of them to join work groups if they’re able.
She said the network will continue to be shaped by the people who are able to participate in it and designate its priorities.
“This is an experiment we are proposing, and we need to now try it,” she said.