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America is hungrier than ever for sustainable food systems. Can we build them?  

The pandemic offers the opportunity to transform into a more resilient, sustainable, healthy and just food system. Here's how we meet this moment.

A farm field

In the spring of 2020, many small farms across the U.S. found themselves in a bittersweet predicament. Restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus were forcing restaurants — major buyers for the local farms that serve urban areas — to shut down. The loss of these key customers might have wiped out many of these local growers, if not for another COVID-19-induced phenomenon: individual shoppers started calling — and calling — and calling.

"The farms we work with are seeing a huge spike in demand [for direct sales]," Dan Miller, CEO and founder of the crowdfunding platform Steward, told me when we spoke by phone in early April. "But now they have to quickly switch their businesses to meet that demand." So Miller, who launched the platform in the fall of 2019 to provide funding to small, sustainably run farms — operations often underserved by traditional finance — soon found himself expanding Steward’s services to help these same farmers shift their business model.

Stories of small farms pivoting their operations on a dime were easy to find in the early months of the pandemic: these farmers worked overtime to meet customer demand, added services such as online ordering and home delivery, and jumped into action to prop up community food banks struggling to serve an influx of the newly unemployed. Compared to the industrialized and supersized food system most Americans live with — represented by rivers of wasted milk and COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-packing plants that killed more than 200 people — these distributed systems looked healthier, safer, and more environmentally sustainable than ever. They also looked more agile and resilient.

Crises often present an opportunity to reimagine current systems, so I wondered: Would that happen here, with food? Would the food consumption trends driven by the pandemic wind up as a paragraph in the history books — like the "victory gardens" of World War II — or could it lead to lasting change? And how do we transform this moment of crisis into a more resilient, sustainable, healthy and just food system?

Crises often present an opportunity to reimagine current systems.

At GreenBiz Group’s virtual clean economy conference, VERGE 20, last week, speakers and participants addressed questions such as these, discussed how to make sure that these changes stick and identified what challenges stand in the way. During a session delving into lessons from the pandemic, panelists agreed that the No. 1 barrier to changing the current food system is financing.

"The financial services that are out there … are really not calibrated for the moment we’re in," said Janie Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund. "If we’re going to actually build an agile and resilient system going forward, then we have to invest in it."

One example of the financial challenges sustainable farms face comes in the form of crop insurance. If a farmer wants to transition a farm from conventional practices to organic or regenerative ones, costs are associated with that transition. However, insurance policies typically do not cover them, so the farmer is forced to take on the extra up-front costs and risk. The same holds true for traditional agriculture financing, developed for conventional farming. Loans are typically underwritten based on the equipment, inputs, volume, prices and insurance coverage of conventional growers. These factors are different for organic and regenerative farmers, so the numbers often don’t work, resulting in loans being denied or unaffordable.

This increased access to capital could help scale the market, which hopefully would bring down the cost and make this more nutritious food more widely available, said Matthew Walker, managing director at S2G Ventures, a food systems-focused venture fund and mission investor.

"There’s a lot of work to be done to provide affordable nutrition … and allow those who are seeking to grow organic, or use any tech enabled process that might be better for soil health, better for nutrition, to at least get started," he said.

This increased access to capital could help scale the market.

Making healthy food available in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where affordable, fresh vegetables are hard to come by, is the mission of the Green Bronx Machine, but founder Stephen Ritz — a VERGE keynote speaker — didn’t wait for systems change. Established in 2012, the program uses hydroponic and vertical farming technology at its indoor teaching farm at a South Bronx school, where kids learn how to grow and cook vegetables themselves.

Each week throughout the school year, the kids take home bags of groceries to their families. Green Bronx Machine also operates a "food for others" outdoor garden and summer youth employment program in the Bronx, which serves food-insecure families in the community. And it has various other partnerships and serves as a model for schools in other districts, including a program in more than 60 Chicago schools, sponsored by the foundation of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who joined Ritz on VERGE’s Building a Better Food System for America’s Cities panel.

Like the farmers who work with Steward, the Green Bronx Machine’s student farmers pivoted when the pandemic hit, Ritz said in his keynote.

"As COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, it became the ultimate manifestation of three larger illnesses: racism; greed; and corruption," Ritz said. "And we found new ways to secure and distribute food to those who needed it most."

This has included providing weekly grocery delivery for 26 food-insecure patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, who are recovering from cancer, and for 55 of the most vulnerable families in the Bronx, across a 26-mile route that includes walk-up buildings.

"The truth is children want to be part of the conversation. The truth is children don’t let differences divide them. The truth is children are smarter than you think," Ritz said.

As COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, it became the ultimate manifestation of three larger illnesses: racism; greed; and corruption.

When New York was the epicenter of the pandemic — a place where by May, the virus had killed more than 20,000 people, primarily in under-privileged neighborhoods such as the South Bronx — food grown by a bunch of kids was delivered to families who may not have eaten otherwise.

The Green Bronx Machine joined community farms, urban farms and small family farms in offering a lifeline to their communities. They proved themselves resilient in a crisis, and their numbers are growing, but they remain a teeny, tiny part of the gargantuan American food system.

In 2017, there were 16,585 certified organic farms, a 17 percent increase from just a year earlier, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s latest Organic Survey, released this month. These farms accounted for 5.5 million certified organic acres, an increase of 9 percent over 2016.

This impressive growth marks the continuation of a decade-long trend. And yet, certified organic acres still represent less than 1 percent of the total 911 million acres of American farmland. (Although I should add that the survey’s three-year lag does not provide an up-to-date picture, and farms that use organic or regenerative practices but have not been certified don’t get counted.)

The main challenges for these farms is getting the infrastructure and operational capacity in place to support a growing customer base.

Curious to see whether the direct sales demand Steward’s farmers saw in the spring was continuing to hold, I checked back in with Miller. By email, he told me that demand had held and offered an example from Fisheye Farms, an urban farm in Detroit. Fisheye, he reported, already has sold out their entire winter CSA and is fielding inquiries for spring. CSA stands for "community supported agriculture," a system where customers buy "a share" of the farm. They pay a fixed rate to receive regular boxes of whatever’s in season. Every other week, from November through February, members of Fisheye’s winter CSA will receive spinach, kale, carrots, turnips, radishes, micro greens and more. The cost is $300, or about $38 a week.

"The main challenges for these farms is getting the infrastructure and operational capacity in place to support a growing customer base," Miller said in his email. "Even the farmers with the most demand still need capital to run better, as they can’t finance everything they need just on cash flow."

In other words, to replicate and scale what these farms do, and build distributed food systems that are resilient, sustainable, healthy and just, will take time, cooperation and a lot of green.

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