Long Island mustn't forget farms and food sources that nourish...

Long Island mustn't forget farms and food sources that nourish people and the economy. Credit: Donna Grethen

Food on Long Island is at a crossroads. We have a diverse population offering an array of international cuisines, a history rich in farming and fishing and a burgeoning movement to promote locally grown products. Yet, despite these strengths, we still face challenges ranging from food production to waste disposal. If not addressed, these threats can be harmful to our economic, environmental and social well-being.

That is one of the conclusions of the Long Island Food System Report Card. The study, released by Sustainable Long Island and Adelphi University's Vital Signs Project, assessed the region's food system -- the range of processes that keep our population fed. The report card measured 31 economic, environmental and social health indicators in five sectors, including food production, processing, distribution, access and disposal.

In many ways, the problems identified in the report mirror those in other places across the country. They stem from the modernization and globalization of the American food system, dating back more than 50 years, when changes in production and policy encouraged a rapid shift from small-scale farming to industrialized agriculture. While there are upsides to the contemporary system, they are tempered by challenges associated with environmental health, social equity and cost. On Long Island, these are compounded by homegrown conditions, like our area's high cost of living.

Even as agriculture remains important to our economy, local farms are shrinking in number and size. The majority of food grown or caught on Long Island is sold elsewhere. Rising food costs and the economic downturn have led to a dramatic surge in food bank clients and enrollment in federal food programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

But with investment and changes in processing, packaging and distribution, we could generate new funding for our local economy and provide fresh food to Long Islanders in a more viable manner.

The current food system is also susceptible to disruptions caused by severe weather. We experienced this after superstorm Sandy, when power outages and gasoline shortages impeded food shipments to retailers and kept consumers from traveling to stores.

So we need to take a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to promoting a more sustainable food system. This new approach must consider the position of local food production within regional, national and global food networks, finding the scale and degree of interconnection that works best for Long Island. Recommendations identified by the report card include:

Investment in distribution hubs, packaging and processing centers to preserve and expand Long Island's regional food system.

Economic diversification in farming -- such as more agro-tourism or enabling more energy production, such as wind power, on farms. These would enhance the industry as one of the region's economic engines.

New initiatives to increase food access and reduce food insecurity for all Long Islanders, such as expanding eligibility requirements for SNAP.

Protection of the region's water supply, farmland and air quality for long-term environmental health and viability.

Creation of a regional food system council to promote communication, coordination, and collection and assessment of information.

Our region's food system is multidimensional, affecting our environment, economy and social life. It also shapes our culture, identity and sense of community. When it comes to food, we all have a stake.


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