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Food Democracy for a Just, Equitable and Sustainable Food System

A food system that benefits our communities, our economy and our environment in ways that are just, equitable and sustainable for all.

Photo of Dawn Plummer
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Pittsburgh Food Policy Council

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

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

The work of our 100+ multisectoral member network centers our members who are most impacted by current system failures-residents in communities with food apartheid conditions, small food and ag business owners, emerging entrepreneurs, farmers, gardeners. Our leadership model emphasizes collective power building through shared responsibility and inclusive decision-making. Drawing on lived experience, community organizing, academic study, business and professional expertise, our leadership team includes 15 Steering Committee members, 10 Working Group co-chairs and 4 staff (Grow Pittsburgh, Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Coop, Hill District Consensus Group, Just Harvest, Manchester Growing Together Farm, Operation Better Block, Restaurant Opportunities Center, Greater Pgh Community Food Bank, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Bridgeway Capital, Eminent Hospitality, Chatham University, 412 Food Rescue, University of Pittsburgh, M-Powerhouse, AC Conservation District & Fourth Ec

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 3-10 years

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


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?

Allegheny County, a county in the southwestern corner of the state of Pennsylvania in the United States, has a total area of 1,930 km^2

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Allegheny County is our home. It is where we live, work, have family, relationships, experience, memories and knowledge. For over a decade we have listened and collaborated with residents, Food Policy Council members and partners who have shared their assets, challenges, and hopes about their food futures with us. We are therefore compelled to do this work here alongside them. In 2018, we set out with dozens of partners and our 100+ member network to lead a community-centered food action planning project that will produce our region’s first county-wide Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan (GPFAP). The Plan will outline a comprehensive vision and change agenda with priority strategies in urban agriculture, community/school-based gardens, nutrition/cooking education, healthy food access, support for our region’s farms, improved institutional food environments and much more.

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.

Allegheny County is the economic and population center of western Pennsylvania, and as a result is a major market for our regional foodshed, which extends into neighboring States. Our County has historically been very blue collar; populated by working class immigrants from across the globe but substantially from Eastern Europe. Agriculture has a long and colorful past in our region. In the 1700s western PA farmers grew a substantial amount of corn for distillation into whiskey. In 1791 when Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on whiskey produced within the United States the farmers of our region reacted with fury in what is now known as the Whiskey Rebellion. In the end the Federal Government won but we fought like hell in the time in between and have retained and nurtured the rebel spirit that drove that uprising. Fast forward to today’s farmers and our local food system. Allegheny County has lost nearly 6,000 acres of farmland and 40 farms since 2012. Of the farms still in operation, 79% operate at a financial loss. Our region’s embrace of the promise of fossil fuel extraction is driving up the cost of farmland, making it near impossible for young people to take a chance on a future of farming. Leaving the farm and gathering at the table, food is a central and connecting force in our county. Here we eat pierogies and steak salads with french fries and shredded cheddar cheese. We eat collard greens and homemade mac ‘n cheese. We eat stuffed hot peppers and Haluski. We also eat kale salads and real sourdough, chicken wings and grass-fed beef. We eat cookies! Our local “cookie table” tradition is alive and well at our weddings. All the Grandmas and Aunties bake for months and at any given wedding, in addition to cake, there is a gigantic table of every kind of cookie you can imagine. And our growing restaurant scene is all that. Go ahead, Google it. Rebounding from the industrial past we are well known for, this region has become a center for higher education, medicine and tech expansion and innovation. As Pittsburgh area baby boomers faced the economic decline of deindustrialization in the 1980s and 90s, many Pittsburgh native relocated across the country (Steeler Nation!). Today, people are boomeranging back as we experience a resurgence. While Pittsburgh enjoys topping lists of "most livable city," many have mounting concerns of "livable for who?" as Silicon Valley creeps east and low-income and black communities are displaced to outer ring suburbs ill equipped to connect them to transportation and other basic needs. Long time residents face the affordable housing crisis and priced out of communities they helped build. These impacts hit especially hard in our black communities what already marked economic and health disparities. First time visitors are often surprised when they experience some of the nation's steepest streets, cliffs and slopes. Add in a patchy public transit system, rivers and bridges galore and you get a sense of both our beauty and pain.

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


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


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

Our current and future food systems face no shortage of challenges which we document in our recently completed report State of the Food Systems in Allegheny County (attached). It is important to note that there are two underlying challenges we face that affect all six of the Food Vision Prize themes. These two challenges are: current power relations and overall coordination among our many food system stakeholders, who all have varying priorities. 

Environment: Given that global food production and food waste contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions which are driving climate change,we must adapt our current processes to mitigate such effects. Additional environmental challenges include loss of viable farmland as well as  soils and waterways that are damaged from our industrial past. Economics: The vast majority of farms operating in our County do so at a loss, and the total number of farms is steadily declining. Food that is produced in our County then faces a variety of distribution, processing and marketing challenges at $7.25 Pennsylvania has the lowest minimum wage of any of its neighboring states, keeping many residents well below the poverty line. Diets: At present all county residents do not have access to affordable, nutritious food. Only 25% of adults report eating 3 or more servings of vegetables in a day in the past week, far below recommended intake. Culture: 13.1% of County residents are food insecure. There is significant overlap between low-income, low-access food areas and predominantly African American communities. This is evidence of the historically racist structure of our food system, known as food apartheid. Technology: Though our county has seen substantial growth in technology across many industries, food systems work - from growing, to processing, to retail - still faces many challenges that have not received the same level of attention or funding. Policy: Our municipal food policy audit revealed that food policies are sparse, varied, and often unknown. Without coordination and a common agenda efforts can be duplicative, ineffective and siloed, while authentic engagement of diverse communities and stakeholders is difficult.  

The challenges enumerated above, when examined as a whole, indicate a power problem in our state and region. Power holders’ vision includes a burgeoning tech sector, a robust, fossil fuel-based economy (hydraulic fracturing hub, petrochemical manufacturing/plastics production along the Ohio River Valley), healthcare and a strong hospitality sector. While these industries hold economic promise for some, significant negative impacts make it clear that all of our residents are not thriving, or in many cases, having their most basic needs met under this approach. We seek to address the increasingly extractive corporate consolidation, environmental devastation, low wages, and exclusion upon which these industries currently depend. 

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

Given the complexity of challenges we face, we understand that true food systems transformation will never result from adding up the sum of our parts. Rather, a comprehensive change model must be rooted in a shared assessment of the conditions of food systems change, built from our shared values, be imbued with an ethos of movement building and operationalized following the tenets of collective impact.  (See attachments for guiding frameworks for Collective Action and Six Conditions of systems Change).

Pittsburgh is emerging as a rust belt city reborn. We believe wholeheartedly in the transformative power and potential of food systems development to create a just, healthy, equitable and sustainable region. We believe that food systems do not simply “happen,” but rather require intentional multi sectoral planning, public and private investment in infrastructure, and weaving together of supply chains. In order to advance our vision we must build on our regional connectivity and leadership. Only with a power base grounded in equitable economic and community development, environmental stewardship, human dignity via improved wages and job quality, deeper and sustained civic engagement and policy advocacy for structural systems change will we be capable of shifting narratives and advancing values-based solutions . 

Collective impact of this scale will require deep coordination among a broad cross-section of partners with a shared and transparent agenda, ongoing communication, mutually reinforcing activities, agreed-upon measures of progress and backslides, sustained funding and a strong, nimble backbone organization with shared leadership.  

In order to address these challenges, we first set out to collect and share relevant data that documents truths. We also create inclusive spaces to capture input. In 2020, we will produce our region’s first county-wide Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan (GPFAP), which operationalizes a comprehensive vision and change agenda with priority strategies in urban agriculture, community/school-based gardens, nutrition/cooking education, healthy food access, support for our region’s farms, improved institutional food environments and much more. 

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.

The Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan lays the foundation for ongoing co-strengthening of our food system. As a steward of the plan, the PFPC will continue to curate the necessary infrastructure and feedback loops for collaboration and network building across our food system (production, distribution, processing, consumption, waste) and with other systems, such as transportation, housing, health and the environment.

Systems change occurs via deep and coordinated work on the narrative of sustainable food systems in our region as well as coordinated efforts to  change the rules that govern our food system. To build collective power, we continue to grow our leadership base through inclusive processes of learning, co-creation, knowledge creation and exchange, leadership development, and engagement. By building community power rooted in traditions of community organizing we build the knowledge base and leadership of residents concerned and invested in their food future. The People of Allegheny County are thus provided a voice and a vehicle for their problems and solutions.

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

We envision change having taken hold from the individual level up to the systems level through the power of collective action. Via the collective impact model we have described, our future region has a transparent action agenda and ever-growing base of leaders who are dedicated to improving and implementing the recommendations outlined in our GPFAP. In detail, the Pittsburgh of 2050 looks like this:

Challenges Overcome:

1) Environments: Children will learn from their family traditions as well as their educational systems (pre-K through higher learning) about the interconnection and interdependence of our human and ecological systems. Farmers, and all people contributing to our food system, will be recognized for their contribution not only to the production of our food but for their contribution to our air, water, soil and climate health. 

2) Economics: The  path to economic prosperity and ecological balance is illuminated. The people in our region have seized the timely opportunity to clearly express the power and potential of sustainable food systems development - as a regional economic driver (that creates good jobs, builds community wealth, regenerates soil, nourishes our people).

3)Diets: People will understand how nutritious foods fuels their bodies and minds and will have the time and knowledge to learn the joy of cooking and sharing meals.  Our region will embody food sovereignty and rely only marginally on our emergency food system for rare emergencies. All people will have access to nutritious, affordable food thereby reducing rates of chronic disease.

4)Culture: People and communities will celebrate food traditions, food will remain a language of love, family, culture and community. We will know and share in the diversity of our region’s food traditions from native peoples, to eastern European immigrants of the past and will be a way to introduce and know new immigrant and refugee communities how have been welcomed here.

5)Technology: There is a waste management system that includes both food recovery and redistribution infrastructure, as well as a network of community composting centers that generate nutrient rich soil made available for greening and growing projects. 

6)Policy:  We will have shown by example how a region can envision and implement the human right to food. The work of this region will inform discussion at the US national level. Our work will represent a regional voice in growing national and global conversations and policy frameworks that support sustainable food systems.


1)Systems-Focused Approach: We will no longer see food as simply a commodity, a transaction or an empty calorie. We will have successfully rooted our food system in a foundation of values of fairness, human dignity, agroecology, sustainability, equity, healthy communities, justice and shared prosperity. 

2)Transformative Potential: Those most affected by the failures of our 2020 system are seasoned leaders and agents of systems change who knit together a fabric of community food security. This fabric is made of a rich diversity of urban gardens and farms, small business connections, and es standards for food quality and purchasing. woven together in a regional food infrastructure. 

3)Community-Rooted: We will have strong networks and associations across our regional food system that actively engage teachers and schools, policymakers, farmers market managers, urban gardeners and farmers, community-owned retailers and restaurants, lean and smart distribution networks that connect our regions supply chain

4)Inspirational: Through connecting existing networks, we will have successfully disrupted the 2020 status quo with a shift in power relationships, policy environments and the food system thereby reducing poverty, chronic disease and environmental devastation.

As a region, we understand the need for strategic deployment of accessible technology. We are more connected than ever before, and thanks to ongoing communication and deep community engagement, disconnection, siloed efforts and lack of coordination are a distant memory from 2020 We continuously seek to engage and center those most impacted by the failures of our current food system by utilizing accessible, low-cost technologies to build connections, coordinating our work, reflecting on and refining our strategies, aligning our visions, building diverse and inclusive change narratives, mobilizing and acting together, measuring our progress and continuing to learn together and from one another along the way. These functions are facilitated by technological tools, though these tools will not replace human, trust-filled relationships, but rather are leveraged to accelerate these change processes. This transforms our county into a Place human needs and human rights drive decision-making and innovation does not happen to county residents, but rather by them.

Our vision flips the script of a “broken food system” riddled with poor health outcomes, a disjointed and underdeveloped food systems infrastructure, an exploited workforce, failing local businesses and farms, lack of access to fresh, nutritious food, disconnected, and apathetic consumers. We decidedly shift the narrative from deprivation, scarcity, charity and competition and catalyze collaboration, people power, solidarity and collective impact. We know that change happens at the speed of trust and have spent the last decade building relationships across our system, collaborating on projects and advocating and implementing change.


How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Attachments (2)

State of the Allegheny County Food System.pdf

First county-wide food system assessment completed in January 2020 as part of the ongoing work of the Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan project. This report informs our planning efforts.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Vicent ST

Hello there !! What can we do today to inspire and propel the food system of 2050?

Photo of Dawn Plummer

WE are already hard at work mapping out the path and milestones to our vision. Visit to learn more and to get involved!

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