Food for all our neighbors: We should invest as much in Western Pennsylvania agriculture as we do in a cracker plant
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"We take care of our own" goes the popular Bruce Springsteen song that gets played at political rallies everywhere, regardless of political party. But here in Western Pennsylvania, this is simply not true -- at least when it comes to making sure that our neighbors don't go hungry during these hard economic times.
A front-page headline in the Post-Gazette Sept. 15 read "Rural Food Banks Struggle to Meet Need." The article reported that food pantries all over Western Pennsylvania -- but particularly in our rural communities -- cannot provide enough nutritional food for struggling families. Does anyone find this more than ironic?
Our region is a cornucopia of agriculture. We have well over 14,000 operating farms and more than 1.2 million acres under cultivation. We have good and stable sources of water, even during droughts. We have an extended northern growing season due to relatively mild early winters. We produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, poultry, beef and pork. We have a rich history in food production and processing -- we are, after all, the home of H.J. Heinz, one of the largest food companies in the world.
Yet we seem incapable of addressing the most fundamental need of our community -- indeed, of any community -- and this is to see that everyone is well fed.
We are so rich agriculturally that we are considered a national treasure. From Lake Erie to West Virginia, ours is one of the finest growing regions in America. Due to our water resources, climate stability and strong farming culture, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security considers our "food shed" a strategic asset, not unlike how we now view the natural gas resources in the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits.
However, as recently as 2010, the USDA estimated that Western Pennsylvania farmers and producers devoted nearly 99 percent of their capacity to commodities like corn and soybeans -- the overwhelming share of which are exported from our region and into the agri-industrial system for conversion to ethanol, processed food and non-food additives.
This was not always the case. Our region boasted some of the largest orchards, for example, being the home of Johnny Appleseed. Dairies dotted the landscape. Our farms earned a well-deserved reputation for variety and quality. Over the last 50 years, this has changed.
Urban sprawl has overtaken many farms, to be sure, but even more have been lost because it is so difficult for farm families to run financially sustainable operations -- especially if they produce goods for local markets. In recent years, we have seen a decline in dairies due to low prices for milk and dairy products, for instance. Our farms, the people they employ and the businesses that support them are all at risk.
Also at risk is our community's ability to directly meet the nutritional needs of our neighbors -- even though we know from recent university studies and research that our region has plenty of capacity to produce food for all of our residents. If we provide the financial and market infrastructure, there might never be another story about an empty food pantry in Western Pennsylvania.
This is a problem with a solution. All it requires is the shared commitment of the public and private sectors and a bipartisan effort to do what is in the best interests of the citizens of our commonwealth.
I would modestly propose that the state invest as much in food-system development in Western Pennsylvania as it is offering in subsidies to Shell Oil for the gas cracking plant in Aliquippa. No more, no less: some $1.7 billion over the next five years.
In exchange, the region would start a local-food initiative to direct subsidies and tax benefits to farmers and producers who agree to shift at least 10 percent of their capacity away from commodity agriculture for industrial reprocessing and into the production of vegetables, fruits, beef, poultry, pork and dairy. This five-year, 10-percent commitment would fill a regional anti-hunger and nutrition resource pool managed by the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and our regional pantry network.
Beyond providing fresh, in-season produce and protein, this state investment also would be used to create regional food aggregation and processing centers so that we could capture more locally grown food and make shelf-stable, value-added food products. From tomato sauces to apple sauces to ready-to-eat meals full of nutrition, we could reinvent a regional processing and production industry that has been all but eliminated with agri-industrialization.
Much of what is needed is already under development here and around the nation in the creation of food hubs. Hubs are, by the USDA's definition, centers for value-added processing which are intended to leverage the economic benefits of local farming. In much the way that Shell wants to leverage the presence of natural gas and byproducts in Western Pennsylvania, we should leverage the presence of fertile land and a farming culture through our commitment to grow and buy local.
Our leading food-based corporations also should increase the share of locally produced food products they buy by a minimum of 10 percent. This purchasing commitment would help drive the development of more and higher-volume processing centers in the region. Local growers and producers would have the value chain they need to move fresh products into our marketplace on a year-round basis. Our end markets would create demand and the market would become efficient and robust over time.
Our region is blessed with dedicated organizations that focus on local foods and food-system development. Let's give them the resources and support they need to build intelligent networks, market-based strategies and the infrastructure we need to grow our oldest industry -- agriculture. We are subsidizing and investing in our energy sector, why not do the same for the most basic sector of all -- food?
The recent regional planning effort called the Power of 32 hardly mentioned food and farming as part Western Pennsylvania's economy, evidence of how blind we have become to the importance and significance of this incredible resource and opportunity.
Leadership is key. We need our entire food-producing and consuming industry and our public officials to commit to building a sustainable local food system that ensures no Western Pennsylvanian is ever left without access to nutritional, high-quality food.
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am