Who we are, what we bring to the food and ag table, and why you should be part of us.
How the existing food system falls short, how it became what it is, and what it means to create a good system.
Understanding the hierarchy of food, the local production/consumption gap, and costs/efficiencies in the food system.
A physical and operational description of a local food system concept that would be robust for people and sustainable in all ways.
Dialogue to attract resources that can carry local food into the mainstream of commerce and society.
Send your comments and questions to participate in the dialogue.
About Us is About You. It’s starts with how you answer some questions. Would you like to help build a local food system that serves everyone? Should consumers have access, on the day of harvest, to a wide variety of fresh plant and animal food? Should local farmers have full access to local markets? Shouldn't the food system be an open platform to achieve best design and sustainability? We are everyone who answers yes.
This website is a starting point to turn yes into reality. It offers a concept rooted in tradition and enabled by technologies. We want thoughtful response from interested people, so we describe that concept, its motivation, and its benefits to society. We present ideas that derive from numbers, and for brevity do not cite here the many facts and sources supporting those ideas. Demonstration and proof of concept are yet to come.
To clear the air for the message of this website, let’s recognize a few aspects of where society stands on food. First, seasonal food is not local, industrial farms are not local, and “fresh” labels are not local; they are attempts to satisfy buyer desires with something that satisfies sellers, which we’ll explain. Second, most people are unable to eat well in the status quo and are “living with” the nutritional shortcomings of the current food system. Third, the broad change sought here is long overdue, and a sense of urgency is required to make it happen.
In one generation, cell phones and digital media have pushed wired phones and newsprint into the social background. In one generation, renewable and endless energy, produced closer to where it is used, will have relegated fossil fuels to smaller roles in commerce with smaller harm to nature. And in one generation, the biggest, most vital field of human enterprise, food and agriculture, will undergo a renaissance. The food that most people eat will be better, the production of food will be more democratic, and nature will be treated with more respect.
We know what’s wrong with the industrialized food systems of advanced countries and with the resource-starved food systems of developing countries. We know that every year, around the globe, millions suffer or die from diseases they would not contract if they ate healthier food. We know that large parts of populations lack access to a year-round variety of fresh food. We know that local farmers have lost their local markets to industrial enterprises.
I began in 2013 to monitor work in Controlled Environment Agriculture at Cornell University, and in 2019 started to seriously consider the whole food system with CEA as a key piece. Giving priority to the freshness of perishable foods resulted in a concept that efficiently blends advanced and traditional methods on a moderate scale to pursue an ambitious goal, which is to build systems that give consumers year-round access on the day of harvest to a nutritional variety of fresh plant and animal foods produced locally. A significant advantage of the resulting concept is that its simple architecture offers all the benefits society could want.
Billions are being invested in food and agriculture to increase food safety and security, improve large-scale production efficiency, enhance convenience for consumers, reduce food waste, shorten food supply chains, reduce farming impact on nature, better preserve foods, etc. These represent new components and subsystems that leave the existing system in place. What sets apart Building Local Food is that it replaces the existing system with a better way to treat fresh foods.
Building Local Food is pointing the way. You can be a part of Us.
Prior to transatlantic transport, there were no tomatoes in Italy, no potatoes in the British Isles, and no corn in Spain. The western hemisphere had no wheat, no oranges, and no bananas. Global trade introduced people everywhere to the variety and abundance of nature around the globe. Since then the industrial practices of the world have been heavily applied to food production, distribution and retailing. It’s now time to consider, given where the business of food has taken society, to dedicate policy and resources to a better food system. For that we first need an idea that’s comprehensive about food, consumers, and producers. An idea that’s practical to implement. An idea that treats people and nature with full respect. An idea this website brings to the public. It’s a concept motivated by societal need, derived from fundamental understandings, and full of value. It lays groundwork for you and others to develop business plans, startup companies, and products people want.
Many people eat poorly because good food is not available where they live. For them, the food system has replaced fresh farm food with aging food produced and distributed by industrial methods, and supplemented by factory foods preserved and sold through supermarkets and convenience stores. An indication of how the existing system creates poor outcomes is that many people living in the heart of farm country have even less access to good food than some in cities far from farms.
Our food system has contributed to poor public health. Adult obesity rates in the US are roughly in a range between 20% and 40% among states, annual revenues in the weight control industry have been estimated at over $60 billion, and negative effects of obesity on human health have been well documented. The food system captures markets with high volume, low prices and low quality. It hurts the many small farmers who once served local markets. Local food movements like food cooperatives, farmers’ markets, community-sponsored agriculture, farm-to-school programs and farm hubs operate on the fringe of this system, but all together they influence only a small fraction of the food people eat. Observations around the world reveal varying degrees of what we see in the US, but global trends are mostly in the wrong direction. We’ve been living for generations with this system that inflicts hurt upon society and nature worldwide. We're concerned about its hold on what we eat and alarmed about its effects on climate change. If we want good food for everyone while treating nature with respect, we need a better food system.
The supply chain of the existing food system is too long to deliver fresh foods and has too many hands for anyone to be accountable to local markets. Its negative effects on society are not being stopped by current policies, nor are they being reversed by agricultural technology. In fact, government support at all levels largely maintains the existing system, and the results of investments in big data, robotics, cultured meat, and vast greenhouses are being incorporated into the existing system, not transforming it.
New York State illustrates that we will not have "local food" until we determine how to narrow the existing large gap between where food is produced and where it is consumed. The areas of the two maps shown here represent relative dollar values of food. The large map represents food consumed within the state, and the small map represents food produced within the state.
Most important for nutrition and health, and also most perishable, are natural foods like leaf vegetables, seed vegetables, berries, herbs, fish, poultry and meat. These taste best, look best, have their best texture, and are most nutritious when they are fresh. To eat them when they retain all these qualities requires direct delivery to grocers, restaurants and institutions from nearby producers on the day of harvest. Less perishable are vegetables and fruits like potatoes, onions, apples, oranges and bananas that retain taste and nutrients over reasonable distribution and storage times experienced in the existing food system. Understanding the hierarchy of food focuses us on freshness for the most important, most perishable, natural foods. Embracing the need for direct delivery of those foods from producer to retailer leads us to a better food system.
A simple table tells us that, over time, perishable natural foods available to residents in most places have been turned on their head and need to be turned upright, not just seasonally but year-round. The table below identifies a clear goal for year-round production of the most important natural foods as the driver of a food system that would be better for both consumers and producers.
Perishable Natural Foods
Fresh Local Year-Round
(for consumers) (for producers) (not seasonally)
1950 yes yes no
2000 no no no
2050 yes yes yes
The primary challenge to the food system is therefore to make a wide variety of perishable food available fresh every day of the year wherever you live. “Available” means at competitive prices, otherwise the opportunity is curtailed for both consumers and producers. Meeting the challenge flies directly into the face of the existing system by suggesting that a local system of moderate scale can compete successfully with an industrial system of large scale. It means that efficiencies of design and operation in the new system must match efficiencies of scale in the present one.
Past considerations of local food systems for crops and livestock have suffered from unfavorable comparisons of production efficiencies at moderate scale relative to large scale. That has discouraged efforts to develop better local food systems for the mainstream of commerce and relegated fresh foods to marginal and high end retailing. But devotion to high-volume production of one or a few crops has ignored the large public costs incurred by the existing system. These include public monies for dams and pipelines to access water, public monies that build and maintain highways, public monies to rescue the environment, public monies to subsidize producers, and public monies to assist people adversely affected by the present system. Consumers are paying taxes that include amortized amounts for all these public costs of food, and in return they don’t even have access to fresh food. All this suggests that a better food system is a superior value proposition for consumers, and to make the point, reputable organizations are quantifying total costs and true prices of products in ways that apply to food and reveal how much better consumer choices could be.
Large-scale control of grain once concentrated great wealth in the hands of the pharaohs; today’s pharaohs have expanded the scope of food control to include wide varieties of perishable plant and animal foods. That outcome hurts farmers and consumers, but the industry structure that supports it with the help of government contains weakness by focusing on economy of scale. That is not the only path to competitive prices, and it does not deliver fresh foods to the population. The way for a local food system to succeed is to meet prevailing market prices with the higher value proposition that the existing food system cannot match. Here we describe a local food system that among other things allows reputable organizations to predict how competitive its prices can be.
Visualize yourself sitting in a restaurant, your back to the street, looking toward the rear at the kitchen and bakery behind a dividing half-wall. To your right you see, through a glass wall, the interior of a state-of-the-art greenhouse where vegetables, herbs and berries are growing, like the ones in the lunch you just ordered. To your left you see, through a glass wall with an entrance from the restaurant, a grocery store where more of the same kinds of produce, without packaging, are displayed. Your neighbor, who just finished having lunch at the table next to yours, is shopping there for the meat and vegetables of tonight’s dinner at home.
The greenhouse is growing many varieties of leafy greens, seed vegetables, root vegetables, herbs, and berries in compartments that control temperature, humidity and CO2 content of the air, the nutrients in the water, and the spectrum and intensity of lighting, to optimize conditions for each variety. Schedules for growing and harvesting the right batch sizes of each variety are controlled by orders for deliveries to the restaurant, the grocery store, and local institutions under contracts. Less than one hour’s drive from this complex are farms and processors that deliver fresh fish, poultry, meat and cheese as well as other vegetables and fruits directly to the grocer, the restaurant, and the institutions.
Greenhouse/grocer/restaurant complexes of the type described would be sized above an economic minimum to serve both rural and urban populations. Farms and processors scattered among these complexes would each supply multiple such complexes with foods delivered on the day harvested. Less–perishable and non-perishable foods would be purchased by the grocer, restaurant and institutions through existing distribution channels. The resulting network, in which each complex is a sizable customer for a wide variety of fresh plant and animal foods from nearby producers and processors, is thus designed to prioritize fresh local foods for consumers and provide steady, year-round business for all owners and employees in the network.
This system constitutes a vertically and horizontally integrated concentration of production, processing, preparation, shopping and consumption that creates a robust local food system. It is a moderate-scale network of better food for consumers and renewed opportunity for producers. It can work for complexes located in rural communities and in cities, with configuration differences that adapt to differing populations and real estate situations. It can also work around the world for the choices of fresh foods that vary widely with culture.
Local food systems as described would make excellent sources for educational and healthcare institutions to contract with the grocer, farmers and processors for fresh food supply. They would serve as fertile training grounds for agricultural and culinary students from local trade schools and community colleges. They would be ideal as incubators for entrepreneurs who wish to launch careers and businesses. And they give agriculture and food investments a framework for better environmental, social and governance outcomes.
An owner/operator of the complex can act as farmer, grocer and chef, managing an operation that spans purchasing, production and retailing focused on fresh foods. Each employee in the complex can alternate among growing, preparing and serving food in response to ongoing customer demands. Employees have the opportunity to shift throughout the day among tasks, developing a wider range of skills than they do in conventional food businesses.
In winter as well as summer, fresh foods flow through the network with no intermediaries. Food is delivered, the same day it is harvested, directly to the complex with minimal handling and packing. Supply and demand are closely joined, with little storage of food. Shortage and waste are minimized, with grocer and restaurant sharing supplies to meet demand without excessive order amounts. Farming and eating are brought together to blend the best traditions with capabilities that continually expand through technology. The system offers a path to better food for consumers as well as new opportunity for farmers, processors, grocers and chefs.
At the complex, consumers are intimately connected to good food in ways not offered by traditional grocers and restaurants. They see the farmer, grocer and chef as one. They taste the results of having production and processing close to the restaurant and grocer. They will understand the nutritional value of accessing local foods of wide variety every day of the year. They will appreciate the direct educational experience offered by such a food system, be drawn to it, and realize the benefits of it. These are all reasons the system can enter the mainstream of business volume at competitive pricing for the general population.
This network designed for fresh plant and animal food encourages young farmers and chefs to cooperate in the kind of local enterprise that can revitalize communities. It’s a road map for entrepreneurs and investors to pool human and financial resources in a sustainable endeavor. It invites consumers to connect personally with the story of food, worldwide and local, historic and living. It creates a setting that encourages consumers to improve their habits, choose better food and enjoy better health.
Food policy for generations has favored large scale in agriculture to promote high volumes and low prices at the sacrifice of low quality. It has abetted a food system in which natural foods perish in transit and unnatural foods dominate the market. It has separated people from good food and lowered their expectations for quality in what they buy and eat. Various food movements in recent decades have made little impact on this system. What’s new about the system described here in concept is that we have identified a practical way to bring quality food of wide variety into the mainstream for the general population.
What we’ve offered here is an open source concept that should become reality and is not yet being promoted by any significant resources, entity or program. Its roots are in many people, long study, and much work around the world, not in an industry or a government. Its essence is in respect for good food, integrating the food system, combining new technology with old know-how, and pursuing value. It’s a practical proposal that’s loaded with opportunities and challenges. In the hands of a virtual community, the concept can be refined, developed and demonstrated.
This is where you come in. Does what you’ve read here support your thinking about the food system or your work in it? Are you aware of study or work that reinforces or refutes the food system concept described here? Does your association, university or startup have an educational or commercial interest in this subject matter? Are you looking to connect with people who want to be part of a fundamental and comprehensive approach to local food? Use the message symbol in the lower right corner of any page here, or the Contact Us page below to respond to what you’ve read.
Beginning with dialogue, we can participate in the creation of a food system driven by what people want and society needs. We can help universities, institutions, associations and government officials see the broad social enterprise and public benefits that the system represents. Entrepreneurs will recognize the opportunities inherent in the system, develop business models, and attract investors. Building a real local food system is a big deal. It improves the health of the population, distributes wealth fairly, helps to save the planet, and elevates the culture of society.