The Community Food Security Movement

Laura M. McCullough

During the great Irish potato famine food exports from Ireland never waned; some experts predict that in a few short years Americans are likely to face a similar situation. While food exports will skyrocket to satisfy global demands, food costs for most Americans will increase dramatically.

Twice in this century, Americans have dealt with major food crises. The results were community gardening movements: the Liberty Gardens and the Victory Gardens of the two World Wars. Today, the Community Food Security (CFS) movement is an effort by thinkers, researchers, community activists, farmers, environmentalists, community development advocates and others across sectors and disciplines to move toward sustainable, regional food systems. While the anti-hunger sector has always been about food security--for individuals and families--Community Food Security is broader.

Formed in 1994, the national Community Food Security Coalition intends to bring about a situation "in which all persons obtain a nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable diet at all times through local non-emergency sources." The Coalition, with offices in Venice, California, has left this definition purposefully simple. While addressing the key issues, it leaves room for who will be involved and how the goal will be achieved.

Last October, the Coalition held its second annual meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Among the 130 participants were organic farmers, community food bank directors, cooperative extension agents, horticultural groups, economic development experts, community-based organizations, world hunger activists, academicians, social service providers, urban agriculturists, spiritual/religious leaders as well as representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a representative from the Secretary of Agriculture.

At one lunch table an organic vegetable producer from Florida, a Canadian social worker, a Tufts University professor, a representative of the Heifer Project, a community development expert and a director of a Catholic rural social services group discussed the relative merits of urban farmers' markets. The conversation at the next table concerned the loss of small farms, farm families, and the cultural and community deficits these losses continue to create.

Regardless of topic or affiliation, there was a commonality: the notion of food as a "green stage" on which to build community and from which to address broad social justice and economic issues. All saw the need to create linkages between low-income communities and regional food producers--and the importance of creating multifaceted regional food systems that re-empower communities and decrease reliance on the corporate food system.

Although some communities appear to be more at-risk than others, when it comes to a secure, sustainable source of good food, the CFS organizing principle is that, "Hey, we all gotta eat." While the anti-hunger sector has understandable qualms about allocating resources to the long-term work of food systems planning while people are starving, Andy Fisher, Executive Director of the CFS Coalition, points out that "the two movements share the similar goal of a nation without poverty."

Thanks to the effort of the Coalition, the USDA funds an annual grant program ($2.4 million in 1998) to help communities and cross-sector collaborations develop sustainable, comprehensive, long-term strategies to address nutrition and health, farm and food producer, and local food systems issues. 

Through this program the Upper Sand Mountain United Methodist Church Larger Parish in Alabama, for example, is training rural low-income families and youth in micro-enterprise in the Sowing Seeds and Stocking Shelves Program. Likewise, the Maine Coalition for Food Security is creating food-system study circles and food policy councils and is organizing a statewide food security conference. And the Tahoma Food System in Washington, in collaboration with the cooperative extension, is working to provide square-foot nutrition, a combination nutrition education/gardening program to at-risk youth, while also working on land use planning and farming issues.

The CFS movement has adopted an asset-analysis approach to problem solving and coalition building, as opposed to the victim-based paradigm of a governmental or social service agency identifying a community and problem(s) and attempting to fix perceived wrongs. An asset-analysis is non-victim oriented. It assumes undeveloped and untapped potential already exists within any group and that the place to start is to determine with the community the nature of its assets, while thereby exposing where lapses in food security exist. The ultimate responsibility for shoring up the community's assets belongs to the community itself.

This approach is a radical shift in worldview for many social service and governmental organizations and some find it ideologically threatening. In the face of dwindling funding, some would prefer to see the status quo of anti-hunger organizations and service provision industries remain the way it is. But the CFS movement is predicated on the belief that an approach which cuts across communities is needed so that the question of meeting the need for food is not focused solely on the needs of a dis-empowered constituency.

Certainly, this notion extends way beyond food. But, as a "green stage" it is a place we all have to go, since "we all gotta eat." If we can embrace it, one locale at a time, the CFS hope is that we we will begin to address the sustainability and security of the globe at large.