Summer 2017

Big Goals for Local Food

A visionary report points New England toward a truly sustainable future.

By Beth Cameron

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Alpine goats on a dairy farm in Harrison, Maine. Photo: Edwin Remsberg/Alamy

Amanda Beal, N12, the president and chief executive of the Maine Farmland Trust, sees a food dilemma brewing in New England. She says the region imports 90 percent of its food, tethering it to a global food system that prioritizes cheap production over environmental stewardship, encourages unhealthy eating habits and destabilizes rural economies.

But Beal is optimistic that it’s not too late to tweak the recipe and secure a healthier future for the region. To that end, she and eight other food system experts (including three other Tufts alumni) created “A New England Food Vision,” a set of goals that point the way to a future in which at least half the foods New Englanders eat are locally produced.

To get to “50 by 60” (producing 50 percent of foods locally by 2060), New England could grow most of its vegetables, half of its fruit, some of its grain and dry beans, and all of its dairy, beef and other animal products. The new approach could revitalize the region’s once-booming farming and fishing industries and safeguard its natural resources, while also helping combat the epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Achieving those ambitious goals would require fundamental shifts in the New England diet, landscape and economy. For example people could consume a more diverse diet with less meat and refined grains and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. That would mean tripling the amount of land used for food production to 6 million acres—about 15 percent of New England’s total land area. The region would also have to focus on training the next generation of farmers and helping them make farming financially sustainable. “I grew up in a farming family, and it’s clear to me that most farmers are not paid a fair wage for the work they do,” said Beal. “That’s a signal of dysfunction.”

The report, released in June 2014, is already influencing policy and project development across the region. At the University of New Hampshire, graduate students are investigating land-use changes, while undergrads are developing recipes to support the vision’s dietary guidelines. At the state level, the new Massachusetts Food Systems Plan and Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Strategic Plan draw heavily on the food vision. It also inspired Maine Farmland Trust’s “Farming for Wholesale” initiative, a business-planning program that teaches farmers how to scale up production to reach more consumers and provides seed money to put their plans into practice. “The vast majority of consumers shop in supermarkets and other retail stores,” Beal said, “so to markedly increase access to locally and regionally produced food, we need to be working on getting this food onto our store shelves.”

Beal and her coauthors, including Linda Berlin, NG06, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont; Joanne Burke, AG77, NG77, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire; and Tom Kelly, F88, FG94, director of the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute, are building on that momentum. Creating the report took three years of brainstorming, research and gathering public feedback; making it a reality promises to be a decades-long journey. “I probably won’t see the end result,” Beal said, “but if I can do my part to move us in the right direction, I’m happy.”

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