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Conducting a Food System Assessment in Your Town: Lessons from Concord, Massachusetts

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 April Issue Newsletter

By Jamie Pottern, MALD

If the term “food systems” has begun to crop up in common discourse, it is because the way we think about food is finally changing.  In the face of the concurrent threats of climate change, peak oil, and human and environmental health crises, towns, regions, and states around the nation are being compelled to look back, a bit bewildered, in order to understand the systems that formerly sustained their communities and what has been lost over time.

What are food systems? There is no agreed upon definition or model of a food system, but it is generally understood to be the steps that food takes from soil-to-soil. Through production, distribution, processing, storage, preparation, consumption, and food waste, food makes a complex and often indirect journey to reach consumers, eventually returning (ideally in the form of compost) back to the beginning of the cycle. Just one missing link in this system threatens the viability of the whole.

The town of Concord, Massachusetts, located 20 miles west of Boston, was not the first community to begin to ask itself how well its food system was doing (or what a food system is). Because Concord is a town founded upon agriculture and deeply connected to its farming roots, many pieces of its food system still remain: in the landscape, in living memory, and in its history books. Concord is a town with a strong connection to its history, a thriving economy, a reputable school system, a plethora of parks and open space, and around twenty active farms - all within twenty-six square miles.

Why might a town with such abundant resources be concerned about the health of its food system? Though Concord’s list of assets is impressive, it is a community that has lost many of the pieces of its local food system that were thriving just 100 years ago. Namely, like all other New England towns, it has lost the ability to feed itself through the winter and has become dependent upon global markets. This coincides with a general loss of knowledge and infrastructure within the community to grow, process, store, and prepare local food. Land values are some of the highest in the nation, and many of the prime soils are located on large, privately owned house lots.

While most of Concord’s farms grow produce on a small scale, farming on a scale that could meet the needs of wholesale buyers such as institutions, grocery stores, and restaurants, is limited. For example, the farm-to-school movement to bring more local food into school cafeterias is hampered by the lack of volume being produced to satisfy this large market and the infrastructure necessary to process, store, and distribute perishable seasonal food items.

Concord has also lost a huge component of its agricultural system: livestock. A system of mixed animal husbandry and tillage was the foundation upon which the 17th and 18th century farmers depended, and which the late 19th and early 20th century farmers modified as they specialized to reach regional markets. Concord now produces virtually no dairy and very little meat, poultry, and eggs. A lack of accessible, USDA-certified slaughterhouse facilities in the state (especially for poultry) prohibits many farmers from raising livestock. While there is a great deal of potential farmland in Concord (roughly 1300 acres), only 400 acres are being actively farmed, and only about 250 acres are permanently protected as farmland. Without permanent protection, this pristine farmland may be destined to grow houses instead of food.

Over the last three years, a critical mass of Concord farmers, educators, town officials, community organizers, business owners, chefs, and concerned citizens have come together to address these challenges across Concord’s entire food system. These residents wanted to understand how they could foster stronger connections between all the different players in their local food movement, identify and address missing links, and galvanize the entire community. They also wanted to learn how they could become a more significant contributor to the broader, regional movement toward greater food security. They formed a Steering and Advisory Committee of nearly thirty people to support their next big move: a food system assessment that would assess where Concord’s food system stands today, and to help articulate where to go and how to get there.

According to Brooke Redmond, one of the leaders of Concord’s local food movement and the Director of Communications and Development at the Farm-Based Education Association, a coming together of forces, sprinkled with a little bit of magic, led this Concord group into a relationship with the Conway School of Landscape Design. Located in the western Massachusetts hill town of Conway, this 10-month Master’s program immerses its students in intensive design and planning projects for real clients. Over the last few years, students have undertaken a number of food-related projects around Massachusetts, and in places as far-flung as Ajo, Arizona and Tuscany, Italy.

Christina Gibson (’12) and Jamie Pottern (’12) were tasked with the Concord assessment and set off immediately to answer some fundamental questions about the assets and challenges in this community. Their data collection process consisted of an initial stakeholder meeting with the Steering and Advisory Committee and two public meetings with the Concord community to publicize the project, gather resources, and receive feedback. Committee members and other stakeholders in the town were indispensable to the process, supporting the Conway team by sharing their stories, providing the team with data, and giving them backstage privileges at a number of Concord institutions.

The Conway team grappled with many of the larger questions being asked by folks around the country doing food systems work. How can one capture all the complexities of a food system in one assessment? What are the parameters of food system assessments (FSAs)? The team found examples of FSAs from around the country – ranging from the community-sized scale all the way up to statewide efforts – but they largely relied on observations, analysis, community input, and their own experiences with farming and sustainable land use practices. Their final project was a report illustrating the assets and challenges of each food system component in the town, and concluded with an extensive list of stakeholder-directed recommendations that the community might consider as they move forward. The Committee has already created a food council, whose aim is to support the town in implementing many of these recommendations.

Building Local Food Connections: A Community Food System Assessment for

Concord, MA was recently awarded a student project award by the American

Planning Association-Massachusetts Chapter; illustrating the growing recognition of a need for a planning approach to food systems work in our communities.

Many communities live in a reality very different from that of Concord. Many do not have the economic assets of Concord, or its land and soil resources. Each community faces its own particular social and economic challenges, but each community has its own unique potential to affect positive change through education, community organizing, policy, and by example. This project has demonstrated one example of a community working to revitalize its local food system and one method of bringing all those stories together: a community food system assessment.

What will you do in your community?

To learn more about the local food movement in Concord, visit:

To view “Building Local Food Connections” for free online, visit:

To purchase the assessment, visit:

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