Oct. 23, 2007 — The creation of a statewide policy group to coordinate efforts at ensuring that Virginia's food supply remains secure well into the 21st century is the major recommendation in a new report generated by a group of concerned citizens and professionals, among them faculty from the University of Virginia.
The report outlines a vision for food security in Virginia and addresses issues of farming, health and childhood obesity, as well as the state's economy. As a first step toward implementing the report's findings and recommendations, it has been shared with Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine and his cabinet.
The report grew out of a Food Security Summit, which attracted 146 participants from all regions of Virginia who came together in May to discuss various issues surrounding food security. The event was a partnership initiative of the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning and Institute for Environmental Negotiation, both in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, and the Virginia Tech Department of Food Science and Technology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Food security is a broad concept encompassing the development of self-reliance among all communities in obtaining their food and the creation of a system of growing, manufacturing, processing, making available and selling food that is regionally based and grounded in the principles of justice, democracy and sustainability.
"Food security is also about reconnecting people to each other and to the landscapes and communities in which they live," said Timothy Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in U.Va's School of Architecture and one of the event planners.
"The summit identified some serious barriers to rebuilding local and regional food systems — some financial, some regulatory, some political— and so one of the main messages is that we need to look very closely at these barriers, attempt to understand them better, and then work to find creative and sensible ways to overcome them."
The group discussed issues of land use, human health, economics, livelihoods, preservation of regional character, as well as environmental issues, matters related to feeding the hungry and public health and equity.
"The participants of the Virginia Food Security Summit have made it clear that food security transcends professional interests," said Susan Sumner, professor and head of the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech. "The participants have helped to enhance the awareness that food is linked to human health, economics, livelihoods and land use."
The goal of the summit was to improve food security throughout Virginia by raising awareness and providing an opportunity for summit participants to make connections and discuss in an open forum the possibilities for new policies, research, pilot projects and other actions.
A major outcome of the summit was the identification of the need to create and fund a state-level Food Policy Council to develop an integrated food security strategy for Virginia. More than 75 percent of the participants agreed that Virginia needs to develop a state food security policy and that a Food Policy Council, with representation from all sectors and interests, is the vehicle to carry out those plans. The recommendation further noted that the Food Policy Council should be based on a bottom-up model that would work in conjunction with regional and local-based food policy councils.
"We weren't sure whether the issue of food security would strike a chord with Virginians," said Tanya Denckla Cobb, senior associate at U.Va.’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation and one of the summit organizers. "The response from people who attended the summit — and from all those who couldn't attend — was truly overwhelming. It's clear that people are deeply concerned about our food security, and that this issue transcends professional or academic interest. It is an interest that touches the core of our lives."
The report identifies eight areas of focus to achieve sustainable objectives in economic, environmental and social arenas:
∑ Food Policy — The group recommends creation of a Food Policy Council at the state level to assist Virginia's smaller farms while promoting economic viability of large farms.
∑ Regulatory Reform — The group urges the development of a regulatory reform strategic planning initiative representing diverse interests that would address regulations that create barriers to the operations of small farms and their ability to process and distribute.
∑ Local Planning —Localities should conduct food assessment plans with guidance and financial assistance from the Food Policy Council. The preservation and development of state and local farmland was identified as being key to implementing food security policy.
∑ Infrastructure — There is a need to facilitate and rebuild infrastructure critical to processing and distributing locally grown products, such as regional meat-processing facilities for small and organic meat producers. Such efforts would not only benefit local economy but also improve access to and distribution of local food.
∑ Farm-to-School and Farm-to-Institution programs — Localities should build upon already-in-place initiatives and legislation to facilitate farm-to-school programs throughout Virginia. Such programs would involve the purchase of local foods for school and institutional cafeterias, and also provide mentoring to students on nutrition and health, as well as create awareness of where food comes from and the jobs that produce the food.
∑ Small Farm Assistance — The group called on the state to increase funding and awareness of Virginia's Agricultural Vitality, FarmLink and other programs already in place that promote saving Virginia's farms.
∑ Food Access — Government should explore ways to increase healthy food funding through public assistance programs and restrict these programs to healthy food only.
∑ Goal Setting — The state should set aspirations and goals for local and state production and purchase of local food.
The integration of local and regional planning was identified as being key to developing other initiatives related to sustainable food policy development and implementation.
The Food Summit report of findings and recommendations is available at www.virginia.edu/ien/foodsummit. Summit organizers have agreed to work toward a joint goal of fostering a state-level Food Policy Council that will address the issues identified at the summit.