No issue illustrates the challenges and opportunities of going green better than food.
What we eat and how we get it is the most basic of concerns. “What’s for dinner?” may just be the oldest question in the world.
In fact, cities began when humans learned to produce more food in a season than they needed to survive. The food storehouse is one of the earliest types of buildings constructed by people.
Over the last two centuries, our food system became more industrialized and agricultural products traveled longer and longer distances to reach consumers, from Texas cattle drives bringing beef to eastern cities to refrigerated railcars bringing lettuce from California to Chicago. Today, of course, fruits have no season and New Zealand lamb is common. Even beer, once the epitome of local food processing, now circles the globe.
That global industrial food system uses a lot of oil and puts a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere. It also creates a lot of middlemen. According to Local Harvest, only 18 percent of your supermarket food dollar goes to the growers; the remaining 82 percent goes to processors, transporters, wholesalers, and retailers.
In a world of rising energy prices, growing climate concerns, and diminishing accountability stretched over long distances and many political boundaries, the industrial food system raises concerns about the safe quality and reliable quantity of food, not mention the impact factory farming has on the environment.
A strong and resilient local food system is seen as fundamental to a City’s sustainability. For example, the prominent SustainLane city rankings site includes local food and agriculture among the measures used to gauge a city’s sustainability.
In case you missed it, Philadelphia scored very well in this year’s SustainLane rankings: 8th among the nation’s fifty largest cities. And a major contributor to our ranking is the strength of our local food system. The ranking counts the number of community gardens and farmers markets per capita and we rank 7th. No city larger than Philadelphia ranks higher than 25th on local food.
So food is a big strength for us. But we can do even better. Over fifty cities in the U.S. have a Food Policy Council that brings together local food producers, consumers, advocates, and policymakers to improve the local food system.
On October 7 at Reading Terminal Market, Mayor Nutter announced a new Food Charter that articulates the City’s commitment to providing safe, affordable, locally grown, and healthy food for Philadelphians.
As the Food Charter (which you can read in full here) envisions, food can be a catalyst for youth engagement and resident involvement in community gardens and farms, a means to advance public and community health through education and access to nutritious food, and a foundation for creating vital and sustainable neighborhoods.
This region is fortunate to have many nationally recognized leaders on this issue. Just a small sample: City Harvest is a unique partnership between the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; the Philadelphia Prison System; and SHARE, a food cupboard distribution network. The Food Trust works to improve the health of children and adults, promote good nutrition, increase access to nutritious foods, and advocate for better public policy. Farm-to-City strives to unite communities, families, and farmers year-round through good locally grown food. And the White Dog Café Foundation is nationally recognized as a leader in buy-local efforts.
But for too long, city government has not been a reliable and productive partner to these homegrown efforts. By announcing this Food Charter, Mayor Nutter is demonstrating the leadership and the partnership needed to pull together the region’s resources and take our food system to a whole new level.
Perhaps the most important goal of the Food Charter is its call to create a Food Policy Council. We want to set a new table for the region’s food producers, consumers, advocates, and policymakers to gather around, leveraging assets so that Philadelphia develops the nation’s pre-eminent regional food system.
With a Food Policy Council, we would have the combined clout and expertise to bring safer, healthier, more affordable food to every family, every school, and every neighborhood in Philadelphia. We could create business and employment opportunities in this greenest sector of the green economy. We could make better use of the City’s vacant land inventory, converting a burden into a productive use.
But a Food Policy Council will require new resources to make all this happen. Our Food Charter, drafted with the assistance of major stakeholders throughout the region, is intended to help mobilize and attract new commitments. It symbolizes our pledge to work together toward a common vision and our call for new resources to help make that vision a reality.
Mark Alan Hughes is a Senior Adviser to Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the City’s first Director of Sustainability. Look for his regular column in Philly.com's Green section.