Regeneration of Local Foodways in Middle Tennessee
We seek to increase production and consumption of local food, teach sustainable farming, and develop an equitable and efficient food system.
Our artists are committed to highlighting current issues and telling the tories needed to regenerate foodways in our region. Sara Trunzo is a part of our Team.
TN is rich in music as a way of storytelling
Middle Tennessee is a beautiful place where raising fruit, vegetables, meats and dairy are celebrated. Farms, large and small have always been a part of the Tennessee culture and binds the people of this region to the land and the traditional foodways. Even though the State has experienced industrialization of some farming, people and farmers desire to maintain their culture with food and music at the center.
Middle Tennessee is a distinct portion of the state of Tennessee, delineated according to state law as the 41 counties in the Middle Grand Division of Tennessee.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (specifically, The Tennessee Local Food Fund)
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.
We are partnering with 57 organizations, including government, universities, farms, businesses, non-profits and agricultural trade organizations. Our Team is an attachment at the end of application as an Excel file.
Website of Legally Registered Entity
Food Summit: https://tnlocalfood.com/
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee is located in Nashville, but we serve the 40 counties of Middle Tennessee.
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?
The place where our vision will be implemented is Middle Tennessee in the United States, a land area of approximately 44,054 km2
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
We call Middle Tennessee home: we work at farms, universities, government, food related non-profits and businesses. Farmland extends in every direction from Nashville, as does the hunger we attempt to alleviate and the education we attempt to spread about creating a healthy, thriving food system.
In the South, we have a long growing season. The diversity of crops is plentiful. A farmer from Macon County shares a story of old timers saying that back in the day everyone had a garden. Canneries, cheese factories and meat processors are now abandoned shells. The thought of eating local was the way of life. Today, some have access to local food but most purchase groceries at ‘big box’ stores or gas stations. Approximately 18% of Middle Tennesseans lives under the poverty line, and many more do not have access to nutritious food except through relief assistance programs.
The USDA reports 41% of TN’s acreage is farmland, ranking eighth nationally in the number of farms. Our number one commodity in terms of cash receipts is cattle, followed by soybeans, broilers, nursery crops and corn, and most are shipped out of the state. Industrial scale farming uses chemicals, degrading the health of our soil, water, air, farmers and migrant laborers. Commodity farming typically creates less social and economic benefits to a wide swath of the community.
The revival of more local food which feed the peoples here is of utmost importance for the future. The largest market for sustainably grown food is Metro Nashville. The farmland is in rural communities. Gov. Lee has made the revival of rural communities a top agenda item. As TN Local Food Summit founder, Jeff Poppen, says, "Middle Tennessee once fed Nashville, and it can again." Feeding the area with food produced here benefit the urban and rural population in all of the categories outlined in this grant, but it also has the great potential to reinvigorate the pride and cultural connection that has been so important to our home.
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.
Nashville is the largest city in Middle Tennessee and growing rapidly.
Middle Tennessee has a rich agricultural history but also a fraught one. In 1796 our State Seal was developed with only two images, Agriculture and Commerce. The tie to the land for many people is directly in relationship to their ancestry as farmers but Tennessee's history in agriculture includes slavery, which allowed landowners to prosper at the expense of black people. The black history of Southern foodways are being recognized for their immense influence.
Middle Tennesseans gather and gathering involves food, regional food. TN Barbecue and fresh fruits and vegetables cover tables. It seems every community has a celebratory day involving our deep food heritage. Towns and counties pride themselves on distinct foodstuffs. Middle Tennesseans also help our neighbors and those we do not know. We form organizations, donate, volunteer to help those in need. We are creative in applying craft and innovation to help relieve hunger. We believe in Community.
Middle Tennessee is comprised of 41 counties located east of the Tennessee River and West of the boundary between the Eastern and Central time zones of the United States. The region has a temperate climate, four seasons, and a topography of rolling hills, hardwood forests, and fertile river valleys, leading to the Great Smoky Mountains in the east and the flatlands in the west. The place where our vision will be implemented is Middle TN in the United States.
Nashville is the largest city. Rapid growth has meant new investment, but also new social, economic and environmental challenges, such as lack of affordable housing, displacement of people; insufficient public transit, development of agricultural lands, and degradation of native woodland ecosystems and waterways. Metro Nashville is urban but other densely populated towns are mostly suburban; most of Middle TN is rural.
Middle TN prides itself on its musical heritage, Southern food traditions, and its once thriving agricultural communities. The region is associated with country music, but also home to diverse genres: pop, jazz, R&B, Americana and rock. Foods are “hot chicken”, cornbread and biscuits, and the “meat and three,” one meat protein and three vegetable sides (e.g., stewed okra, collard greens, mashed potatoes, and black-eyed peas).
While Middle TN used to feed itself, the region now sources most of its food elsewhere. Many rural and low-income urban communities are ‘starved’ for nutritious food, but a number of local groups work to provide access to healthy foods. Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle TN serves 46 counties, distributing 600,00lbs. of food/week and 28M meals in 2019. The Nashville Food Project creates 1700 meals from gleaned and grown food/week for local hunger relief. A network of small farms sell food at farmers markets, to restaurants, and through CSAs, but mostly in urban and suburban areas. The Nashville Farmers Market increased thriving markets within the Metro district, Nashville Foodscapes helps create backyard food gardens and Greener Roots Farm grows hydroponic greens, supplying local grocers and restaurants. Jeff Poppen, a prominent food advocate and productive organic farmer from Macon County, leads a regional movement to restore local networks of sustainable agricultural production in Middle TN and beyond. Poppen uses his moniker as ‘The Barefoot Farmer’ (derived from a Public Television show he hosted) as an emblem of what’s possible when we care for the land, nurture communities, and educate the public about the value of eating healthy, regionally grown foods. While fewer residents are involved in the production of food than in past decades, we are seeing a small groundswell in the numbers of food-focused initiatives and younger people starting to farm in the region.
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.
Middle TN’s current food challenges cross the spectrum. The is largely monocrop farming. Successive plantings of industrial crops of soybeans and corn are common. Animal production farms can result in poor land management practices, suboptimal animal health, dependence on antibiotics, and contaminated waterways.
While Middle TN’s farms used to supply nearly all of the region’s foods, transitions to large monocrop farms have resulted in this no longer being true. Many TN products are sold on commodity markets. This practice degrades the local economy of rural Middle TN by having much money flow to outside our region. This distribution does not adequately support community and culture. Middle TN local food currently accounts for a tiny fraction of the $5 billion that Nashville alone spends on food annually. Most food purchased is highly processed, creating health problems, such as high rates of diabetes and heart disease in the region.
Our region has a fairly high percentage of people living in poverty (https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/united-states/quick-facts/tennessee/percent-of-people-of-all-ages-in-poverty#map) and thus a large network of non-profit organizations has developed to support this population. More than 40% of food is wasted in our region while 1 in 6 people (approximately 311,250 people) are food insecure. Some of the organizations working to alleviate hunger and supply poor people with healthy food have partnered in applying for this grant. They recognize a long-term solution to food security lies beyond assistance safety nets.
Another major challenge is the loss of working and natural lands to development. These benefits include over $5.2 billion annually in salaries, over 175,000 jobs, almost $16.5 billion in revenues from agriculture and forestry, $15 billion in increased property values over $3 billion in eco-systems services to clean our air and water and ameliorate flooding. Yet, only15% of that land is protected and Middle TN loses more than 26,000 acres per year. (https://96a11dc4-790d-4304-88a7-c4780d29a12d.filesusr.com/ugd/4781b5_dfd3844ebf674095a55901282f0c9d49.pdf)
We see future challenges, including erratic weather patterns (which will further stress production and distribution of food, especially long-distance distribution) and population shifts, including climate refugees, and loss of working lands, exacerbating these problems. Middle TN (actually the whole State) is very ‘water rich’, so it is likely that as water systems elsewhere degrade, people will look to move to places with abundant water. Stable water availability is critical to food production and we see this as a great asset to regenerating and maintaining a regional food system. Middle TN, which includes part of The Cumberland Plateau, is also known for its rich fertile soil, an enormous asset which we must protect from further degradation.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Organic, local food production and distribution can adjust more easily to these challenges, as well as preserving local jobs and profits. However, scaling volume up will require new technologies and organizational structures. A massive shift from monoculture which produces mainly food for large-scale meat production to production for the table will require education, local facilities for harvesting, storing, and distributing food, and improved technology as well as education on the benefits of eating locally, and how to maximize them. Our vision includes maximizing current resources including Nashville Grown, a local food aggregator, and coordinating larger scale production with local institutional food services, such as hospitals and schools. It is important that the region’s capacity for food processing increases. The contributors to this application have incredible expertise in community building, material reuse/recycling, and designing living buildings, all of which will support sustainable growth. Partnerships and support from several colleges and universities will supply necessary experts and non-profits will facilitate the training of people to provide the scaling up of human resources that will be necessary to move this to a regional level.
Heavy chemical use in industrial farming is destroying the organic matter in the soil, killing beneficial bacteria and fungi needed to grow healthy plants. Many of these chemicals seep into the groundwater. Future efforts will have to engage governmental leaders in looking to policy and law changes that reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic compounds and practices used in agriculture. We know this is a hard road but local leaders and State officials are already aware of the need to keep our precious soil and water resources from further degradation. This region has incredible assets in rich soil and abundant water which provide the basis for all future plans related to increasing local food production. Our State departments and university agriculture extensions are already beginning to work with farmers to mitigate deleterious practices.
Currently, Farmers struggle financially as they try to keep prices competitive with non-local markets. Nashville residents spend over $5 billion on food, yet only a tiny fraction of that money recirculates in our local economy. Rural areas are so poor that our current Governor has made it top priority to help these areas of our region and throughout the State. The supporting applicants include organizations already dedicated to working within our State Capital and Legislative bodies to educate about how food production can be part of that revitalization. https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/news/2019/7/18/taep-to-offer-new-options-for-farmers.html
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.
A humane life has time for relaxation, socialization, and creativity but most importantly, a sense of living healthfully in community with neighbors in a home place. Middle Tennesseans feel a strong sense of place and commitment to keeping cultural binds. Food production and foods are one of the important cultural ‘products’ of this region. The TN State Museum recently Let’s Eat: Origins and Evolutions of TN Food, highlighting its importance and influence. From barbecue to greens to Southern food restaurants, this region prides itself on great regional foods. These foodways are threatened by changes in agricultural production and an enormous demographic inflow. Systems often do not change because people desire it on a very deep level. It is the collective voice of the applicants that revitalizing, restoring, renewing and regenerating our regional foodways is desired and necessary. By leaving judgement behind and including everyone, we can initiate a move toward a ‘commons’ of food for the community. Our goal is that communities thrive in every way.
The future will be one of increased local food production and community engagement, with shopping at local markets and family and community cooking. Immigrant farmers will continue to bring new foods into the area. Crossroads and rural communities are coming back to life, as small farmers, truckers, and market workers make a stable living by participating in cooperative groups. Large farms are growing staple crops for human consumption and coordinate to maintain an appropriate supply. Rebuilding spaces and infrastructure will promote local jobs, while developing labor skills. Better health and increased commerce in rural and urban communities will alleviate persistent poverty. Overall, an integrated and distributed regional food system will lead to a stable tableau of healthy society. There will always be challenges but we feel certain that embracing a collaborative effort will allow for the betterment in our region.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Logo of the TN Local Food Summit
The Tennessee Local Food Fund and Summit provides programming aimed at increasing the production and consumption of high-quality local food, teaching sustainable farming, and developing an equitable and efficient food system. The Summit hosts events that bring together farmers, gardeners, non-profits, the food service industry, national experts, policymakers, and local institutions. These partners work together to preserve and expand Middle Tennessee’s tradition of family farms, revitalize the rural economy, and provide nutritious food to everyone in our region. Prompted by the Summit, Nashville commissioned a city-wide food system evaluation. (https://www.crcworks.org/nashville17.pdf) Now, the TN Local Food Summit and partners are pursuing strategies to scale ideas in this report to serve Middle Tennessee. Prompted by the Food System Vision Prize, we envision a set of actions that will produce a regional food system that provides healthy, local foods, economic opportunities, and a resilient future to our region. We will use this award to pursue three main priorities:
Establish Middle Tennessee as a region that maximizes production of life necessities, especially food. We will invest in organic farming, processing and distribution facilities, and the creation of local markets. To share our learnings, we will build on our region’s history of music. We will use song and a resurgence of our regional food economy to teach other regions what is possible when communities and partners come together in pursuit of common goals.
Leverage our resources to scale: We have the beginning of a local distribution system, a network of farmers, ample farmland and water resources, and engaged public offices. We will work with the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Enterprise Fund, and the Department of Economic and Commercial Development, to develop policies and resources that support a thriving regional food economy.
Shift from conventional to regenerative farm practices to cope with floods, weather, and demographic changes. Our region once had many farms that provided fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, eggs, and dairy to our communities. Transitions in the U.S. agricultural economy sent many of these farms out of business or towards conventional agriculture. However, Middle Tennessee has a growing network of farmers and food advocates who are rebuilding a sustainable regional food system. The TN Food Summit is working to scale up this movement, such as working with these individuals, public offices, non-profits, local markets, and other system actors to incentivize ecologically friendly agriculture, and distribution and sourcing practices that support regional food producers of all sizes.
By focusing on these three priorities, we will address Middle Tennessee’s greatest food-related challenges, described below. Here’s how:
Diet and health: Tennessee is the 6th most obese state in the Union, with 68% of adults overweight or obese. The state ranks 13th in deaths due to diabetes, 5th in cardiac mortality, and 6th in mortality due to stroke. These conditions can be improved with changes in diet: more vegetables, less carbohydrates and fats, and fewer processed foods. We know that changing diets and addressing social determinants of health are difficult propositions because food is closely tied to culture, habit, and public policy. However, we can change this reality. 20% of Tennesseans live in areas with very little access to fresh food. We believe that building a decentralized network of food markets will mitigate the negative health effects of low access to healthy foods. Access to these markets will increase local shopping for local food, supporting social interaction, one of the major social determinants of health. It will also support job creation across the region and a shift towards slow food, incentivizing communities to return to regional traditions of cooking and eating together. A prototype of this type of market is currently underway in the Bells Bend Community of Nashville, an initiative that will offer guidance on how to replicate this model elsewhere in the region.
Culture: Tennessee food is a cultural food that is a reflection of the communities who have inhabited this fertile land. The TN State Museum exhibit Let’s Eat: Origins and Evolutions of Tennessee Food shows a history of foodways beginning with Native Indians and influenced by black slaves brought to this region to work the fields and cook. Identification with this food is a source of pride and an economic engine but many Middle Tennessee communities no longer share in the bounty of a thriving regional food economy. We believe that change happens when people reconnect with their culture. The TN Local Food Summit brings people together to talk, share stories, and honor the stories of others around food. Food is a universal language, and we are working to affect change through storytelling and song. Song has been embedded in the food culture of the South through tribal chants, African American field songs, and country music. We will use the influences of Tennessee’s culture and musical legacy as a unifier. Through events where stories and songs of foodways can be shared, we will bring our community together to pursue the regeneration of food systems in Middle Tennessee. Sarah Trunzo, a local songwriter, is already showing us how song brings us together, with her song “Food and Medicine” sparking conversations about how food can be used as a form of healing.
Environment: Monocropping and use of fertilizers and pesticides destroys the soil and contaminates our rivers. Conversely, organic farming practices store atmospheric carbon and do not pollute streams. They also adapt more easily to climate change. Better soil structure manages torrential rains with less runoff and holds more moisture during drought. These benefits extend to large production farms as well as small holdings. We are working to educate the public about the benefits of organic farming, but we still have work to do. We will continue to educate the public about the need for our current reliance of environmentally harmful agricultural practices to transition to eco-friendly, intensive agricultural production. By training farmers and community members to use sustainable and innovative growing methods, we will illustrate how we can feed ourselves through environmentally friendly farming practices. Resolving to speak and work together in the fact of climate change is vital to setting a course where communities can not only survive in the future but flourish. We will also create spaces for people to come together for the common cause of protecting our environment, ensuring food and water for this region into the future.
Economy: Metro Nashville and the surrounding area--14 of Middle Tennessee’s 41 counties--spends more than $5 billion yearly on food, of which only .08% is produced here. We also have more than 13,000 farmers. Commodity producers, however, are not thriving, with corn listed as a $93 loss per acre. Total financial “leakage”--dollars spent on the food system that leave the region--is estimated at over $6 billion per year. The economic opportunity of moving away from commodity production is apparent, even without calculating health cost savings such as the $1.7 billion spent on diabetes in this region. Breaking the belief that sustainable systems will cost too much money is one of our major challenges. Long term gains will far out way investment of initial capital, and the public is beginning to warm to ecological economics. To support transitions that protect our environment and create economic opportunities, we will facilitate events, workshops, trainings and conferences that help people learn about the economic opportunities of sustainable agriculture.
Policy: We envision a series of incentives for a sustainable food economy. We will push policy to move away from supporting commodity monocropping to supporting regenerative farming. We will advocate for direct supports for small markets and regenerating the infrastructure and distribution systems of our region. We also envision significant tax benefits for sustainable farming land use and conservation practices. We will also advocate for policies that help new farmers access land, currently one of the largest impediments for new farmers seeking to enter the market.
While we are confronting great challenges as a region, we are already working towards a different future. To achieve our vision for the future, we will continue building collaborations in pursuit of regenerating our local food system and food economy. While many stakeholders in the United States’ food system are not communicating about the future of food, our region is a beacon of hope that an alternative future is possible. Today, our network of collaborators includes citizens, the TN Commissioner of Agriculture, small acreage organic farmers, non-profits, business owners, and associations representing large acreage farmers, all of whom are working together to identify opportunities to help all Middle Tennesseans eat healthy, regionally grown and produced foods. As we move forward, we will grow our efforts to create dialogue and understanding about our food challenges and how they affect Tennessee’s most vulnerable communities. We will work to build the infrastructure and policies that will ensure that regionally grown foods can be processed, distributed, and accessed in all Middle Tennessee communities, rural to urban. We will also work to forge a food system that is respectful of the current and future needs of all of those living within our foodshed. Lastly, we will develop strategies and resources that support communities who are poor and marginalized and have been left out of prior conversations. Together, we will build an inclusive, accessible, sustainable food future for Middle Tennessee.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?
A friend, and our image person, today me about it over coffee one day. I got on contacting everyone.