Community Food Security and the Community Food Projects Program

The community food security (CFS) concept was briefly highlighted in the introduction to this report, along with a definition that embraces many of the goals its practitioners share (Hamm and Bellows, 2002). This section delves a bit deeper into the concept, and examines the ways in which the CFP Program integrates community food security elements into its objectives and priorities. This helps illustrate how specific activities linking communities and food may get emphasized or downplayed in projects funded by this program.

In the 1990s, the community food security concept was devised as a framework for integrating solutions to the problems faced by poor households (such as hunger, limited access to healthy food, and obesity), and those faced by farmers (such as low farm-gate prices, pressures toward consolidation, and competition from overseas). Additionally, food advocates were becoming increasingly concerned about the unsustainable nature of the industrial food system as indicated by growing “food-miles;” the degradation of diverse natural and cultural heritages; and a commodity subsidy structure that floods markets with cheap, highly processed food while providing little support for the production of healthier foods.

The CFS definition therefore describes not only the qualities of the food that all community members should have, but also the characteristics of the sys- tems and methods by which this food is made avail- able. In other words, the CFS definition holds that: a) all community members should have regular access to safe, nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate diets, and that b) these diets should be products of food systems that promote local self-reliance, and are sustainable and socially just.

The accompanying sidebar on the previous page presents a concrete set of CFS activities that offer intermediate outcomes, such as increasing the adoption of healthy diets by youth, connecting local farmers with institutions that serve food, and obtaining widespread resident engagement in community food assessments. Most projects with a CFS orientation include multiple activities from this list, and have multiple positive impacts on their food systems and communities. Taken together and along with others, these types of activities can bring local places closer to attaining community food security.

However, translating CFS ideals into more systematic change actions can be challenging (Anderson and Cook, 1999). For one, we don’t know all the steps that need to be taken to achieve CFS, nor do we have a clear picture of what a neighborhood or a region looks like that has fully realized CFS goals. Practically speaking, not every individual community food action can deliver all the desired elements of CFS. Indeed, some types of actions can be in ten- sion with broader goals of CFS if they are not supplemented with other actions.

For example, in an effort to provide low-income residents with more fresh fruit and vegetables, community garden groups may donate a portion of their harvest to local food pantries for distribution. This action allows needy households to consume more fresh produce and thereby eat more healthfully–an important goal of community food security. By itself, however, it may continue to foster dependence on food pantries. Such dependence works against household self-reliance in food, as well as systemic solutions to food insecurity–other important goals of CFS. Combining such a strategy with ones that enroll qualified households into nutrition programs (such as food stamps, Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs, WIC, etc.); training low-income youth to produce food for their families’ consumption or for income-generation; and working with local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms to develop “sweat-equity” shares might help reduce the tension between short-term and more sustainable food security.

The community food security movement has shown that there are as many starting points to creating change as there are actors; that no single approach or set of activities will get us there; and that lasting change has to engage eaters in meaningful ways. Over the decade of its existence, the CFP Program has offered the resources with which to develop a set of activities to increase access to healthy foods in low-income communities, create benefits for small food producers, build related organizational and physical infrastructure, and engage community members and stakeholders in longer-term food planning. As described in the previous sidebar, these activities also are important to community food security outcomes. It is important, therefore, to ask to what extent and how the CFP Program reflects community food security goals and ideas.

This compares the objectives of the CFP Program as summarized in its Request for Applications and related program guidelines. As the third column shows, many elements of the Community Food Security concept are explicitly supported in the RFA language. Some, such as “reducing food-miles” are implicitly supported because they are closely related to other principles that are explicitly supported, such as activities that link community-based producers and consumers, which can reduce food-miles. Additional elements are implicitly supported when grants are awarded to projects that contain these elements. For example, as project applications from organizations serving First Nation or immigrant groups to support their community food systems are funded, the CFS element of “preserving diverse food cultures” is advanced.

Some important sustainability elements related to community food security, such as reducing energy consumption in food systems; reducing concentration and corporate control of food systems; reducing negative impacts of agricultural activities on water, soils, air, and habitat; and increasing biodiversity are absent in the RFA. They also tend to be less common in projects that end up being funded. This is also the case with some social justice elements of CFS, such as increasing wages of workers, improving the working conditions of farm and food workers, reducing and correcting other imbalances in the overall food system to benefit small-scale producers and low-income consumers. These activities understandably require more systemic approaches that target policy and market conditions rather than programmatic ones led by community nonprofits.

Thus Table 1 demonstrates that the CFP Program supports some CFS principles more rigorously than others. This is by no means a criticism of the pro- gram. Any program has to be defined based on the goals that drive it, existing resources that may support other desired goals, and practical constraints of time, geographic scale, and budgets. The CFP Program’s goals are defined and circumscribed by the legislation that created it. The CFP Program has benefited numerous communities by supporting a remarkably broad range of CFS principles, especially considering the small size of the program.

It is possible that as projects are implemented on the ground, they may deliver more CFS elements in practice. For example, a community garden project may result in more neighboring residents composting their food scraps and yard wastes. This activity would increase its contribution to environmental sustainability. It also is possible that some core CFP Program objectives (such as engaging residents in project planning and implementation, developing collaborative stakeholder processes, creating long- term solutions to food system problems, etc.) may be difficult to implement effectively within project funding and time limits. In such cases, Table 1 may overstate the presence of CFS elements in the CFP Program as implemented by specific projects.
Finally, the CFP Program is truly miniscule when compared to the Farm Bill’s annual budget or those of major Farm Bill Programs such as Food Stamps. The CFP Program funds about twenty Community Food Projects annually, at around a couple of hun- dred thousand dollars each. As this report shows, CFPs make important contributions toward advanc- ing CFS concepts and practice. For these contribu- tions to reach many more communities, the CFP program may need to be orders of magnitude bigger than it is. As this report also shows, CFPs face sys- temic challenges in implementing elements of com- munity food security. These challenges largely stem from the nature of the industrial food system and the policy structures that support it. These challenges also need to be addressed proactively to achieve greater community food security.