A Tale of Two Food Systems

One of Hartford's food systems is massive, centralized, and distant; the other extends from neighborhoods to near-by farms

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 25
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

It’s a tale of two food systems. One produces one or two crops at a time on a factory-like farm located thousands of miles from the consumer. The farm equipment is massive and the application of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides is copious.

The farm is managed by non-owners; the owners are a closely-held investment company with corporate headquarters 2,000 miles from the farm. The community feels like a company town rigidly divided between poor farmworkers and a managerial and professional elite. The farm’s produce is trucked 3,000 miles over six days to a supermarket chain’s warehouse in the northeast region of the US where it is redistributed to the chain’s 200 individual units over the course of two to three days. The chain is owned by a Netherlands-based company. So far, 10 kilocalories of energy have been used to produce the one kilocalorie of food that a local consumer will select from the shelf of a 75,000 square foot super store.

In the other food system, as many as 50 or 60 varieties of produce are grown on each of two dozen farms ranging in size from 5 to 100 acres. They are all located within a 30-mile radius of a major city. Farm equipment is modest in size, appropriate to the needs of the operation and environment. Many of the farms are certified as organic while others are working on ways to reduce their dependence on agri-chemicals. The owners run the farm, live there, and may be third or fourth generation farmers. In this food system, some farms are "owned" by the town where they are located or are community supported agriculture farms serving housholds in a multi-town region. Produce from this network of farms is either picked up at the farm by the consumers or is trucked 10 to 50 miles to the city’s farmers’ market. Some produce is sold to the city’s school food service, which provides lunch daily to 25,000 children.

People Have a Choice

The first food system is big, mainstream, conventional, concentrated, impersonal, global, energy and capital intensive, and unsustainable. The second food system is small, alternative, decentralized, personal, local, labor intensive, and sustainable. The second system is up and running in Hartford, Connecticut, where the Hartford Food System (HFS), a private non-profit organization, has been working to put this vision of a localized food system into action since 1978. Like other communities across the country, the HFS has developed a host of community food projects that try to fill the gaps left by the market economy and its "conventional" food system.

Hartford faces such problems as:

  • An overall poverty rate of 24 percent and a childhood poverty rate of 44 percent making it one of the 10 poorest cities in the nation.
  • Only two supermarket chain stores serve the entire city, severely curtailing access to affordable food.
  • A large poor and minority population that suffers from chronic diet-related diseases and infant mortality at higher than national rates.
  • A city characterized by all other forms of urban blight including congestion, crime, hundreds of abandoned buildings, and environmental pollution such as lead and an excess of waste handling facilities.

In the state of Connecticut, related problems compound those of Hartford:

  • Since 1982, almost 17 percent of the state’s farmland has been lost to development. Nationally, the state is number two in the number of shopping malls per square mile and 45th in the amount of farmland (7 percent) .
  • At the end of the national food and energy pipeline, Connecticut’s food arrives from California and Mexico after nearly everyone else has received theirs. This position at the end of the distribution chain means that the state’s food is more expensive and lower in quality.

But the quality and structure of the region’s food system are not the first things on the minds of most urban residents, especially lower income families. According to Shirley Surgeon, a block captain in Hartford’s predominantly African-American north end, "people are so occupied with just surviving, they really haven’t related to the actual environment where they are living." Urban poverty begets a survival mentality that places such desires as a clean, unpolluted environment and a safe, sustainable food supply in positions of low priority.

Crime may be the one overriding reality for every urban resident. Jim Riley is a 72-year-old community gardener of Jamaican ancestry whose prodigious gardening skills help feed six families. "There’s no safe haven in Hartford no more … I used to sit on my porch and watch the girls go by and listen to the ball games on my radio, but no more. There’s all these drive-by shootings and stuff, people can get shot on their porch."

While the biggest threat to people’s immediate health may be from a gun, there is a growing awareness of other health problems that emanate from the environment. Isabel, a Hartford mom who has been using special farmers’ market coupons for five years to buy produce at Hartford’s farmers’ markets, said "like all mothers, I worry about my baby’s health, and I worry about pollution because he is breathing the same air I am."

People possess a strong instinct to avoid pollution and toxins (if they know about them) and to re-establish contact with the natural environment. This desire transcends race, socio-economic status, and residence. Hartford Food System programs have helped many people regain control over an environment that we have made hostile to ourselves. In other words, food is a vehicle for empowerment.

Farm to Family

The Hartford Food System has been using farmers’ markets, its new Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, community gardens, youth gardens, solar greenhouses, and a direct farmer-to-school marketing program to put the urban consumer back into the food picture. The overall program is called Farm to Family and its purpose is twofold: 1) to restore the links between Connecticut’s farmers and low-income communities by launching programs that target both consumers (through coupon programs) and institutional food providers such as the school lunch program; and 2) to give low-income residents an opportunity to participate in their food system through food production and distribution projects.

Going back to the late 1970s, the Hartford Food System played a leading role in bringing community gardens to low-income Hartford neighborhoods. Though now a project of the city’s primary horticultural organization, Knox Parks Foundation, HFS sees community gardens as the best way to extend an appreciation of food production and the aesthetics of open space into the urban environment.

In 1987, HFS established Connecticut’s Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program to provide low-income mothers, their children, and seniors with the opportunity to purchase locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables in their own neighborhoods, while also creating an incentive for local farmers to market their produce in the inner city. Participants received $10 dollars in $2 coupons, which they used for produce at participating farmers’ markets. The program began with 21 farmers at three markets that provided more than 4,000 Hartford women and children with 80,000 pounds of produce for $21,000. By 1994, the program had expanded across Connecticut to include 40 markets and 155 farmers who received well over $300,000 in coupon sales from 43,543 low-income clients and 5,800 senior citizens. In a follow-up survey, 75 percent of the program participants who used their coupons reported they now eat more fruits and vegetables.

In 1994, HFS embarked on its newest venture in hands-on food production, The Holcomb Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. Located on a 318-acre farm owned by the town of Granby, Connecticut, the CSA is the Hartford area’s first community-directed farming project. The CSA grows organic fruits and vegetables for suburban and inner-city members who support the enterprise by purchasing a subscription to the farm and volunteering time on the farm. In addition to creating a direct partnership between the farmer and consumer, the CSA unites the region’s residents in a common effort to build a local source of high-quality, safe food. Throughout the year, CSA members actively shape and support the CSA by participating in fund-raising, membership recruitment, crop planning, educational programs and social events.

In its first year, the CSA produced more than 32,000 pounds of vegetables on five acres of land. Over the 20-week growing season, the produce was distributed among 36 urban and suburban member households and an estimated 880 people through five Hartford community organizations. The program doubled in size in 1995, serving 83 households and individuals through eight community organizations.

Larry Charles is the Executive Director of ONE-CHANE, a neighborhood organization that operates in Hartford’s most poverty-burdened areas.

"You’re surrounded by one of the most distressed communities in the US, and you see the level of poverty, hopelessness, and helplessness that exists. Then you come out to the farm and you get a chance to deal with plants that are dependent upon you and, after a while, you actually see the effects of your work," Charles said. "The experiences of the kids who were working on this farm will make a difference in their lives."

Farm Fresh Start

The majority of Hartford’s schoolchildren are at risk of hunger, and for many, the school lunch program provides their only complete meal for the day. Fully 45 percent of Hartford’s children live in poverty and 80 percent of the city’s 25,000 schoolchildren are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. US Department of Agriculture surveys indicate that 35 percent of National School Lunch Program participants report eating no fruit on an average day, and 25 percent report eating no vegetables. Low-income children are especially vulnerable to poor nutrition and lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Recently, HFS launched Farm Fresh Start, a demonstration program designed to increase the amount and variety of locally-grown produce served in public school meals, while also creating market opportunities for organic and low-input growers. The project’s goals are to increase the supply of local produce in the school lunch program by 40 percent by the fifth year. The project, being carried out in collaboration with the Hartford Board of Education Food Service Program, is testing the project under real-life operating conditions and developing an interdisciplinary curriculum that promotes an understanding of the links between agriculture, nutrition, and environmental health.

Across the country, whether in poor communities or affluent ones, we are faced with a choice between two food systems. What has been learned so far from the Hartford experience is that people who are engaged in some way with food production, even if it’s only buying vegetables at a farmers’ market, will be less alienated from their food supply and more likely to choose the system that is local, personal, and sustainable.

Block Captain Shirley Surgeon said it best: "I really and truly believe that if you give a person the opportunity to work for something, it enhances their well-being. It empowers them that they’re actually working to produce something."

The authors are Elizabeth Boone Wheeler, Farm to Farm program director; Kaleitha Nathele Wiley, student intern; and Mark Winne, executive director, for the Hartford Food System. For more information, write 509 Wethersfield Ave., Hartford, CT 06114; tel. 203/296-9325.

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