Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Future of Our Food: Building Infrastructure for a Regional Food System

This series interviews farmers, food activists, politicians and policy wonks to try to get a handle on the seismic shift in our local food landscape due to the change of administrations in Washington.

As Vice President of Food & Farms at Ecotrust, Amanda Oborne leads a team seeking to revolutionize and regionalize our food system. By harnessing the purchasing power of schools and institutions, empowering local farmers and ranchers, and developing infrastructure to connect the two, Ecotrust is helping build a resilient regional food economy that nourishes communities and renews the resources on which we depend. Recently named one of the "Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company magazine, Amanda has a master’s degree from Northwestern University, and spent 15 years in private enterprise before joining Ecotrust in 2010. She has recently been featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fast Company and Civil Eats, and appeared at the Food Tank 2016 National Summit and the New York Times Live: Future of Food.

What are the critical issues affecting agriculture and our food system a) here in the Northwest and b) in the country as a whole?

Our biggest challenges are shared—our health, economy, environment and culture are intertwined with our food and how we produce and disseminate it. I believe the system we rely on for our food is fundamentally flawed. Our biology makes us highly susceptible to food that is bad for us, and our "always-on" culture keeps us running and distracted—all of which makes it extremely profitable, given the economic structure in which we operate, for corporations to exploit those realities for significant profit but to the collective detriment of our health and humanity.

It is inhumane, in my mind, to propagate a food system that solves for financial profit over human health and wellbeing. People from all walks of life—farmers and ranchers in rural communities, school children, hospital patients, service industry and agricultural workers, people disadvantaged by institutional racism, people living in poverty and even privileged city dwellers like you and me, suffer to varying degrees from a food system that prioritizes profit and efficiency over nutrition, access and resource stewardship.

If we are to have any hope of addressing these core issues, we are going to have to come together. That means not dividing ourselves into factions dedicated to certain types of production (organic vs. GMO vs. no-till vs. pastured, etc.), but collaborating to support restorative agriculture of all kinds, values-based supply chains and regional markets.

Putting on your best prognosticating hat, what are the issues you think are going to be at the top of the list of the new administration, and how do you think it will address them?

This administration appears to be focused on profit-maximization and deregulation, but seems unaware of how its policies, particularly on immigration and trade, would affect agribusiness. In addition to deleting all references to animal welfare from the White House website, the president has signaled a preference for commodity agriculture over "backyard tomato farming,"  which is how he seems to be characterizing non-commodity production and regional supply chains. The reality is, however, that many types of differentiated production have been shown to yield a higher profit per acre, and consumer demand for food free of antibiotics, pesticides, animal cruelty, added sugar and other unnecessary additives is not going away.

What’s more, a growing number of consumers want their food system to reflect their values, including livable wages and fair treatment for both farm workers and service industry employees, equitable access to nutrient-dense food and higher standards for animal welfare. Eaters are going to have to find their voices and speak up. The good news is that because food is so connected to other issues—climate change, children’s health and ability to learn in school, immigration, equity, aging, and many others—speaking up for food has a ripple effect on many other important issues.

What do we as citizens need to be paying attention to? What are the best sources for information on the issues?

If you care about any of these challenges, you would do well to read Civil Eats regularly. The foremost repository of news, thought, analysis and solutions being piloted in regions across the country, Civil Eats carries the pulse of food and restorative agriculture and is completely accessible to eaters of all stripes.

For those actively working or volunteering in food system reform, I can also recommend the Food & Environment Reporting Network and its partner publication, Ag Insider, along with Mother Jones; the weekly newsletter of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition; Food Tank; and Food Tech Connect.

In your opinion, what’s the most effective action citizens can take in the short term? In the long term?

Show up for local, practical, immediate causes. For example, the Oregon Legislature is considering eliminating funding for farm to school in this legislative session. This would be an incredible blow to Oregon children, farmers and processors all in one hit. Research conducted by Ecotrust has shown, without question, that every dollar spent by schools on local food creates an additional dollar of economic activity in our home economy, and creates jobs as well. Parents and supporters can stay tuned to the Facebook pages of Ecotrust and Upstream Public Health for regular updates and calls to action.

What organizations most need our support?

Becoming a monthly Ecotrust giver puts any eater squarely in the fight for an equitable, restorative, prosperous and delicious food system, and the gifts are used locally for the benefit of Oregon farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, as well as children and families facing system disadvantages in food access. Yes, of course I’m biased, but I can certainly vouch for the work!

Read more in The Future of Our Food series.

Top photo by Chloe Aftel.

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