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America is more hungry than ever for sustainable food systems. Can we build them?

By on March 23, 2021 0

In the spring of 2020, many small farms across the United States found themselves in a sticky situation. Restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus were forcing restaurants – major buyers from local farms that serve urban areas – to close. The loss of these key customers could have wiped out many of these local producers, were it not for another COVID-19-induced phenomenon: individual buyers started calling – and calling – and calling.

“The farms we work with are experiencing a huge spike in demand [for direct sales]“, Dan Miller, CEO and founder of the crowdfunding platform Steward, told me during our telephone conversation at the beginning of April. “But now they have to quickly change their business to meet this demand.” So Miller, who launched the platform in the fall of 2019 to provide financing for small, sustainably managed farms — operations often underserved by traditional finance — quickly found itself expanding. Steward’s services to help these same farmers change their economic model.

Stories of small farms pivoting their operations in no time were easy to find in the early months of the pandemic: These farmers works overtime respond to customer demand, added services such as online ordering and home delivery, and took action to support community food banks struggling to serve an influx of new unemployed. Compared to the oversized, industrialized food system that most Americans live with – represented by rivers of wasted milk and COVID-19 meatpacking hearths plants that kill more more than 200 people — these distributed systems seemed healthier, safer and more environmentally friendly than ever. They also seemed more agile and resilient.

Crises often provide an opportunity to reinvent current systems, so I wondered: Would that happen here, with food? Would food consumption trends driven by the pandemic end up in the history books – like the “victory gardensof World War II – or could it lead to lasting change? And how do we turn this moment of crisis into a more resilient, sustainable, healthy and just food system?

Crises often provide an opportunity to reinvent current systems.

At the GreenBiz Group Virtual Clean Economy Conference, EDGE 20, last week, speakers and attendees addressed questions such as these, discussed how to ensure that these changes persist, and identified the challenges that stand in the way. During a session dedicated to lessons learned from the pandemic, panelists agreed that the main obstacle to change in the current food system is financing.

“The financial services that exist … are really not calibrated for where we are,” said Janie Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund. “If we really want to build an agile and resilient system in the future, we have to invest in it.”

Crop insurance is an example of the financial challenges faced by sustainable farms. If a farmer wishes to transition a farm from conventional practices to organic or regenerative practices, there are costs associated with this transition. However, insurance policies usually do not cover them, so the farmer is forced to bear the additional initial costs and risks. The same goes for the financing of traditional agriculture, developed for conventional agriculture. Loans are typically underwritten based on equipment, inputs, volume, price, and conventional producer insurance coverage. These factors are different for organic and regenerative farmers, so the numbers often don’t work out, resulting in refused or unaffordable loans.

This increased access to capital could help transform the market, which would hopefully reduce costs and make this more nutritious food more widely available, said Matthew Walker, managing director of S2G Ventures, a venture capital fund. and food systems-focused mission investor.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to provide affordable nutrition…and enable those looking to grow organic, or whatever technological process that might be better for soil health, better for nutrition, to at least start,” he said. said.

This increased access to capital could help move the market forward.

Making healthy food available in underprivileged neighborhoods, where fresh and affordable vegetables are scarce, this is the mission of the Bronx Green Machine, but founder Stephen Ritz — a keynote speaker at VERGE — didn’t wait for systems to change. Established in 2012, the program uses hydroponic and vertical farming technology in its indoor teaching farm at a South Bronx school, where children learn to grow and cook vegetables themselves.

Every week throughout the school year, children bring home bags of groceries to their families. Green Bronx Machine also operates a “food for others” outdoor garden and summer employment program for youth in the Bronx, which serves food-insecure families in the community. And he has various other partnerships and serves as a model for schools in other districts, including a program in more than 60 Chicago schools sponsored by the Chicago Blackhawks captain’s foundation. Jonathan Toewswho joined Ritz as part of VERGE’s Building a Better Food System for America’s Cities panel.

Like the farmers who work with Steward, the student farmers at Green Bronx Machine pivoted when the pandemic hit, Ritz said in his speech.

“As COVID-19 has crippled the world, it has become the ultimate manifestation of three great diseases: racism, greed and corruption,” Ritz said. “And we found new ways to secure and distribute food to those who needed it most.”

This included weekly grocery delivery for 26 food-insecure patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital recovering from cancer, and 55 of the Bronx’s most vulnerable families, on a 26-mile route which includes buildings without elevators.

“The truth is, kids want to be part of the conversation. The truth is, kids don’t let differences divide them. The truth is, kids are smarter than you think,” Ritz said.

As COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, it became the ultimate manifestation of three bigger diseases: racism; greed; and corruption.

When New York was the epicenter of the pandemic – a place where by May the virus had killed more than 20,000 people, mostly in inner-city neighborhoods such as the South Bronx – food grown by a group of children was being delivered to families who might not have not eaten otherwise.

The Green Bronx Machine has joined community farms, city farms and small family farms to provide a lifeline to their communities. They have shown resilience during a crisis and their numbers are growing, but they remain a tiny part of the gargantuan American food system.

In 2017, there were 16,585 farms certified organic, an increase of 17% from the previous year, according to the latest report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Organic survey, released this month. These farms accounted for 5.5 million certified organic acres, an increase of 9% from 2016.

This impressive growth marks the continuation of a decade-long trend. And yet, certified organic acres still represent less than 1% of the total 911 million acres of US farmland. (Although I should add that the survey’s three-year lag doesn’t provide an up-to-date picture, and farms that use organic or regenerative practices but haven’t been certified aren’t counted.)

The main challenge for these farms is building the infrastructure and operational capacity to support a growing customer base.

Curious to see if the demand for direct sales Steward farmers had seen in the spring continued, I contacted Miller again. Over email, he told me the request held and offered an example of Fisheye Farms, an urban farm in Detroit. Fisheye, he reported, has already sold out all of its winter CSA and is fielding inquiries for spring. CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”, a system where customers buy “a share” of the farm. They pay a flat rate to receive regular boxes of whatever is in season. Every two weeks from November through February, members of Fisheye’s Winter CSA will receive spinach, kale, carrots, turnips, radishes, microgreens and more. The cost is $300, or about $38 per week.

“The main challenge for these farms is building the infrastructure and operational capacity to support a growing customer base,” Miller said in his email. “Even the most demanding farmers still need capital to operate better because they can’t finance everything they need on cash flow alone.”

In other words, replicating and scaling what these farms are doing, and building distributed food systems that are resilient, sustainable, healthy, and just, will take time, cooperation, and lots of green.