ITHACA, N.Y. —How food gets grown, raised, harvested, shipped, processed, packed, stored, distributed, purchased, cooked and disposed of — well that’s a food system. And there’s the solid beginnings of a plan around Tompkins County’s food system.

In July, the Tompkins County Legislature accepted a 79-page food system plan presented to them by the Food Policy Council of Tompkins County, a citizen-led advocacy organization. 

The project was dubbed Tompkins Food Futre, and was brought into fruition by a large group of volunteers led by Katie Hallas, the Community Food System Plan Coordinator.

“I think having a food system plan that helps ground a community in the conditions that people live in, and helps us to understand what the realities are, can help motivate us to change, and to do better,” said Hallas. 

Among the benefits of localizing a food system, Hallas and other advocates contend, range from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs and developing a local economy around agriculture, and improving access to healthy nutritious food.

And with the plan in place, advocates are going to start planning their next steps. 

At 5 p.m. on Sept. 27, Tompkins Food Future will host a “Food System Summit” at Stewart Park. It is pitched as an event for people and organizations in the food system to build connections, network and identify opportunities for collaboration. There are approximately 16 featured organizations, from farms to food distributors, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Tompkins County Legislature, among others.

The event is open to the public, and will feature a presentation on the Tompkins Food Future report. Hallas said that the event is meant for networking, but also to begin gauging interest from stakeholders on which of the plan’s nine goals should be prioritized, and which of them are low hanging fruit. Underneath the nine goals are 47 different recommendations for achieving. 

All the goals are big, but number two on the list is to double local food production. 

According to the Tompkins Food Future plan, 55% of farms in Tompkins County are reporting net losses, and 70% of them sell less than $40,000 in product annually. The total market value of agricultural products grown and sold in Tompkins County is $65 million. That includes large commodity crops like livestock feed, said Hallas, but Tompkins County residents spend $350 million a year on food. The kind of data needed to get a measure on what share of the market local producers are capturing is just not available, said Hallas, but the report indicates that 90% of the food consumed locally comes from outside the county.

To reach the goal of expanding local farms’ market share, Tompkins Food Future focused on supporting the creation of “collective infrastructure” in their recommendations. This, they wrote, would include some business planning, business services, the development of wholesale markets or processing facilities. These would reduce the capital investment for smaller and mid sized farms to operate, lowering the bar to entry. 

The plan also calls for cultivating equity within any expansion of the local food system, targeting food insecurity, and land access for communities historically excluded from property ownership. One recommendation calls for lowering the net cost of agricultural land, whether this be through local fundraising efforts or opening up the avenues to state, federal, or private funding. 

The future of a local food system that Tompkins Food Future is trying to communicate is one that is more equitable, conscious of the environment and human health, and also more resilient.

Tompkins Food Future’s planning effort began in February 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the normal movements of society and the economy. The resulting scramble for groceries, empty shelves and supply chain disruption was an all-too-real validation for Hallas and the planning she was doing.

“The pandemic taught us that our food system is pretty vulnerable to crises,” she said. And added, “We also saw the ways in which, you know, the whole entire system sort of shutting down, brought food insecurity upon people who have never had to walk that path.”

The unprecedented disruption that COVID brought on is, in a way, a preview of what may come as the economic and social impacts of climate change — flooding, crop failure, and to name a few — begin to materialize and affect the food people eat. Hallas thinks so. 

“Whether or not we want to acknowledge it or not, the pandemic is not the final shock to our system, whether its climate crises or climate events,” Hallas said.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn