Representatives gauge stock of Chesapeake ‘foodshed’

AFP Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 2, 2016) — About 100 stakeholders gathered in a room at the University of Maryland in mid-January to take stock of the resources — and shortcomings — of the region’s food system.
The concept of viewing the system regionally, rather than state-by-state, was still new to some as organizers brought them together to share information across traditional boundaries.
The Chesapeake Food System Summit was the fruit of a yearlong effort to take stock of the many non-profits, food systems, agencies, laborers and farmers working to improve the breadbasket that is the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Having 100 people show up for an event to discuss their findings — and chart a course forward — “speaks to the readiness of this region,” said Christy Gabbard, a food systems consultant who launched the Chesapeake Foodshed Network last year with a grant from the Town Creek Foundation.
She and others have been surveying and connecting the disparate parts of that food system all year and convened the meeting to continue developing a regional vision for a connected, multi-state food system.
One of the keystones of the meeting was a presentation by Arabella Advisors on the “Current State of the Food System.”
The assessment grouped ongoing strategies toward building a stronger food system into three categories: ensuring social equity, promoting environmental sustainability and strengthening the regional food economy.
Programs like the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and the work of nonprofits that address hunger and food access fell into the first categories, while the state’s 25 food hubs, local processing facilities and direct-to-consumer farms and markets fell into the latter.
Efforts to promote environmental sustainability could be broken into “carrot” (such as funding from Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs) and “stick” (regional pollution diet restrictions) approaches to encourage better agricultural and environmental practices.
Those pollution restrictions remind many that the region already operates as more than disparate states in an area that’s closely related to food — so why not make sure its food systems are in sync, too?
“I like the idea that this system is based on a watershed not a political definition of boundaries,” said Shepherd Ogden, a representative from West Virginia.
Gabbard added that the goal of creating a regionally focused food system is not to exclude the types of hyper-local food purchases that occur at farmers markets, or even the region’s ability to export its goods outside the region.
A paper on the subject defines the regional system as one in which “as much food as possible to meet the population’s needs is produced, distributed and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region,”  Gabbard said.
Viewing the system regionally allows it to maintain that local focus while adding economies of scale, reducing duplication of services, increasing food security and capitalizing on the landscape’s natural diversity.
Defining the food system by the geographical boundaries of a watershed allows it to stretch from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains, encompassing the resources of six states and the District of Columbia.
Gabbard said that area spans four different plant hardiness zones that offer a variety of foods in different seasons, for example.
But the region’s food systems also need some work, which is why the network was formed.
In the same categories where work is being done, the assessment found that groups could do more to ensure the economic vitality of farming as a profession, for starters.
Partners can also work together to grow a food system that provides access for a diversity of people living in both rural and urban areas and to connect health care to the need for healthful foods.
One of the biggest obstacles to making the food supply more environmentally sustainable is disagreement over what constitutes sustainability.
Participants asked, should the focus be on local food that travels shorter distances, on organic practices or none of the above?
The assessment found that the regional food economy could be strengthened with more coordinated, data-driven supply chains and advocates that look at regulatory barriers that are shared by several states, such as a lack of processors for locally produced meats.
The network could chip away at the unaffordability of farmland in areas closest to the cities farmers serve and how community supported agriculture models could be applied to other foodstuffs, such as fisheries.
Stakeholders participating in the summit added to the discussion during table discussions on the strengths and gaps in their corners of the food system.
And the committed to using the network to continue connecting with their counterparts in other states.
The event, Gabbard said, was “just the start of the conversation.”