1.21.2022 – Work on a Regional Food Supply System
If one can find a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be that it revealed cracks in our societal infrastructure. That may be a blessing in disguise, in that with climate change or the possibility of an ongoing or another pandemic, we can prepare ourselves for future eventualities.
There are many countries we hear about that suffer food shortages and sometimes empty grocery store shelves, but until the pandemic hit, that had never been my experience. I remember my grandmothers sharing with me stories of the World War II era when there were rationing coupons and people were limited in the amount of, among other things, sugar, butter, meat, and gasoline they could get. Fabric was also scarce and there are wonderful stories about women sewing their wedding dresses out of parachute silk, but I do digress!
Last year, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee started taking testimony on a regional food supply system where the New England states would work together to supply more of what we consume. It is pretty obvious why this is important, but it was really brought home when we looked at a transportation food flow map of the United States and saw that a great deal of what we eat comes from sources around the country. If those routes were disrupted because of disasters like wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc., we could be in serious trouble as we try to provide food for our people.
The Farm to Plate Investment Program was signed into law in 2009 and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) was tasked with conducting the work involved. After an eighteen-month public engagement process that included more than 1,200 Vermonters’ input, priority strategies and goals were established to develop Vermont’s food system in a strategic, coordinated way.
The first 10-year Farm to Plate Strategic Plan was released in January of 2011, which estimated that if we could double the consumption (from 5% to 10%) of Vermont-produced products in ten years, we could create 1,500 jobs and generate an additional $135 million Vermont’s annual economic output. That number would increase to $177 million per year when multiplier effects were considered.
In fact, those estimates were surpassed in just a few years. The Farm to Plate website states that “From 2007 to 2017, Vermont food system economic output expanded 48%, from $7.5 to $11.3 billion. From 2009 to 2019, net new food system employment increased by 6,560 jobs (11.3%).” We are proud of the fact that “Vermont’s farm to plate food system plan is the most comprehensive in the country and the only state that has complete government engagement. Vermont’s food system generates more than $11.3 billion in economic output and supports more than 64,000 jobs and 11,500 businesses.”
All of this is the backdrop for the work being done to create a regional food supply system – “New England Feeding New England” by the New England State Food System Planners Partnership: 2020-2022. Ellen Kahler, the Executive Director of VSJF and a member of the planning partnership, briefed us this week on the progress the group has made in advancing the effort. In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in Vermont local food consumption of 17%, which represents $400 million in sales. If we set a goal of 25% local food consumption by 2030, simple math tells us that we need to increase by 8%. Given the statistics from the Farm to Plate success story, this would also increase our economic output and, potentially create more businesses and jobs in the food system sectors.
Part of the conversation regarding a regional food system is to consider what would be on our plates if we were eating in a more regionally reliant way? What would it cost to eat this way and if we could all afford it? What changes would need to be made as to how federal dollars are spent and if we could realign agricultural subsidies? What do we need to do to get locally produced food to our consumers at a reasonable price? How much additional acreage would be needed to produce the food we need? All of these and more are questions that are being researched by the Partnership.
I am excited about this work because it will put us in a more realistic, secure position as we explore the future of food security for Vermont and our region. It also reaffirms the critical importance of our agricultural sector and its existence to the future of our lives and Vermont’s economy.
Ellen Kahler’s 2021 presentation can be found at New England Feeding New England: Cultivating a Reliable Food Supply (vermont.gov) and it probably makes sense to review this document first before you look at Ellen’s latest presentation, PROJECT UPDATE (vermont.gov). All of this can be found at www.legislature.vermont.gov. Go to Committees, then Agriculture and Forestry, Witness, and Ellen Kahler. Don’t hesitate to contact us with thoughts that you have regarding this topic.