U.Va. Course Seeks Sustainable Solution to Food Shortage Crisis

June 6, 2008 — Since mid-April, when the World Food Program declared a global food price crisis, the ripples of the so-called "silent tsunami" have been felt across the globe.

There have been riots over the cost of food in Somalia and Egypt. Haiti's prime minister was forced to resign by legislators seeking to quell violent protests over rising food costs. And here in the United States, rising global grain prices helped spark the largest increase in monthly food costs in nearly 20 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics described the 0.9 percent rise between March and April as the biggest since January 1990.

Tanya Denckla Cobb, senior associate at U.Va.'s Institute for Environmental Negotiation, views the world's food crisis as less of a shortage and more of a problem of food distribution. "People on plant Earth produce more than enough food to feed all of our planetary tenants, but we have not yet learned how to distribute our harvest in an equitable way that gives affordable and meaningful access to all."

The Center for Global Health recently funded Denckla Cobb's spring course, "Healthy Communities, Healthy Food Systems: Global-Local Connections." She and Tim Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, led students in a novel endeavor to figure out where Charlottesville's food comes from, be it local or from thousands of miles away. Students conducted nine different case studies to discern how to better balance global and local supplies. At the end of the semester, the students presented their findings at Charlottesville's City Hall.

One of the group's findings was that people with with low incomes cannot afford local food. Students learned from one family that 15 percent of its limited income goes toward food, and that $75 per week to feed seven mouths makes purchasing fresh, local food an impossibility.

One of the businesses the class studied was local food retailer Feast!, which is co-owned by Kate Collier and husband Eric Gertner. Part of Feast!'s mission is to connect with local farmers, artisan food producers and consumers to sustain the viability of farmland and family-owned food businesses.

Collier has taken that notion a step further. As she rang in 2008, she was determined to make a New Year's resolution that would help the community. The result was the Central Virginia Community Food Center.

Collier said the proposed center would vastly improve the distribution of local food, bring down the cost and time of food delivery and, she hopes, encourage a new generation to enter small farming. The future of small farms in our local system is bleak, she said, because there is no infrastructure to help farmers get their goods to market.

The four-pronged plan is simple: create a community co-packer (a facility were people  can turn local produce into value-added food products — like salad dressing, vinegar or jams — that can then be resold), cannery and kitchen; build a food distribution center; establish a meat processing facility; and launch a food learning center.

"I see the food distribution center happening the fastest," said Collier. "Local food has been more expensive than shipped food, but shipped-in food is becoming more costly. With this system, I believe that ultimately, the price of local food would go down.

"Farmers say they deliver to 12 different clients each week," she noted. The center, she said, would allow farmers to make one stop, cutting down on the soaring cost of gas and allowing more time for harvest and marketing. Ultimately, Collier hopes to see this model replicated in other places.

This sustainable approach is something experts say is vital to the future of food security. Denckla Cobb said she and Beatley tried to drive this idea home to their students. "Our local food system cannot disentangle itself completely from the global food system. But it can strengthen local networks of production and distribution and, in the process, strengthen our community resilience."