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Healthy Farms, Healthy Environment:State and Local Policies to Improve Pennsylvania’s Food System and Protect Our Land and Water
by Travis Madsen and Ben Davis, Frontier Group; and David Masur, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center
Pennsylvanians increasingly want healthy, locally grown food that is produced in ways that reflect their values – including protection of the environment. The rapidly rising demand for organic food, the growth in the number of farmers markets and in community supported agriculture, and the expansion of community gardens across Pennsylvania are all indicators of a deep desire to reclaim our food system.
Policy-makers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have begun to respond by adopting pioneering policy tools that promote sustainable food economies. But, while Pennsylvania has been an innovator in developing sustainable food policies, it has a long way to go to build a strong local, sustainable agriculture economy in the Keystone State.
Sustainable food economies can reduce the massive impacts of agriculture on our environment, while boosting the value of Pennsylvania farms, promoting food security, and supporting healthy, vibrant communities.
- Organic growing methods have been shown to reduce polluted runoff and energy consumption in agriculture, while boosting the carbon content of soils, according to experiments at the Rodale Institute organic farm laboratory in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
- Consumption of fresh, local food – as opposed to processed food or produce from halfway around the globe – can reduce the amount of energy used in preserving and transporting food. Farmers can grow and market fresh peas with 60 percent less energy than frozen peas, and 75 percent less energy than packaging peas in an aluminum can.
- Sustainable farming can also help farmers keep farmland in production, despite development pressure, by increasing farm income – thereby protecting open land and the valuable ecosystem services it provides.
Sustainably produced food is rapidly growing in popularity and market share, both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
- In 2008, Pennsylvania organic farmers generated more than $210 million in sales – more than 3 percent of state agricultural value. The number of acres of certified organic farmland in Pennsylvania has increased more than six-fold over the past decade.
- As of 2012, there were approximately 1,200 farmers markets and farm stands in Pennsylvania, an increase of nearly one-third since 2003, as well as more than 260 restaurants in the state dedicated to fresh, locally-grown food.
- People who have adopted a lifestyle based on sustainably-produced food are deeply committed. For example, even during the 2008-2009 recession – the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s – more than 95 percent of organic consumers continued to buy organic products.
Pennsylvania has been a pioneer in the development of policies to promote sustainable food economies, but can also learn from successful policy innovations in other states.
Pennsylvania has helped expand the number of organic and local farms and farmers by:
- Launching the Path to Organic pilot program, which is distributing $500,000 to help farms transition to certified organic production.
- Continuing support for the Growing Greener program, which has helped protect more than 400,000 acres of farmland through conservation easements.
… and the state can learn from effective policy models elsewhere such as:
- The aggressive land-use planning policies adopted by Oregon in 1973, which have prevented sprawl from overtaking farmland in the Portland metropolitan area. The Portland area remains responsible for 20 percent of the state’s agricultural production despite decades of rapid population growth.
- A Woodbury County, Iowa, policy of granting property tax rebates of up to $5,000 to farmers undergoing the transition to organic production.
- Local policies in cities such as Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco that make it easier for urban residents to grow food in their yards and on vacant land.
Pennsylvania has helped local and organic farmers reach new markets by:
- Helping to fund the establishment of Philadelphia’s Common Market, a wholesale distributor of local food reaching the institutional market.
- Adopting the Farmers Market Development Act, which authorizes grants to develop or expand farmers markets, increasing farmers’ ability to sell directly to local customers.
- Creating the Healthy Farms and Healthy Schools program in 2006, which provides limited grant funding to kindergartens for agricultural education and local food procurement, subject to annual appropriation of funds by the legislature.
- Providing incentives for the purchase of local, fresh food in food assistance programs through efforts such as the Philly Food Bucks program, which offers extra buying power at farmers markets to area residents in need of nutrition assistance, leveraged through federal funding.
… and the state can learn from effective policy models elsewhere such as …
- Effective farm-to-school and farm-to-institution programs in places such as Washington state. Washington’s farm-to-school program, established in 2008, has broadly linked cafeterias in 90 school districts with 60 nearby farms which supply local food for school lunches. The program assists farmers with necessary certifications and allows school districts to purchase food from local farmers even if the price is higher than potentially less healthy food acquired from further away.
- Targets for the purchase of local food by state agencies, such as those adopted by the state of Illinois.
- Grants to improve and connect a regional system of food distribution infrastructure, such as those facilitated by Vermont’s Farm to Plate Initiative.
Pennsylvania can bring sustainable food advocates into the policy-making process and provide lasting support for sustainable agriculture by following the lead of other states in adopting policies that:
- Create official government offices and authorize food policy councils that identify obstacles to sustainable food economies, coordinate activities across departments and among stakeholders, set priorities, allocate funding, and advocate for necessary policy changes. Vermont’s Farm to Plate Network and Illinois’ Local Food, Farms and Jobs Council provide potential models.
- Create dedicated funding sources to support initiatives that expand access to healthy food and preserve farmland. For example, Washington, D.C., extended its sales tax to cover soda, generating enough funds to support farm-to-school activities for every school in the district. Maryland, meanwhile, supports its agricultural land preservation programs through a tax on the transfer of agricultural land out of farming.
To create a truly sustainable food system that protects the environment, Pennsylvania must do the following:
- Scale up effective programs: Programs such as Pennsylvania’s “Path to Organic” program hold the promise of increasing the number of farmers using organic methods, but the program’s $500,000 in funding is only enough to support 13 farmers making the transition to organic. And programs such as Growing Greener have successfully helped to preserve Pennsylvania’s farmland resources, but cannot make as much progress with funding set to expire. Expanding sustainable agriculture programs can create new economic opportunities for Pennsylvania farmers while protecting the environment, and so should be a priority for the state, even in difficult economic times.
- Adopt the best ideas from other states: In particular, Pennsylvania should adopt a set of overarching goals to guide the state’s policy-making in sustainable agriculture and food systems, along the lines of Vermont’s Farm to Plate Initiative or Illinois’ Food, Farms and Jobs Act.
- Innovate in areas that other states have failed to address: In particular, there is room for Pennsylvania to take leadership in providing consistent and stable funding for sustainable agriculture activities, possibly through a food system infrastructure bank.
- Increase the focus on sustainability: Expanding local and organic agriculture is a critical step toward a food system that preserves and protects our natural environment. However, to maximize environmental benefit, Pennsylvania should increasingly incorporate specific sustainability performance criteria to guide overall investment in our food supply.