A sustainable food system
By Peter Ruddock
There is no easy path to making sustainable food the norm.
What is meant by sustainable? Many think first of the land. Land should continue to grow our food indefinitely. They think, too, of the health of the eater, that it be free of pesticides that undermine that very health, and that the food is nutritious and clean. Not enough do they think about the sustainability of those who produce our food, who need to maintain their own health and well-being. A sustainable food system is one that considers each of these aspects of food production.
How do we create such a food system? It won’t be easy, as we have to change many, often seemingly contradictory things. Everyone needs to be able to afford good, clean food, which often costs more than the food in our grocery stores. The solution to this will require many changes: people need to understand the true cost of food; those who can pay more for better food should be willing; the cost difference between industrial and better food can be minimized through subsidies and incentives; and we need to pay everyone a living wage, so they can afford to buy good food. These changes will interact with each other: increased wages will increase the cost of some food, though not as much as people fear.
We should be working on these changes simultaneously, constantly reviewing the effects, to adaptively manage the whole. In short, we need to Think Holistically while Changing Specifically. Given the scope of the task, it makes sense that we each focus on one aspect, while never forgetting the whole.
I started out focusing on pesticide-free food, but migrated to working on local food economy issues, recently founding the non-profit Resilient Foodsheds. I’ve come to appreciate that small, local businesses responsive to their customers and communities are an important way forward. Many are already sustainable, and others can be steered that way by customers. But such businesses need an environment in which they can thrive, meaning laws that work for them, support that helps them operate, non-exploitative marketing and more.
As such, I want to recommend a new set of businesses: Home Restaurants. At the end of February, San Diego County adopted AB 626, the Homemade Food Operations Act, and started issuing Micro Enterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) permits. There are now at least 25 home restaurants operating in the county, with more looking to open soon. If you want a meal out (or to get good takeout) you might look up one of these community businesses, get to know them, become a friend, and even give them feedback that will help them thrive and increase their sustainability – perhaps introduce them to your favorite organic farmer. It’s a great step toward making your corner of the food system sustainable.
Peter Ruddock is an advocate for sustainable food and all things that strengthen local food economies. Early in 2022, he founded Resilient Foodsheds, an organization which acts as a clearinghouse for food policy for small food and farm businesses.