Assets and Gaps: What Do We Have and What Do We Need for a Better Food System?

On Thursday, September 17, the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) held the second session of this year’s virtual summit, Designing Resilience for Food and Farming in Connecticut: A Virtual Series to Collectively Shape the Future of Growing & Eating in Our State. This session, Assets & Gaps: What Do We Have and What Do We Need for a Better Food System?, focused on the existing and missing opportunities in Connecticut’s local food system. These virtual discussions, a safe and responsible replacement for the CFSA’s usually in-person summit, will help shape a food action plan for Connecticut (as of now, Connecticut is the only state in New England without a food action plan).

Connecticut Assets & Gaps

Asset mapping, identifying food assets like grocery stores and food pantries, does not always encompass the big picture when it comes to local food systems. Sure, assets can be grocery stores and farmers’ markets, but they can also be tobacco sheds, vacant buildings, and philanthropic funds. Connecticut’s unique geography includes farmland, protected coastline, and industrial cities, but not all of those assets are optimized to their full potential.

CFSA asked participants to come prepared with an example of a food asset in their community. Their examples included stakeholders, empty buildings, a diverse customer base, grassroots food justice organizations, and institutions. To speak about their businesses as Connecticut food assets, Sam Garwin from GreenWave, and Wayne Pesce from the Connecticut Food Association joined the discussion.

GreenWave

Sam Garwin, market innovation strategist at GreenWave, introduced CFSA and participants to Connecticut’s “blue economy.” GreenWave provides training and support to new ocean farmers and innovates new technology to improve operations and reduce costs to hatcheries. GreenWave supports ocean farmers interested in polyculture vertical farming: growing high yields of shellfish and seaweed with a small environmental footprint and low aesthetic impact. These polyculture ocean farms have a relatively low financial barrier (compared to land farming) and restore and protect ocean ecosystems in the process.

GreenWave utilizes Connecticut’s unique assets to build a blue economy and sustainable use and marketing of ocean resources. GreenWave’s operations in the Long Island sound provide food to humans and livestock, fertilizer for land farms, biodegradable materials for plastic alternatives, and ecosystems fighting climate change. Long Island does not use their coastline for ocean farming, giving Connecticut’s ocean farmers an advantage in the New York City market for seaweed and shellfish. It also provides an opportunity to strengthen economies of working waterfronts. GreenWave has also partnered with unused Connecticut tobacco sheds to dry seaweed, since transporting wet seaweed is a market side logistics obstacle for GreenWave.

Despite GreenWave’s innovative operations, there are still gaps in supply side and market side operations. First, the permitting process is extensive and lengthy, and despite this process, there is no certification or federal standard for cultivated organic kelp. Additionally, raw seaweed must be processed within 24-hours for optimal quality and there is currently no independent processor or co-packers in Southern New England. On the market side, the FDA and USDA provide minimal guidance regarding seaweed food safety, and it is difficult for these small ocean farms to compete with the low prices afforded by the large international market. Additionally, chefs and eaters are still relatively unfamiliar with seaweed as an ingredient.

While GreenWave’s operations are unique and innovative, these gaps are familiar to farmers and local producers who have to adhere to USDA and FDA standards and regulations, and compete with the low costs of a larger market.

Connecticut Food Association

Wayne Pesce, President of the Connecticut Food Association (CFA), discussed the organization’s observations and interactions with Connecticut’s grocery retail industry during the COVID-19 emergency. CFA’s network consists of approximately 300 retail food stores and 135 pharmacies. In April 2020, CFA worked closely with stores in COVID hotspots in Connecticut to implement safety measures that protect frontline associates and customers.

The food retail industry and grocery store associates are an asset to the state’s infrastructure. Deemed essential businesses and essential workers, grocery stores and grocery store employees were on the front lines during the pandemic. To ensure the safety of workers and customers, CFA involved itself with state and local governments to implement safety measures like installing plexiglass barriers, encouraging one-person-per-family shopping trips, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff. CFA also informed legislators and the public about these safety precautions.

CFA also worked toward making food accessible. Panic buying left grocery shelves without enough food for everyone, including food banks. Outbreaks in meat processing facilities also created a protein shortage. In order to combat this, stores had to limit quantities of meat and disinfecting products in order to leave enough on the shelves for everyone and their neighbors. While Connecticut piloted an online SNAP program, CFA also worked toward extending this online pilot to WIC recipients as well for a safer, less congested, more accessible shopping experience.

While frontline workers and grocery stores are assets, there’s still more to do about resiliency. As climate change takes a toll on the environment, more storms are likely to cause power outages, and natural gas/fossil fuel burning generators are not the most effective or sustainable backup solution. Renewable energy and microgrids are better options than generators and CFA has been partnering with other groups to invest in battery storage so grocery stores can continue providing essential services during emergencies.

Key Takeaways

COVID challenged us to think outside the box. We in the “land of steady habits” quickly put collective creativity to work to experiment with existing assets and repurpose those to serve different needs. While this discussion surfaced many gaps in Connecticut’s food system, almost all of them can be viewed as assets and opportunities.

What are the most prominent assets, gaps, and opportunities?

  • Broad customer base interested in local food: The state’s ~100 farmers’ markets operate in urban, suburban, and rural areas across the state. While this is certainly an asset, there’s also an opportunity for these farmers’ markets to build stronger producer-consumer connections, especially in urban areas.
  • Money in many forms: At some point this year, unemployment benefits increased temporarily, a stimulus check went out to eligible citizens, and SNAP/EBT expanded in Connecticut. Giving people money, instead of pre-packaged, pre-selected goods, can better improve the local economy. While charity models are helpful during emergencies, direct funds allow individuals to make choices for themselves based on preferences and priorities. Models like food boxes, as noted in the food supply chain session, also take too much time to implement on this large scale. Funds, whether federal, state, or private, could be funneled toward broad systems change instead of temporary programmatic change.
  • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) leadership: Connecticut, in context of the rest of New England, is a racially diverse state; however, BIPOC voices are often left out of the decision making process due to racism. To build a stronger, more inclusive food system, there needs to be BIPOC representation and leadership.
  • Relationships and networks: institutions have resources to build networks that could facilitate relationships between different parts of the food system. Encouraging farms, restaurants, institutions, and grocery stores to engage in open communication, via social media or word of mouth, could strengthen Connecticut’s local food system.

These discussions resurfaced old discussions about lack of or insufficient use of physical assets: few processing facilities exist, Connecticut’s prime farmland is inaccessible or too expensive for new farmers, and food hubs exist but are sparse. COVID has given Connecticut an opportunity to rise to the occasion, exercise some creative solutions, and break some steady habits. So, what’s in the way of fully utilizing these assets?

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