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Creating a healthy food system for all

A reflection on the release of the draft Massachusetts Food System Plan

By Lucy Sweeney, Development Officer for Individual Giving & Events

Late last month, I joined fellow Food Project staff to attend Food Day at the State House. The room was bustling with a crowd of policy makers, nonprofit leaders, farmers, and food distributors who gathered for the public release of Massachusetts’ draft Food Systems Plan—the commonwealth’s first food plan in 40 years.

Standing around the grand staircase, we heard some striking figures illuminating just how critical the food system is to Massachusetts. Did you know that the food industry in MA accounts for 30.2 billion dollars each year and 10 percent of all jobs? Or that food insecurity in the state has doubled since 2000, with 750,000 people (1 in 9 residents) who were food insecure last year? No doubt the stakes are high.

Over the past year, the Massachusetts Food Policy Council crafted a plan with input from players across the state and spanning the many sectors the food system touches. This resulted in four main goals: increase production and consumption of MA-grown foods, boost the local food economy, protect our environment and promote food safety, and increase access to fresh food for all.

After the main announcements concluded, we had the chance to mingle and chat with farmers and fisherman from the commercial sector. What struck me most about Food Day was the crowd—the diversity of experiences and roles in the room. To me this represented how complex and wide-reaching our food system is, and how nearly all policy—social, health, education, economic, environmental—is affected by food. 

We met Jared from Red’s Best, who described the challenge of getting fresh fish to consumers quickly, with minimal human contact causing the fish to deteriorate and spoil sooner. We met a landscape designer specializing in functional green spaces (think permaculture and community farms) designed to complement and utilize the natural features of the land.

We met local commercial farmers, including Richard Bonanno, owner of Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen, who had some interesting stories to share. Rich described his experience working with local grocery chains: how the high demand for mums in the fall had Market Basket begging him to plant more and more acres of them every year. How in-season he harvests zucchini every day, in order to fit them into the 8” long crates the supermarket provides. Zucchini that don’t fit this perfect mold aren’t accepted, so he donates them. 

This got me thinking about my role in the food system as a consumer. Since retail stores respond to what consumers purchase (perfectly shaped, shiny veggies!) and what we leave behind (bumpy and curved veggies), they push these requirements onto the farmer. Why is it that we’re so finicky when it comes to our store bought produce, compared to the beautifully lumpy tomato we grew ourselves? The message I took away from our conversation was how important having an understanding and direct relationship to our food is in supporting a healthy, more productive, and less wasteful system. The next time I go to the store, I just might reach for that misshapen zucchini.

At the end of the day, the image that stuck with me was comparing our experience of the food system to looking at an elephant through a straw; we each see a different piece of the puzzle—a trunk! a tail! —but not necessarily how they connect as a whole. I think this explains why coming together to share and learn from our unique and collective perspectives and observations of how food policy actually plays out is so critical: it is the first step towards understanding and envisioning a system that might benefit us all.

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