FOOD/Ben Kjelshus

Food Circles Help Develop
Sustainable Food System

Corporate control of the food system is now nearly total. We are separated from farms where food is grown. We are separated from where food is processed. Nearly one-third of the vegetables and one-fourth of all food that reaches our tables are imported from other countries. In large measure we have lost control of our food system.

But the news is not all bad. There is a stirring of a new way of thinking about the food system. We see the launching of alternative sustainable food projects, including the formation of Food Circles. While the corporate structure continues to push for globalization of the food system, we are witnessing an increase of local, self-reliant food systems. Food Circles are a key to developing an integrated, regional-based, sustainable food system.

Basically, the Food Circle is a holistic, ecologically based approach to dealing with the food system. Food Circles link consumers, farmers, small-scale growers, retailers, nutritionists, environmentalists, public advocates and extension agencies and others in a creative and comprehensive effort to work for a sustainable, just and sensible food system for communities and regions. Food Circles promote sustainable agriculture and a gentle stewardship of the land. The call is for us to reclaim our responsibility and control of the food system.

An important contribution to the development of the Food Circle concept came from the Green movement in the United States. Green thinking is inherently holistic in theory and practice. Inspired by the science of ecology, Greens recognize that nature works through interrelated processes. The many problems in our society are to be seen as connected, interrelated, and so the solutions to those problems must also be seen as connected and interrelated. Therefore, it was natural to apply a comprehensive approach in dealing with the food system issue.

Kansas City Greens accepted the challenge and took the first steps in creating the Kansas City Food Circle -- which we understand became the first regional application of the Food Circle concept. The Food Circle evolved from a project of the Kansas City Greens called the Organic Connection, which in seven workshops and conferences through a 10-year period dealt with such topics as safe food, community-supported agriculture, sustainable agriculture and urban/rural partnerships.

Launched with volunteer labor, in-kind contributions, small-scale fundraising and membership fees, the Kansas City Food Circle has produced the following accomplishments:

* We set up a distribution center that links the Franklin Coop Store in Kansas City, Kansas, with the Kansas Rural Center. During the growing season farmers deliver fresh organic, regionally grown produce to the Coop Store in an expanded Community Supported Agriculture project. Over 50 consumer families are involved. It was encouraging that the Franklin Coop had a waiting list of 100 families wanting to join the program.

* We established a hotline and voice mail number to inform consumers on how to contact regional organic farmers. The Food Circle hotline enables interested people to receive information on the location of distribution centers and farmers' markets, how to join subscription buying clubs, and information about the Food Circle network.

* We publish a brochure about the Kansas City Food Circle and resource directories that list growers who are working with us as well as a listing of farmers' markets operating in the region.

* Through public meetings, promotions, and tabling at farmers' markets and community fairs we continue to build our membership base.

* We established a speakers bureau with persons available to speak at college classes, church functions, EPA staff luncheons, and community action programs.

The Food Circle concept is catching on:

* The Kansas City Food Circle is expanding and is now in need of additional vegetable growers.

* Two other localities in Missouri -- Columbia and Fulton -- have now begun Food Circles.

* Still in its formative stage, the Missouri Food Circle will encourage other regions to create Food Circles, pursue educational projects and promote grass-roots, value-added enterprises such as community kitchens.

* The Alliance for Democracy, the new progressive populist organization, has approved an action plan to encourage local Alliances to start Food Circles.

* The Missouri legislature included an appropriation for a project that would link welfare, work, food and agriculture and would involve the Food Circle concept. At press time the budget was awaiting the governor's signature.

* A multi-disciplinary team is working on a model project called the New Promise Homestead that has the goal of moving rural and some urban welfare families into a viable farming operation which would include the Food Circle concept.

In addition to Food Circles there are other projects and programs that are working for a sustainable food system. To name a few: the Food Shed of Madison, Wisconsin; the Field to Table project of Ames, Iowa; Good Food Direct of Athens, Ohio; the Sustainable Food Center of Austin, Texas; Just Food (NYC Sustainable Food System Alliance of New York City); and the Hartford Food System of Hartford, Connecticut. Needed now is a national campaign for a sustainable food system that would involve the above named organizations and many more.

As Brewster Kneen writes in his book, From Land to Mouth, Understanding Our Food System (New Canada Publications, second edition 1993), we need to understand the faulty logic of our present food system. Separating people from their food sources is resulting in a state of complete food dependency as well as devastating rural communities with the loss of family farms. We need to understand that the globalization of production, processing and distribution that is taking place in our food system is resulting in vast, obscene accumulation of wealth for some multi-national corporations. We need to realize that food and agriculture are most vulnerable in their dependence on oil and that we are facing a decline in world oil production with predicted steep increases in oil prices as early as the year 2000. Realizing these conditions, we see the critical need to reverse the course of our present food system that the faulty logic of globalization has set.

In our present vulnerable food system a new framework of thinking is emerging. It is imperative for us to work for a food system that is sustainable, regional-based rather than global based, self-reliant to a considerable extent, and that restores responsibility and control by folks living in given regions. There is great potential for building a sustainable food system and creating Food Circles. There is much to do. It won't be easy. We have our work cut out for us.

Ben Kjelshus is coordinator of the Kansas City Food Circle. Contact him at P.O. Box 30271, Kansas City, MO 64112; phone 816-444-4168; email

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