Eat well, save the bay

Op-ed: Save the bay with a delicious, nutritious, sustainably-produced "Good Food" system.

Simply put: The way we currently produce and consume food is ruining the Chesapeake Bay's health — and, too often, our own. The bay is one of our most precious resources, providing vital habitat and sustenance for the region. Yet large-scale industrial agriculture and over-fishing are exhausting it. It may sound surprising, but to save the Chesapeake Bay we need to build a "Good Food" system that generates delicious, nutritious, sustainably-produced food that is accessible for all.

Agriculture is essential to the bay region's vitality; more than 87,000 farm operations provide important jobs and put food on all of our tables. However, large-scale commodity farming and industrial poultry operations are the largest sources of nutrient and sediment pollution in area waterways. Chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides used in these agribusinesses seep into our water, choking the bay's fish and crabs and creating dead zones.

While many debate how best to control pollution from industrial farms, this dialogue often misses the opportunity to promote a more just and sustainable alternative: building a food system that draws on sustainable farming practices to produce healthy food that is accessible to everyone. A new and improved Good Food system can protect the bay by deploying proven techniques such as crop rotation and cover crops to protect soil quality and reduce polluted runoff. Further, it can provide nutritious food for everyone, regardless of race, background or socioeconomic status, even as it treats farmers and food system workers fairly.

Already a wide variety of advocates, entrepreneurs, farmers, investors, philanthropists, culinary professionals and others are working to build such a food system. A recent report by Arabella Advisors — developed with support from the Washington Regional Food Funders, Town Creek Foundation and Kaiser Permanente — explores these efforts in detail. It identifies a diverse group of community leaders promoting social equity and access to healthy food in low-income communities, advancing critical policies to promote sustainable farming practices, and launching innovative new business models to fill gaps in the local food supply chain.

This work is encouraging, but it's not enough. To save the bay and create a thriving a food system, the report suggests we need to do the following:

Bring those most impacted by food insecurity to the table. Food workers, communities of color and poor communities in rural areas are disproportionately affected by our broken food system, yet they are routinely left out of discussions about how to fix it.

Get bad policy out of the way. Coordinated advocacy across state lines is needed to harmonize policies across multiple jurisdictions and eliminate barriers to scaling the regional food economy.

Bring new investment capital to Good Food enterprises. Building a regional food economy that delivers good food for all will require capital for early-stage enterprises and pilot initiatives.

Bring Good Food into wholesale markets. While the growth in community-supported agriculture initiatives, farmers' markets and other direct-to-consumer models for local food are promising alternatives, most people continue to purchase most of their food in grocery stores. We need to find more ways to get good, local food into the wholesale markets those stores use. We also need to leverage the power of large-scale purchasers, like hospitals and schools, that buy in bulk.

Important work is happening every day to reduce agricultural pollution, bring healthy and nutritious food to more people, and build resilient communities. But to save the Chesapeake Bay we will ultimately have to double down on these efforts. The best way to do that is to begin by imagining a Good Food system that works for everyone — then set to work creating it together.

Celeste James (Celeste.A.James@kp.org) is director of community health at the Mid-Atlantic states regional office of Kaiser Permanente and co-chair of Washington Regional Food Funders. Ryan Strode (ryan@arabellaadvisors.com) co-leads the food practice at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy consulting firm.

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