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Establishing a Food System Guardian Network in the Northeast Corridor of the United States of America

Empowering producers, processors, communities, and regulators to establish resilient, sustainable, healthy, and affordable food systems.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Stakeholders: The public (all food consumers); Universities: Land-grant universities across the Northeast Corridor, including Rutgers, Johns Hopkins, Arizona State; Companies: Regional produce and wholesale markets, Grocery store chain: Wakefern, Walmart, Target, Walgreens, Campbell Soup, AeroFarms, Bright Farms, Bowery, Freight Farms, Square Roots, Small food businesses and restaurants; Government: Citizen Corp Alliance (disaster preparation), Ready.gov, USDA, FDA, EPA, Farm Bureau, State Departments of Agriculture, Food Policy Councils , State Economic Development Authorities; NGOs: Food Tank, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Food Corp, NOFA; Celebrity Chefs: Dan Barber, Tom Colicchio; Schools and School-age Groups:, School districts food service providers (Sodexho, Aramark), Farm-to-School Network, 4-H , FFA, Boy & Girl Scouts; Health Organizations and Insurance Companies: Penn Medicine, RWJ Barnabas, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Aetna, United Healthcare, Prudential

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.rutgers.edu/ https://orsp.rutgers.edu/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New Brunswick, NJ

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Northeast Corridor, United States of America, covering an area of approximately 125,000 km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We believe the NE Corridor is an excellent location to introduce the Food System Guardian Network which aims to totally reimagine our current food system and provide better access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable food to all segments of the population.  We are 55 million people who live, eat, and work in the Northeast Corridor (NE Corridor) of the United States. We desire to raise healthy children and build resilient and sustainable communities. Economic disparity and climate change are making it harder to provide food equitably and prepare for the inevitable and increasingly more likely disruptions to our food system. The NE Corridor (also known as the NE megalopolis, or the Bos-Wash Corridor) includes the following states: ME, MA, CT, NH, VT, RI, NY, NJ, PA, DE, MD, DC, and consists of a wonderful mix of urban, peri-urban, suburban, and rural environments that provide tremendous opportunities for prosperity, self-reliance, and happiness for a highly diverse population. The food system infrastructure includes multiple sea- and airports (Boston, New York-Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington DC), food processing and storage facilities, distribution centers connected to an extensive rail system, and major interstate highways. It is home to several new indoor vertical farming companies as well as a diverse mix of local farmers, farmers’ markets, and small artisan start-up companies. This range of diversity contributes to one of the largest, most dynamic, and most diverse food systems in the world. 

The availability of excellent educational resources, committed organizations, innovative industries, and engaged communities ensures there are enough resources (from brain power to computing power, from will power to economic power) to tackle any challenge to our regional food system. While the region experiences great income diversity, the overall wealth and vast resources of the region have the potential to tackle this major challenge.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Food System Guardian Network will convene a diverse set of stakeholders at all levels to serve the approximately 55 million people who live, eat, and work in the NE Corridor area (approximately 17% of the US population). The area generates a GDP of approximately $3 trillion (approximately 15% of the US GDP). Major cities include Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC, whose metropolitan areas are home to a total of 40 million residents. The area includes densely populated urban areas as well as rural areas used for agriculture and recreation. The area also includes a section of the US coastline with an important harbor (Port of New York and New Jersey). It has a well-developed transportation system, including road, train and air travel. It is home to both the center of the US financial system (Wall Street, New York) and the center of the US political system (Washington, DC).

The population is ethnically diverse (approximately 56% white, 17% Hispanic, 15% African American, 10% Asian, and 2% other, including Native American; US Census 2010), which is reflected in the great variety of food items consumed. The climate ranges from temperate to humid continental and humid subtropical. The average rainfall is approximately 45 inches, and average annual snowfall ranges from 50 inches (Boston) to 15 inches (Washington, DC).

The amount of land used for commercial agriculture is relatively small (estimated at 10-15%) and agriculture plays a minor role in the overall economy of the region. Many specialty food products are imported from other parts of the country (California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida) and even from international locations. Staple crops and meat products are predominantly sourced from the Midwest. While, in general, food is readily available, hunger has not been eradicated as illustrated by the presence of many soup kitchens and food pantries. The USDA-ERS reports that 11% of US households were food insecure in 2018 (ERR 270).

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

125000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

55000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Current: Communities and members of the food systems work in silos with limited connections or adequate means for dialog which makes it hard to bring about significant food system changes. This siloing also limits the overall vision needed to bring about change.  Income disparities and unequal economic opportunities limit access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable food to some segments of the population. Moreover, economic forces and governmental regulations have failed to drive sustained systemic food system changes. Our current food systems practices lead to health issues (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc.) that further tax our already strained healthcare system. Access to healthy and nutritious food choices is often dependent on transportation by (personal) vehicle. We are also unprepared for disasters because our current disaster planning leaves out much of the food system. Our agricultural practices lead to degradation of valuable natural resources, including urban growth onto quality farmland. The availability of arable land with healthy soils is limited and shrinking, the availability of water more variable, making the production of staple crops economically unfeasible in our region. Moreover, we have labor challenges. The current average age of local farmers exceeds 55 years, making the implementation of necessary innovations in agriculture more challenging, unless we can engage young people to produce nutritious food with lower environmental footprints. Initial investments in new urban and indoor agriculture operations are high, as is competition from seasonal field production that is shipped in from elsewhere. It is challenging to maintain and create new job opportunities in our current conventional agricultural systems. Moreover, our food infrastructure only ensures that a limited amount of food is available to consumers at any given time, making it very vulnerable to disruptions.

Future: The Food System Guardian Network will be seen as a major advocacy and convening body that has built a strong track-record for food system change across the region. As our population grows (from 55 million to an estimated 70 million by 2050), it will be a challenge to provide healthy, nutritious, and affordable food sustainably, especially in urban areas. We also must increase the region’s resiliency to disruptions in food security and food safety stemming from climate change, political decisions, trade treaties, and other global challenges. This can be done by increased management, oversight and planning of local production, processing, and distribution. We must maintain the skills and know-how of local farmers and agricultural practices for future generations, while securing the allocation of resources (land, water, energy, materials, labor, capital) in a world with many competing demands. Other influencers include overall economics and the distribution of wealth, education, and the status of healthcare.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Addressing current challenges: It is increasingly clear that the current approach to our food supply system is not sustainable —ecologically, economically and socially— and does not guarantee healthy food to us all. Complex systems present vexing challenges when changes in one place bring about unintended changes elsewhere.  Unless we undertake a comprehensive review of current practices and challenges and implement new strategies at the regional level, the system is not likely to change quickly enough to meet future known challenges, much less other less predictable ones. Our Vision in creating the Food System Guardian Network aims to break down barriers between stakeholders in the food system to address local and regional needs for food system changes by empowering people, organizations, and communities with knowledge, training and action. We will directly support local Food System Guardian Network Chapters through facilitation, education, training, dissemination of conclusions from comprehensive reviews, aggregations of best practices, and successful pilot projects. The power of example combined with recommendations for implementation will bring about the necessary paradigm shift in our food system. The local Food System Guardian Network Chapters will engage in education and science communication at the local community level and with state and federal agencies and the private sector. This will set us on a path that ensures we can start making improvements and eventually reach optimal solutions that address specific local concerns and constraints, while minimizing resource use and environmental impacts. Our Vision for the Food System Guardian Network is to create many “food systems guardians” —local advocates and problem solvers— through a grassroots movement which will more likely result in long-lasting changes, with an emphasis on sustainability and resiliency.

Addressing future challenges: Knowledgeable “guardians” who are members of the Food System Guardian Network will be poised to recognize and meet future challenges.  Guardians will be ready to engage with others to solve local problems; their relationship to the Food System Guardian Network means that they have the means to request information, get access to experts, convene meetings to problem solve and experiment with solutions. The presence of engaged, and contributing “food system guardians” in every community means that there are people who are watching for the next challenge and who will be already at work. These individuals, organization and communities will be key to maintaining local and regional food supplies during times of challenges. The sooner we can create the Food System Guardian Network, the sooner we can embark on changing our food system, and the sooner we can improve our local and regional food system for the better. Simply maintaining the status quo is no longer a feasible option.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

By using a systems approach to implement our NE Corridor Food System Guardian Network Vision, we will be able to identify, disseminate, empower and facilitate pathways toward:

  • Universal excess to healthy, nutritious, and affordable food
  • Reducing inequality issues related to the accessibility of food
  • Reducing the environmental impact of our food system
  • Less food waste during food production, transportation, processing, and preparation
  • Healthy lifestyles and reduce healthcare costs
  • New job opportunities in the food production and processing industries
  • Increased self-reliance and resiliency for the food supply across the NE Corridor
  • Substantial improvements in the sustainability of our food system
  • Preparations for future food systems disruptions

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The Food System Guardian Network ascribes to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and of their family.” Clearly, without an adequate food supply, this basic human right is impossible to attain. Even for some people living in the so-called developed world (i.e., wealthier countries), a limited access to safe, nutritious food jeopardizes their health and well-being. The situation in many developing countries is even more dire, and the predicted population growth and climate change will make access to food only more challenging. We must develop creative and comprehensive solutions to prevent future calamities.

The challenge of improving and optimizing our food supply has many dimensions, including (but not limited to) economics, social conditions, regulations, crop production, processing, distribution, environmental impact, personal health, and dietary preferences. Solving this challenge is a daunting, but necessary task that will require input and participation from a broad range of stakeholders. Using a systems approach allows for a holistic view and will result in well thought-out and workable solutions. Together, we can break the challenge down into smaller pieces and study their interrelations in detail. Once sufficient detail has been elicited, we can develop solutions that take account of all interrelationships, and later propose and implement solutions that address all relevant issues. Often an iterative process is needed to find the optimum solution. This ambitious, multi-year effort will require buy-in from governmental, healthcare, educational, and civic organizations, as well as the agriculture industry, the food industry, and the public at large.

We envision a region-wide Food System Guardian Network as a community-based and led advocacy-driven movement that will reimagine and, with local and regional partners, implement a totally revised food system. Anchored by universities and networked local chapters, communities, government organizations, distributors, and producers, the Food System Guardian Network will build capacity and knowledge to plan and build healthy and culturally appropriate food systems, while reducing common and growing threats to supplies. The Food System Guardian Network will connect the needs of local communities to the larger community of educators, food systems actors, and advocates to bring about transformational change.

Currently, not everyone benefits equally from the food systems in the US or globally. There remain too many areas designated as “healthy food priority areas,” formerly referred to as “food deserts” or “food swamps.” Current attempts to rectify food systems inequalities are driven by food policy councils, NGOs, and volunteers trying to make a difference. These activities will be leveraged by the proposed Food System Guardian Network to elicit an even greater impetus for change.

There is a long history of (small-scale) agriculture along the NE Corridor that allowed it to serve the ever expanding metropolitan as well as rural communities. While the fresh market clearly played a dominant role, the food processing industry is also important to the region. As a result, local distribution systems are already in place. The more recent renewed interest in local food production and sustainable production practices (organic, no pesticides) have created new opportunities for farmers to supply specialty products to the marketplace, which is particularly large and diverse in this region. 

As a practical starting point, we propose to first develop and implement a comprehensive teaching, research, and outreach program as the basis for our new and innovative food system. This effort will be the nucleus around which regional initiatives can develop and be implemented. Local universities and K-12 schools will lead the charge and will train a new workforce that can address the challenges of our future food supply system. Existing faculty expertise will be used to develop training and research programs and Extension personnel will be enlisted to conduct outreach programs to the public at large. Partnerships with commercial companies already operating in the food production and supply chain will be implemented to expand and strengthen collaborations with the food industry. Partnerships and collaborations with international entities will be actively pursued to expand impact.

As an initial part of our comprehensive teaching, research, and outreach program, we plan to institute an initiative called “FlexFarm,” allowing for the production of crops in any location. FlexFarm will begin with the installation of a series of shipping containers that have been converted to house the indoor production of safe, healthy, and nutritious leafy greens, and that will be scalable for other types of produce and projects. Shipping containers are just one example of how we might contribute to solving the food supply challenge in urbanized environments. Others include indoor farming in abandoned buildings and malls, as well as in greenhouses constructed on urban rooftops. Eventually, we want to investigate all such potential solutions and provide independent assessments that can be used by entrepreneurs and policy makers when they contemplate the suitability of particular systems for specific applications. Future research and future efforts toward the implementation of the Food System Guardian Network in the NE Corridor will be used to create a repository of such unbiased assessments.

The solutions the Food System Guardian Network creates and advocates for throughout the NE Corridor will be highly replicable (“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”). Thus, while we propose to launch the Food System Guardian Network in our regional area, we envision the approach to eventually be beneficial worldwide. The Food System Guardian Network can steadily grow into a groundswell of committed people, organizations, and communities empowered to build resilient, climate-friendly, healthy, and affordable food systems that can be implemented anywhere around the world.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event

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Hi! Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize. A friendly reminder in the final hours to update submissions (due by 2pm PST/5pm EST):

Check your vision to our checklist: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1o8WGMus6-V8GywWdlNwmCpk7I1fMVzcQ/view