New England Can Feed Itself: A Vision for Regional Food Resilience

A resilient regional food system can work, argue food experts, but the existence of a shared vision is key. (Photo: Chase's Farm / Laura Chase /

New England Can Feed Itself: A Vision for Regional Food Resilience

Earlier this month, one hundred people gathered at a church in Jamaica Plain, MA, to consider this question: Can New England Feed Itself?

The answer is yes, New England can feed itself - at least halfway. Food Solutions New England's Food Vision(pdf), a rigorous analysis of New England's history and natural resources, claims that our region could produce at least half of our own food if we farm three times as much land (up from 5% to 15% of our landmass) and shift from a "Business as Usual" diet to the "Omnivore's Delight." In a different scenario, called "Regional Reliance," the Vision finds we could produce 70% of our food within our six states. Either of these scenarios represents a vast improvement over the current system, where only 10% of food is produced regionally.*

But before we get any further, it's important to remind ourselves why we want regional food. "If we want a local or regional food system," says Brian Donahue, the evening's main speaker, "it's important to ask: Why? What values are we truly serving?"

Brian is a professor of American Environmental Studies at Brandeis and a sheep farmer. He is also a lead author of A New England Food Vision, and he answers his own question by explaining that a local/regional food system does a better job at providing healthy food for all, supporting sustainable farming and fishing, and supporting thriving communities. These are the core values of the Vision.

So let's get specific. In the Omnivore's Delight scenario, New England would produce:

  • all of its own vegetables (half of which would be grown in small plots in urban and suburban areas),
  • half its own fruit,
  • some of its grain and dry beans, and
  • all its own dairy, meat, seafood, and other animal products.

We would continue to import grain for our animals and ourselves, tropical fruits like bananas and oranges, and items like sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, and spices.

The Vision makes use of New England's natural strengths, such as pastureland for cows and sheep, orchards for apples, and bogs for cranberries, while acknowledging that it is quite difficult to grow grain here. Grains are also a relatively good food to transport - they are comparatively light weight, store well, and can be sent on barges to local ports.

The Omnivore's delight scenario also acknowledges that few people will be inspired by a diet that has no oranges, coffee, chocolate, or sugar, and so creates a Vision that still allows for these imports. Rather than push people to sacrifice and give up specialty items, Omnivore's Delight offers an attractive alternative that could be enhanced if real crisis requires us to push further toward regional reliance.

There's value to imports beyond simply taste, according to Brian. He noted that historically, when people have relied exclusively on a small area for their food, they suffered periodic cycles of mass starvation. The lesson is that in order to be resilient, a food system must be linked to other regions through trade. No matter what the future holds, Brian argues, New England would do well to import some food.

How Farming is Like Baseball

In order to achieve this vision, we will need a lot more farmers. To make this point, Eva Agudelo of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative (NIFTI) asked the audience if anyone was familiar with baseball. Everyone raised their hand (except the one Brit in the audience), though no one in the room was a professional baseball player.

Eva made the point that every American, if thrust onto a baseball field, knows the basics of what to do: swing the bat, run the bases, etc. "Farming should be like that," says Eva. "Only the most ambitious and talented people will ever be full-time, professional baseball players--or farmers." But there are many other levels of involvement, from Little League to the City League to Triple A. If every American knew the basics of farming--as in, how to "run the bases"--and many were good enough for minor league farming, we'd go a long way toward producing the food needed for the Vision. (Not to mention how much fun we'd have digging in the dirt and making fresh strawberry pie.)

What's in that Fish Stick?

The Food Solutions New England Vision relies on seafood for protein. There's no way around it. But Brett Tolley pointed out that the seafood in the Vision isn't anything like the fish stick you encountered at your school's cafeteria. Brett is the son of a fisherman, and when he was in school he found these fish sticks not only disgusting, but "somehow embarrassing."

To make matters worse, Brett's Dad told him that the "fish" in the fish stick probably came from "very far away," while the fish he caught here in New England also went someplace "very far away." And in fact 90% of the fish we eat in the United States is imported from other countries, while most of the seafood caught in New England doesn't stay here.

We have an enormous, and enormously important, task ahead of us if we want to revive our fisheries and ensure living wages for fisher-folk. Luckily, the folks at Brett's organization, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, are working on this. You can read more and get involved at their website.

Is 50% Enough?

After the event wound down, the buzz in the room centered on a question many were uncomfortable asking publicly: is 50% really enough? It's a big question. Food Solutions New England has their reasons for landing on a 50% Vision, but the conversation is far from over.

There is widespread agreement that the "Business As Usual" food system needs to change. And in fact it will change, as pressures from a changing climate, resources shortages, and economic instability create a new landscape here in New England. The Vision offers us an opportunity to educate ourselves on what is possible for New England even as things shift, and to dream about what is desirable.

Furthermore, a vision can provide some guidance for getting to the system we want, but getting there will take the collaboration of millions of New Englanders. That's why Karen Spiller, the evening's final speaker, urged us to make the Vision a living document. She reminds us: "We all have a lot to offer to make this a living vision, building it together, and enjoying it together."

Like anything else that's going to be sustainable, our food system must be a labor of love. Luckily, growing food and catching fish have long been enjoyable ways of life for New Englanders, from the native inhabitants to today's permaculture and urban agriculture enthusiasts. If we continue in this spirit of experimentation and enjoyment, and help others find their roles in the emerging system, then we're on the right track.

* The percentages come from the number of cultivated acres required for various diets - for example, in the Omnivore's Delight, half the acres under cultivation would be in New England, and half elsewhere, thus 50%.

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