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Spotlight Charlottesville: Local Food Communities

For those interested in agriculture and food, it is impossible to escape the inundation of buzzwords surrounding the latest agricultural/food movements. Words such as “locavore,” “local food community,” “community food systems,” and “food heritage” are sprinkled heartily throughout most articles on sustainability and agriculture, though the majority of people cannot envision the realization of these terms. What would a local food community be like? What does a community food system entail? Despite its name, a local food community (i.e. a geographically limited location that has a community food system) does not just affect the diets and food policies of its members.  Local food communities are dedicated to the economic, environmental, and social health of its members and its land as well.  However, the trends towards these goals have not arisen from nothing; the increasing deterioration of rural communities and the lack of available produce in areas of high poverty have contributed to the need for a new food system model.

 The local food community has three primary goals: economic vitality, environmental health, and social equity/human health.  An effect of these goals is that this model offers farmers a way to lay claim to a greater percentage of the food dollar by reducing the middleman, and it offers consumers an opportunity to develop a relationship with their food system and supply.  These effects, in turn, help strengthen the local economy and society by creating jobs and increasing local circulation of capital. Examples of projects that support local food communities include urban farms, community gardens, CSA farms, and local agricultural coalitions. The most successful local food communities include many of these projects in order to move towards a greater self-sufficiency.

 (Author's personal collection)One such location is Charlottesville, Virginia. Home to the University of Virginia, Charlottesville has a growing local food community that is often referred to as the center of the local food movement on the East Coast (though I’m sure some of our New Englanders would disagree).  An example of this community in action can be seen through the partnership with Local Food Hub. Local Food Hub is a nonprofit organization that aims to support local food communities by linking small farmers with resources and services to strengthen their economic stability. Examples of this support include distribution services, educational farms, farm training, and marketing support. They are building a successful, sustainable local food distribution model in Charlottesville by addressing what they determine to be the three major issues in our nation’s local food system: distribution (the movement of product from the farmer to the location of sale), supply (the amount and variety a farmer can produce), and access (the consumer’s access to the product).

Again, for the average consumer, these ideas often fall to the wayside, however “good” or “right” they may view them to be. The number one reason for people to turn away from local food is that it can be too formidable a task to become educated about the resources available, and local food may be too expensive to purchase or too burdensome to access. One benefit of organizations like Local Food Hub is that many of these issues can be ameliorated. For example, the University of Virginia partnered with Local Food Hub and the result was farm fresh produce stands…in the UVa Hospital Cafeteria. 

(From Wikipedia)The true success of Charlottesville’s local food system cannot be reduced to any one organization, any one partnership, or any one farm; it is a community effort. It is supported by other resources, like the Virginia Food Heritage Project, which aims to raise awareness about the disappearance of food varieties that were once unique to a given area. The variety and interconnectedness of the different projects exemplify the importance of a supportive community for any local food system. Looking at Charlottesville as a model, it is clear that these strategies, namely interconnectedness of organizations and support of the relationship between farmers and consumers, are incredibly beneficial in establishing a network of local agricultural production and consumption. No one organization can handle every agricultural need of a community; the relationship between a series of coalitions, organizations, and groups that each support some aspect of economic vitality, environmental health, or social equity is absolutely critical for a successful local food community.
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