by Kwabena Nkromo
In my role as a planning consultant in the ripening industry of commercial urban agriculture and local food systems development, I try to make it my business to stay informed regarding new trends in this field and especially public policy opportunities to advance the work. As with many other sectors of the American economy at various stage of development, I believe that the relative success of local food as a viable business model is heavily dependent on a favorable regulatory environment and key support from policy making jurisdictional governing bodies. After attending a forum of sorts at the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) yesterday called “Urban Agriculture and Food Systems Planning”, I discovered that we may very well be at the best moment possible to ensure better environmental and market resiliency in how we choose to eat in the metropolitan Atlanta region.
The event at the ARC was actually more of a class in a live panel and Web conference format, primarily designed for the purposed of providing continuing education credits for members a professional association called the American Institute of Certified Planners. It was hosted by ARC as part of its Community Planning Academy, which is “a program of the ARC that offers high-quality and cost-effective training and workshops to appointed citizen planners, local elected officials and local government employees (ARC Spring 2012 CPA Course Schedule)”. On the panel was Fred Conrad of the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Community Gardening Program (one of my personal heroes in the Atlanta urban agriculture network) and a new personality for me, Senior Planner with the ARC’s Land Use division Allison M. Duncan.
In contrast to Mr. Conrad’s presentation that reviewed the excellent grassroots work that his organization does (both figuratively and literally), Ms. Duncan stressed that her contribution to the session was a more aerial view of where we are as a region with food systems planning. While it’s hopeful for me to think that I keep myself more informed than most on such issues, I was taken to school in a good way by the information offered her report. In a nutshell, Ms. Duncan shared with us that one of the most auspicious and perfectly suited public policy development entities in the region (the ARC) has committed itself in a very significant way to providing an influential space to have high quality conversations about Atlanta’s local food future by planning professionals and urban agriculture practitioners alike. In the context of my fondest civic hopes and dreams, it seemed as if the sometimes missed opportunities of Atlanta local food system development had died and our prospects had suddenly gone to heaven.
The specific piece of information that excited me so much was the revelation that the ARC has established a Local Agriculture Subcommittee within its overall Land Use Committee structure. Ms. Duncan assured us this was a meaningful development, as this creates a higher likelihood that initiatives which emerge from the subcommittee will have real prospects for engagement by the respective local government bodies that look to the ARC for policy recommendations and technical assistance. It seems with the ARC Local Agriculture Subcommittee, local food advocates now have a powerful pipeline of influence to advance meaningful reforms in how metropolitan Atlanta manages critically important issues of our regional food shed.
When the opportunity to speak with Ms. Duncan directly emerged during a break, I was quick to share with her the most important and cutting edge concept I am aware of in the local food movement. The Food Commons idea was proposed by Roots of Change Stewardship Council members Jim Cochran and Larry Yee with the intention to provide a national alternative to our current global industrial food system. The goal is to aggressively create more localized option for producing, processing, distributing, marketing, and accessing quality food. There are three components to the plan:
- The Food Commons Trust, a non-profit, quasi-public entity to acquire and steward critical foodshed assets
- The Food Commons Bank, a community-owned financial institution that provides capital and financial services to foodshed enterprises
- The Food Commons Hub, a locally-owned, cooperatively integrated business enterprise that builds and manages foodshed-based physical infrastructure and facilitates the complex logistics of aggregation and distribution at different scales among all the moving parts of the system, and provides scale economies, business services, technical assistance and training to new small food businesses.
The areas where these bodies overlap create the Food Commons, a place where everyone has access to abundant, healthy, safe, affordable, and fresh food. These three components have the potential to be a major locomotive for economic growth and a magnet for a new generation of innovators who will have the access to capital and the place to put their energy and creativity to work.
While most members of the Food Commons national Coordinating Committee are located on the West Coast, Atlanta Metro Food & Farm Network is honored and privileged to be a designated representative for the strategy here in the Atlanta area. At Ms. Duncan’s invitation, we intend to pursue the opportunity to request the formation of an ARC sponsored “Planning Assistance Team” that would provide an ideal forum for a group of interested stakeholders to explore the possibilities developing an Atlanta Food Commons prototype site of the national campaign. I believe such a move has potential to place our region squarely at the head of where so many innovative areas of the country and world are working hard to go.
I am deeply appreciative that we have an organization like the Atlanta Regional Commission available to advocate and safeguard a better future for us all. It is abundantly clear that we will either float higher together as a region by pursuing innovation and best practices or sink to an often avoidable lower quality of life because we were afraid or too timid to choose more wisely in a range of public policy areas. It seems in the realm of better food planning, we are on the right road.
Kwabena Nkromo is the Lead Partner of Atlanta Metro Food & Farm Network and a frequent commentator of food security and urban agriculture public policy issues. Anyone interested in working with an Atlanta Food Commons exploratory group should reply below with contact information and area or interest.