Climate Action Coffee Series: Building Equity and Promoting Drawdown in our Regional Food System

Susanne Lowen, TPSS Co-op Board Member

The Climate Action Coffee series convened a conversation at Busboys and Poets Takoma focused on moving toward greater food self-sufficiency while supporting carbon sequestration and equitable access to healthy food in our region. The November 4 conversation, hosted by the Takoma Alliance for Local Living Economy (TALLE) and TPSS Co-op, drew some 40-50 early risers, including County and State officials, non-profit and business leaders and activists as part of a weekly meeting intended to build community and promote climate action. 

Following a welcome by Karen Elrich and an invitation to enjoy free coffee, compliments of Busboys and Poets, Phil Bogdonoff of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate moderated the conversation circle rich with resource people. 

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Caroline Taylor, Executive Director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance (MCA). MCA’s objective, she said, is to create a robust rural community to produce food and fiber in the 94,000-acre Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. In partnership with the Sugarloaf Citizens Association, MCA is working to establish a regenerative food demo hub to support carbon sequestering farming practices. 

Understanding our food system in its entirety includes where we grow our food; how we aggregate, process, transport, distribute and prepare our food; how/where we consume our food; and the laws and statutes that govern the food system. Developing consumer-farmer relationships is a fundamental part of sustainable farming. We can better understand our role in supporting the practices we would like to see through forums like the Climate Action Coffee, conversations with farmers at farmers markets, farm visits and attending events in the Agricultural Reserve. 

Maryland District 20 Delegate Lorig Charkoudian gave a nod across the room to Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, noting that Montgomery County residents are lucky to have a leader who is paying attention to these issues. She is a founder of the Crossroads Community Food Network and former president of the TPSS Co-op Board. Del. Charkoudian has promoted changes in food policy on many fronts, from amending cottage food law to promoting institutional procurement of food directly from farmers in our region. 

Our work now is to reverse decades of bad food policy, including subsidies to Big Ag, cheap labor, and the use of pesticides and fossil fuels. These policies have not only destroyed agricultural lands, they have also undermined our local economies. When we start to do it right, we can address all of these issues: access to healthy food for everyone in our communities, healthy local economic development, addressing climate change through carbon sequestration, reducing food miles, and promoting composting infrastructure to reduce food waste in landfills and incinerators. 

The Montgomery County Food Council is a non-profit working to improve the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of Montgomery County through the creation of a robust, local, sustainable food system. Executive Director Heather Bruskin noted that we have an abundance of resources, but they are not shared equitably; many people are food insecure and the need for food and nutrition education is largely unmet in the County. The Food Council has a 5-year system strategy that begins with the individual, and extends to households, community groups, schools, and the institutions we engage with. Investments in regional food infrastructure (growing, aggregation, processing and distribution) will allow us to meet the food needs of high volume institutional buyers. The Food Council’s Food and Beverage Guide highlights local food producers in Montgomery County. 

Emphasizing the need to create greater self-sufficiency in our region, Bogdonoff noted that 70-90 percent of our food supply is trucked in from outside the County. With fossil fuel resources in decline, the economic impact will hit low income populations hardest. Marc Elrich interjected a note of optimism citing that new electric trucks can travel up to 500 miles. 

Montgomery County has a climate task force with 150 volunteers on five committees working on climate and sequestration issues. Elrich is pursuing new infrastructure ideas like a warehouse for aggregating food in Poolesville, close to many farms, and incubator kitchen(s) and food processing facilities in White Oak. Elrich referenced an app that’s being developed that would help restaurants contract crops from farmers in advance of the growing season, reducing a farmer’s risk in shifting away from the guarantees of commodity crops. 

Food systems leaders are pursuing a multitude of initiatives to address the climate crisis and its impending threat to the way we access our food. The beauty of restructuring our food systems in the pursuit of regional self-sufficiency is that we can simultaneously reduce the carbon in our atmosphere that is driving climate change. 

Zero waste initiatives are also an integral part of how we respond to climate change, with food recovery and composting as central components. The County is pursuing pay-as-you-throw initiatives which restructure how we pay for trash removal and create incentives for waste reduction. An estimated 30-40 percent of food waste can be recovered.

Montgomery County has also launched a plan to advance backyard and community composting, while Koiner Farm in downtown Silver Spring does community compost education focused on youth. 

New technologies to deal with waste in a regenerative way are being developed. Bogdonoff cited the Marin Carbon Project in California which illustrates how compost can dramatically revitalize dead soil and boost food production in fields by 30%. The Johnson-Su Bioreactor further advances existing composting technology. 

Food policy is a potent way to build coalitions across party lines, noted Del. Charkoudian. We’re trucking in food while farmers in our state struggle to keep their farms alive. In Maryland, Democrats and Republicans agree that structural changes must be made. Now, we have to do the creative thinking and coalition building. 

Buying locally is not enough. In the interest of protecting the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland has some of the strongest nutrient management requirements in the country. Neighboring Pennsylvania, however, has far weaker requirements, allowing Pennsylvania farms to dump polluting nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay watershed while affording them a cost advantage over Maryland farms. Del. Charkoudian discussed an initiative that would create an office that identifies compliant farmers who produce ‘bay-friendly foods’, aligning environmental policy on Bay protection with food procurement policy. Be prepared to support Del. Charkoudian in promoting this win-win policy solution!

In addition, we are losing Maryland farmland to saltwater intrusion: The need to support Maryland farmers is greater than ever. 

Ginia Avery from the Community Grocery Cooperative in Anacostia, spoke about an exciting grassroots initiative in DC Ward 8, where residents are organizing for control over the food choices in their community. The Co-op has created by-laws, incorporated, and is working to build membership through community engagement. After broken promises from Walmart and the closure of Murray’s grocery, “Citizens are determined to never let someone else decide if we have fresh foods. We have to have 50 percent of community members invested in the process or we won’t do it,” said Avery. Organizers envision a community institution with space for pop-ups, outdoor concerts and delivery services, owned and run by people in the community and creating wealth in the community. 

Thrive Montgomery 2050, the general development plan proposed by MNCPPC, the County’s planning commission, is failing to address climate change and equity, and is focused on development, promoting significant expansion of  impervious surfaces. The good news: there’s time to get involved and change the direction of the plan. Check out the website. Take the ‘quiz’! Citizen input in the early stages (now!) can create a necessary shift toward more climate-wise options at later decision-points. 

The ‘Building Equity and Promoting Drawdown in our Regional Food System’ conversation continues on November 13 with Lindsay Smith, Regional Food Systems Value Chain Coordinator, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). Smith co-authored the COG report ‘What Our Region Grows’