Why Ken Meter Is on a Mission to Build Community Food Webs | Civil Eats

Why Ken Meter Is on a Mission to Build Community Food Webs

A farmstand selling community-grown food. (Photo CC-licensed by Suzie's Farm)

In 1910, farmers earned 40 cents for every dollar in sales. Today, they only earn a penny from each dollar, the result of a drastic consolidation of farm ownership centered on a few big commodity crops such as corn and soy. More of our food is imported than ever before, says food systems analyst Ken Meter, while our agricultural system “systematically extracts wealth” from both farmers and farm communities while dividing farmers from consumers. Over time, he writes, farm policy shifted from being supportive to “compensating farmers for the fact that markets are fundamentally unfair.”

Meter has spent the past 50 years writing and working to build equitable communities and food systems. His new book, Building Community Food Webs, defines a food web as “overlapping networks of grassroots leaders and organizations working to define their own food choices. In it, he sketches out how the industrial, commodity-centered food system has drained wealth from rural communities, tells stories of food web building across the country, and draws from the lessons he’s learned to create a road map for the next generation of food systems leaders.

Meter’s father, the son of a Nebraska farmer, “did everything he could to get away from agriculture and the austere small town he grew up in.” Yet, Meter says, he missed the land and his hometown until the day he died in 1985. For this reason, rural agriculture held a mystique for Meter that set him first on a path as a journalist in 1970s rural Minnesota. He met farmers, bankers, and economic development officers fighting to set up interdependent businesses that would protect their communities from large corporate food interests—experiences that later led him to work on inner-city and rural capacity building and promoting local food systems.

Civil Eats spoke to Meter about the resilience of community food webs, how commodity farming saps resources from rural communities, and why not all local food is the same.

This book is such a valuable distillation of decades of research on what you call community food webs, or food systems. What made you decide to write this book now?

It’s a book I’ve been trying to write for 40 years, but I kept getting swept up in community projects. Early in my career, the farm economy turned extractive. The 1973 oil crisis had erupted, and the U.S. was shelling out billions to buy oil at high prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to recover those dollars by exporting more grain, so they told farmers to “get big or get out” of agriculture. Thousands of farms expanded but couldn’t repay the debts they took on. That led to the farm credit crisis of the mid-‘80s. I began to measure how that expansion drained money from rural communities. But when I spoke about the extractive economy, I got blank stares, people just didn’t understand. Now, the awareness is there, and my book has the numbers.

You describe how a system that prioritizes industrially sized efficiencies and exports products such as corn and soy has siphoned as much as $4 trillion away from local communities. Does that serve as a wake-up call when you speak?

My favorite moment came when I was speaking to a group of mostly ranchers in Albuquerque, New Mexico about 15 years ago. I was on a panel and gave my spiel. Right after, a rancher stood up and said, “I have to compose myself for a minute, because Ken just told the story of my life.” He pointed to the ups and downs of federal farm policy and said he could see those peaks and valleys in his own life. One poignant moment was when a farmer in his 80s shuffled up to the mic with a cane and said, “You don’t understand, I have these debts to pay.” He believed my analysis, but as a good farmer he was stuck in the system and was going to pay his debt.

How often have you witnessed [commodity] farmers recognizing the impossibility of continuing on the path they’ve been on and turning to the work of building a resilient and sustainable local food web?

At a meeting about artisanal grains in Minnesota about three years ago, we had five farmers show up for the first time. One farmer said, “I can’t keep farming the way I have been.” The survival of his farm was in the balance. That’s pretty easy for most farmers to understand today, because 2018 farm income was lower than during the Depression. (That was before the pandemic, I haven’t a chance to analyze the data since then.) But there’s a core group of farmers whose mentality is to buy as much land as possible, have the biggest equipment possible, and produce as much as possible. Many younger farmers are eager to reach out and are making important small steps to a better future; there’s a whole crop of BIPOC farmers who are getting mobilized, reaching out in ways that may be the future of agriculture.

You talk about how most smaller-scale farms that sell locally send their produce to distant metro areas, while nearby lower-income neighborhoods aren’t being adequately served. Can you talk about how regional food webs can build in food access to low-income neighborhoods?

The key is personal relationships—getting to know people intimately, understanding the conditions they face, and working through mutual trust. I would start by learning how food webs are already being built in low-income areas and constructing a system of support to strengthen those efforts. One key for me is creating food webs in areas where people can gain skills in growing, harvesting, preparing, and eating good food, and integrate these skills into daily life. People are learning and sharing with each other constantly—but often these efforts are marginalized because they’re outside of the formal economy or small in scope.

You write that “to reduce our food’s dependence on fossil fuels and to obtain the freshest foods possible, we need to localize our food supplies. Still, I have come to realize that reducing the miles food travels is more of an outcome of making better choices, rather than the purpose of food work.” Can you elaborate?

This goes to the distinction between “local food” and “community food systems.” If our priority is to simply reduce food miles, then a confined animal operation near my home may be an important source of food for me. But that’s not an operation I want to support. Prioritizing “local” [alone] leaves me vulnerable to this type of corporate-run entity, which might want to greenwash their efforts. It’s far harder to build community by constructing healthier food systems—food webs—but these are also harder to co-opt. Food webs, to my thinking, are self-managed, democratic food systems that require farmers and consumers to be in direct contact.

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Your book highlights the importance of trust within food webs. You also give examples of rare networks that can survive over generations. How can a budding food web ensure its longevity when so much rests on trust between individuals?

The key is to build a culture of collaboration that allows it to survive across generations. This is what Indigenous cultures mostly do so much better than ours. In our extractive economy, a culture of collaboration often flourishes within the cooperative movement, in some nonprofits and universities, and among some exemplary private firms or business clusters that take a long-term view. This culture waxes and wanes over generations and through business cycles. So often the skills in collaborating get passed down from grandparent to grandchild, sometimes skipping one generation as youths rebel from their elders. Still, the values persist.

The extractive economy was created by public policy, you point out, and can be undone by it as well. What are the policies you most want to see rolled back or implemented?

What I would most like to see implemented has not been picked up on in policy circles yet, but it is major grants, drawing on an allocation in the $500 million range, that support the growth of community-based food systems initiatives. We want to think about a food policy more than a farm policy because we can’t answer all the problems we’ve created simply by making farming better. But federal policy can compensate for the extraction of wealth. I would like to see dedicated funds that communities can leverage to strengthen the food systems they are creating.

Many have commented on the phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic driving consumers to seek out local foods because they’ve realized the importance of local food systems and want to supporting local farmers. How lasting is this change?

I think people will tend to go back to whatever has been convenient in the past, so I’m concerned. But, from all the evidence, we can expect more pandemics in the future. As that awareness sinks in, we have a much better chance of developing long-term plans that are more resilient. I was heartened to get a call from an area in the Midwest I had done work for eight years ago. We got a meaningful but small response then, but farmers had a hard time convincing local policy makers to invest in food systems. This time, one of the partners in that effort contacted me because local officials were expressing strong interest in doing food planning. People realize how vulnerable we all are, especially as they see meat processing plant workers and people harvesting strawberries getting ill.

When you see community food webs coming up against global markets and large-scale investors, do you ever wonder whether working at the community level can make any real difference? Do small food webs stand a chance  against the power of extractive global agri-business?

This is a question I wrestle with often. As difficult as this work can be, I don’t see any better alternative. Extractive mechanisms are inherently large-scale, based on political decisions that are large-scale. My work in food systems also tells me that there is no path to creating healthy food systems simply by focusing on farm policy in isolation from other issues such as consumer policies, health care, or tax policies. Agriculture by itself cannot solve the issues that plague agriculture.

Our society is so large and complex, yet ironically, I think the initiatives that best take this complexity into account happen at the local level—at least at first—where people can take a holistic view and build personal trust. Until we have a constituency of people operating from that foundation, it is very difficult to write effective farm, food, consumer, or tax policies. Part of the work of food systems is to build community support, so the system can survive shifting political winds. We’re getting better food and soil policy now because of food webs that went unrecognized in the 1970s, which in turn drew from food webs of the 1930s, and even earlier cycles. And now, we have a whole new diverse generation rolling up their sleeves.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance writer and editor who covers agroecology, food, sake, and Japanese arts and culture. She has been a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Time, The Toronto Globe and Mail, NPR’s The Salt, and TheAtlantic.com, among other publications. She is the co-author of Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth, and blogs on that topic here. Read more >

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  1. Ameya Majmudar
    Dope article! This is EXACTLY the wisdom I am trying to build in the Greater Seattle Area. Local, regenerative food networks built on personal relationships themselves built on work, meeting mutual needs. Getting food to "low-income" folks is a high priority. We're working to tackle that with workshares, mutual aid and more. The cultural aspect is essential as noted, but we're aiming even more upstream: the spiritual aspect of all this. To re-indigenize, our people have to see themselves as part of the greater ecological web, which is in my opinion the most momentous challenge. Thanks for your work Ken, we're reppin ya over in Seattle :-)

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