50 X 60: A New England Food Vision

By Leigh Belanger

The Greenway is a crowded ribbon of parkland, packed with people and exhibits during the Boston Local Food Festival. It’s warm and cloudless and the festival is buzzing with activity. We move through the crowd, shedding layers and taking in the booths with grass-fed dairy products, sustainable lumber, and sweet apple cider. Music chimes from a far-off stage. Whiffs of coffee and garlic from a cooking demo mix with the tangy salt air coming off the harbor. If you didn’t know it was happening, it would have been easy to miss the public launch (appropriately made at the festival supporting local foods) of 50 x 60: A New England Food Vision—a report issued by Food Solutions New England, a regional collaborative network coordinated by the University of New Hampshire and organized around the effort to “transform the New England food system into a resilient driver of healthy food, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” The Vision’s central idea is that by 2060, New England could produce 50% of its own food—if the right series of choices were made to enable that shift in both production and consumption. A New England Food Vision had its start in 2009 after a group of food systems experts visited Tuscany to learn about that region’s food and farming culture. They returned wanting to “capture the open landscape and the food culture of Tuscany,” where farming is diverse and food and cooking are based on local and seasonal availability, says lead author Brian Donahue, professor of history at Brandeis University. A small group decided to work up some data to figure out whether it would be possible for New England to increase agricultural production in a meaningful way. Several years and many collaborations later, 50 x 60 was produced. The report’s authors emphasize that enabling this level of regional self-reliance would depend on choice: “the choices of thousands of property owners about how to manage their land, millions of consumers about how to eat, and all New Englanders, collectively, about the policies that support an equitable and resilient food system.” Interest in buying local food and supporting local farms has been swelling for a decade. But despite the growth of farmers markets and the popularity of Community Supported Agriculture programs in the region, New England only produces 12% of the food it consumes. And our farmers still can’t always pay the bills with farming alone. Most of the food we do eat is part of a global food system that’s had poor effects on both public health and social and environmental sustainability. Access to food, local or otherwise, isn’t equitable. Food insecurity is on the rise in New England; 10-15% of the region’s population does not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. Struggling farmers, diet-related disease, a degraded environment, growing hunger—it’s a food-related crisis, say the 50x60 authors, which a robust regional food system could fix, as long as there are plenty of participants—producers and consumers, states, cities and towns, urban and rural residents. --- It’s windy. A hand-lettered farm sign is banging against its post when I pull up to Land’s Sake Farm in Weston to meet 50 x 60’s lead author Donahue. He was a co-founder of Land’s Sake in 1980 and helped shape its mission to educate and engage area residents in the role of agriculture in civic life. Donahue waves to various workers as we walk the fields and bends down to admire the growth on a row of hairy vetch. His long beard and thatch of graying curls make him look like he could have been farming here in the post-Civil War era, a time when farms in Weston were likely ramping up intense production of products like milk, poultry, produce, and fruit to meet the growing demands of the Boston market. It’s that kind of history lesson we could look to, says Donahue, to inform the changes we’d need to make on the production end of the food system in order to meet the 50 x 60 goal. In Donahue and his colleagues’ vision, the amount of farmland available for production would triple, from under 2 million acres to around 6 million. Some forested land would be cleared to meet this goal—mostly young forest that grew up over abandoned pastures and fields after World War II. This kind of change, as the report points out, depends as much on public policy as it does on institutional and personal choices. Farm subsidies would need to be redirected to support sustainable production, rather than support overproduction of commodity crops. And property owners—cities and towns, or private residents—would need to participate in conservation efforts to protect farmland from development pressure. Even behavior change needs policy support, argues Joanne Burke, a co-author of the report and the Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Sustainability Institute. 50 x 60 is built on the idea that healthy food for all is a basic right. Alongside universal food access is the vision that New Englanders’ diets will be plant-based and diverse, with fruits and vegetables at the center, and that consumption of meat and refined grains will be much lower than they are right now. It’s a profound change, says Burke, and needs to be supported through multiple strategies. Media and marketing play a role (although reform is needed in terms of the types of foods that are most heavily marketed); Farm-to-School programs bring healthier food to schools and engage children in the topics of health and nutrition—“kids, in turn, can teach their parents,” says Burke. Most important, she says, is securing a living wage for all people. “The living wage seems outside the [food systems] framework, but it’s not,” says Burke. People with stable incomes have better access to food that supports health, and a living wage could help narrow that disparity. And besides being a fundamental right, universal access to healthy, locally produced food supports the 50 x 60 vision of tripling agricultural production. “This market as a niche provider [of food] can still grow,” says Donahue, but to continue, “eventually we’ll need to increase demand.” As agricultural output grows along with the market for those goods, farming (and fishing) will become more viable enterprises, say the report’s authors. Supported by expanded regional demand, agriculture and fisheries that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable will also provide a decent living for farmers and fishers, the report posits. Fisheries pose a slightly more complicated picture than farming. It’s hard to count fish accurately, and even harder to project what the ocean may yield 45 years from now. Researcher and 50 x 60 co-author Amanda Beal worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to come up with a current average rate of production and consumption of local wild-caught seafood. “Currently, New England waters produce approximately 2.5 ounces per week of seafood for each person in the region,” Beal writes in the report. The report’s projected seafood consumption in 2060 suggests four ounces of locally caught seafood per person per week. Integrating locally caught seafood into the 50 x 60 vision focuses on enhancing sustainability efforts on land and at sea, like prioritizing healthy watersheds. “We need to think about how we’re expanding agriculture without having a negative impact on water quality,” says Beal. Protecting spawning grounds and nursery areas for fish is also a priority. Also critical, says Beal, is consumer education. Encouraging people to try a broader range of seafood species and teaching them cleaning and cooking techniques will help to expand the market for a more diverse range of sustainable seafood. A New England Food Vision is a big-thinking blueprint to reform our current food system into a regenerative and inclusive one. Imagining the possibilities for expanded food access, improved public and environmental health, and sustainable economic development in our region is inspiring. That was the intent, says Burke. “It’s not prescriptive,” she says. “It’s aspirational. The Vision allows us to see what’s possible.” For comprehensive change like this to happen, say the 50 x 60 authors, a major cultural shift must happen, too. Not only would people need to change their diets and make different choices about land use, we’ll all need to see our own stake in improving the food system and see ourselves as more than consumers, says Donahue. “We don’t want to concede these kinds of changes to the market,” he says. He and his co-authors and collaborators want people to engage as citizens in the food system—whether pushing for policy change or growing food in a community garden. And if enough citizens participate in working toward a just, equitable, and sustainable regional food system, the report’s authors have hope that their roadmap will help lead us there. Change is necessary, they say. “What we’re doing right now isn’t working,” says UNH’s Joanne Burke. “It’s not moral or ethical and it doesn’t make economic sense.” --- Leigh Belanger is a writer and consultant working with food-focused nonprofits and enterprises on communications strategy and content development.  Find Leigh on Twitter @leighbelanger, or on Tumblr: kitchenchalkboard.tumblr.com.