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«CREATING ALTERNATIVES: A PARTICIPANT OBSERVER’S REFLECTIONS ON THE EMERGING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM IN KANSAS CITY* MARY HENDRICKSON UN IVERSIT Y OF M ...»

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Providing fair and sustainable food...... Weakness Strength If we look at Table 2, one position of strength for the industrialized food system is in mass producing food on a scale to feed the mainstream. This rests in the ability of large agrifood firms to produce undifferentiated commodities across the globe, sourcing cheap and selling products into the highest priced markets, wherever they exist. Another position of strength for large global firms rests on their ability to raise capital more efficiently and cheaply than small holders or start-up firms. In recent years, the financialization of all markets has meant that private equity has entered food and agriculture sectors (for a discussion see Burch 2007). Using vast sums of investor money, these private equity funds could buy agrifood firms (even well-managed ones like Albertson’s), lend money to firms (the method Smithfield used to finance their expansions in Europe and also into the beef industry), and generally help large agrifood firms outcompete small farms and food firms for capital. The recent freeze in capital markets has created problems for some of these firms (e.g., Pilgrim’s Pride), but the general premise remains sound. A final strength for global agrifood firms is the clarity of their vision. The honest mission of any corporation is to make money for their stockholders (and, dare I say, managers).

This must guide their decision-making, even for those with an eye on the triple

THE EMERGING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM IN KANSAS CITY 175

bottom line of profits, equity and environment, or the firm does not continue to exist.

Alternative food systems are often very weak in the three areas detailed above.

Alternative food firms and small holders have difficulty obtaining capital and credit on favorable terms to finance their businesses.3 They cannot compete in producing undifferentiated commodities with those firms who have far-flung supply networks.

Usually, their visions are messy and complicated. Balancing social, ecological and economic interests is very difficult, and thus one set of interests generally gets prioritized (e.g., see critical examinations of food system alternatives by Allen 2004;

Hinrichs 2003, Winter 2003). Given that alternatives are embedded in existing economic and political structures (e.g., markets and legal frameworks), economic interests often dominate.

However, the alternatives that have emerged have particular strengths from which they can operate. Firms involved in alternative food systems are often small and agile, which means they can probably respond quickly to changing tastes and cultural shifts. Turning an aircraft carrier (a.k.a. a large, bureaucratic firm like Cargill) is much more difficult than turning a speedboat (a.k.a. alternative firms and networks). Alternative food movements have pioneered what “good” food is, and thus can provide the humanely raised, natural, organic or cage-free foods that “foodies” have been demanding for the past 15 years. However, this can be an opportunity for alternatives insofar as the industrialized food system does not define the agenda, as has happened with the advent of organic standards and labels that exist to protect the very consumers who demanded different types of foods (for a great discussion of standards in the global arena see Hatanaka, Bain, and Busch 2006). The most important strength that alternative food systems have is the ability to connect producers and consumers in personalized, authentic ways that expand beyond a market relationship (see DeLind 2006; Hendrickson 1997; Lind 2007;

Lyson 2004). In doing so, they work toward their vision of providing food that is 3 As a state extension specialist, I commonly hear complaints about obtaining capital which sometimes results from the weak financial management skills of many agri-food innovators. There have been efforts to help farmers with business planning to better access capital, such as the USDASARE supported work “Building a Sustainable Business” (Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture 2003). Still, the lack of capital for alternative food businesses is serious enough that Investors Circle, a network of “angel investors, professional venture capitalists, foundations, family offices and others who are using private capital to promote the transition to a sustainable economy” has created food and agriculture tracks at recent investor conferences (see www.investorscircle.net).

176 SOUTHERN RURAL SOCIOLOGY fair to farmers, farm workers, and eaters while protecting and enhancing the environment.

The simple framework outlined in Table 2 offers itself easily to critique mostly because it is more pragmatic than theoretical. It is a framework that I use in working with farmer groups across Missouri and the Midwest to navigate between pragmatism and analysis. I should point out that many farmer-driven entities have ignored the strengths of the globalized, industrialized food system at their peril.

One example is Farmland, one of the largest farmer cooperatives in the United States until their bankruptcy in 2002. As Hogeland (2006:71–2) states, cooperative managers adopted new industry norms such as “efficiency, being a low-cost provider, commodity specialization” to ‘out-Cargill Cargill.’ In Farmland’s case, this meant ignoring the strengths of their decentralized federation to pursue alternative markets for identity-preserved grains and meats. Many successful alternative firms (e.g., Muir Glen, Coleman Meats, and Niman Foods) have been bought out once their expansions stretched beyond their capital needs. In my extension program, I often advise groups to operate from their position of strength and to focus on remaining true to their early visions of making an adequate living providing good quality food to interested eaters.





Identifying strengths and operating from those positions does not mean giving the vast mainstream system over to globalized, industrialized systems. Just because large agrifood firms operate from some positions of strength does not mean they cannot be challenged on those very strengths (e.g., the “Warrior” work that Stevenson et al. [2008] identify). For instance, much of our consolidation research has been used by farm groups like National Farmers Union or Organization for Competitive Markets to advocate for enforcement of existing antitrust laws. Such research combined with advocacy efforts has led to the formation of the groups that Gronski discusses in this volume. Research on consolidation in the US, including the writings of legal scholars like Carstensen (2000, 2004) and McEowen, Carstensen and Harl (2002), led to the development of a Competition Title for the 2002 Farm Bill, an effort that finally succeeded in limited fashion in the 2008 Farm Bill. The documentation of agrifood structure from scholars across the world plays a prominent role in the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development reports (2008), and competition measures figure into the options for actions provided for decision-makers.

THE EMERGING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM IN KANSAS CITY 177

BUILDING ALTERNATIVES IN KANSAS CITY

In 1994, I began my dissertation research as a participant observer with the Kansas City Food Circle, just as it started to form as an organization. Since finishing my dissertation, I have remained involved in the emerging local food system in the Kansas City area in several ways—mostly as an extension specialist doing programming around local foods, with the Kansas City metro area as a focus area for my work. The Kansas City Food Circle used the Missouri School’s research on consolidation in the food system as a starting place for determining what was wrong with the current food system, and as a backdrop for creating a vision of what a “right” food system would look like.

The Food Circle organization that got its start in November 1994 is the latest inception of a group that has existed since the early 1980s. Its roots go back to the early 1980s when a group of Kansas Citians began to seek alternative political expressions in response to the election of Ronald Reagan and the changes in politics that heralded. The group was interested in sustainable futures, and food was a critical component. By the late 1980s, this group had embraced the “Green” political philosophy emerging from Europe as well as the organic food movement, which represented a way of expressing their political philosophy in their everyday life (see Hendrickson [1997] for a more thorough explication of the Kansas City Food Circle development).4 While the understanding of what constitutes a workable alternative has changed over time, core members of the Food Circle have long tried to develop local sources of sustainable food. Early conferences of the group focused on the vulnerabilities of a food system heavily dependent on oil, and discussed the true costs of such agriculture. (Concern over “peak oil” and energy use in the food system has returned in force in the last few years.) Members of the Greater Kansas City Greens in the mid-1980s tried to provide networking opportunities for producers and consumers of organic produce to meet and understand each other, and even tried to organize marketing cooperatives as a better way to make connections. Since 1994, the Food Circle in Kansas City has tried to educate the public about the consequences of our industrial agricultural system and persuade more people to participate in a local, sustainable alternative. They have published directories of local organic farmers, promoted Community Supported Agriculture Farms, sought 4 Green political philosophy as embraced by the Green group in Kansas City is a systems approach that requires balancing the core principles of ecological wisdom, decentralization/participation, nonviolence, and social justice in both the political and personal spheres (Bookchin 1990).

178 SOUTHERN RURAL SOCIOLOGY to educate the general population about the benefits of local and organic foods, and built strong relationships between consumers, farmers and others in the food system.

However, a very significant contribution of the group was the development of an alternative vision of what the food system could be (Hendrickson and Heffernan 2002). This vision prioritized relationships, as well as making those relationships as direct and personal as possible. It incorporated a different form of trust, one that was personal because it was rooted in a community relationship, instead of the impersonal trust that permeates the global food system with its sets of government and private standards (Giddens 1990; Hatanaka et al. 2006; Hendrickson 1997).

Instead of a food system where farmers were distanced from consumers, with the middle controlled by a few large agrifood firms, this group envisioned a system where farmers and eaters were directly connected at farmers’ markets, communitysupported agriculture (CSAs), roadside stands, and delivery services. They saw connections between farmers and restaurants, farmers and grocery stores, farmers and processors—relationships that could be embedded in the local community.

In this way, they were “making the personal political”—food as a personal decision, embedded in relationships at the family and community level, but political in that they sought to reorganize the food system totally as an example of what could happen politically if processes were decentralized and re-localized. While they were contributing an alternative, cohesive vision (which we have deemed a strength of the global food system), they were also building on their own strengths of connecting to consumers through personalized relationships, and providing fair and sustainable food (see bottom three rows on Table 2).

Dismissing the role of such a small group, operating in a particular locale, in affecting the larger food system is easy. However, this group challenged the existing economic and political structures of late modernity by focusing on creating authentic relationships between producers and consumers, or as Habermas (1987) might say, by protecting the personal sphere from the intrusion of the exchange relationship (for an explanation of this in Kansas City see Hendrickson 1997). By deepening and strengthening consumer-farmer relationships in the Kansas City area through their promotions of local farmers and education of local consumers, the group began to provide a space for action on many levels including within economic, social, and political systems. They protected that small but important space for action (see Hendrickson and Heffernan 2002).

While working hard to create a powerful vision and connect farmers and consumers, the all-volunteer group struggled with funding and with growing their

THE EMERGING LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM IN KANSAS CITY 179

membership. Shortly after completing my dissertation on the Food Circle, the USDA North Central Region Center for Rural Development provided funding for Bill Heffernan and I to establish a small extension program modeled on the Food Circle. The next year, members of the Kansas City Food Circle, the rural sociology department at the University of Missouri, faith groups, and farm organizations met to discuss how the Food Circle’s vision could be supported statewide. This culminated with funding in 1998 for the University of Missouri Extension’s Food Circles Networking Project (FCNP), an outreach program that initially focused on helping low income consumers grow their own food and market surplus, assisted farmers in finding alternative markets for their products by recruiting consumers into the idea of what an alternative food system could be, and supported community-based processing activities. Although state budget cuts in the early part of this decade gutted state funding for the project, it still exists through University of Missouri Extension, lately supported by a Kellogg Foundation grant. While the program has retained a focus on networking farmers and consumers together, goals have simplified to increasing the amount of sustainably and locally-grown food produced and consumed in Missouri.



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