Focusing on “Ends” in the Nearby: One Example Related to our Local Food System

Posted: 23 November 2012 in Advocacy, Robert's Farm

Just over two years ago I wrote about the puzzle of the food production system in the farming county in which I live (Yolo, CA). Later, I added this more general critique of our modern food system. To summarize a bit of what I wrote I shared how we grow vast amounts of food, little of which is processed or consumed where we live. Pressures on land create strange complexities that place the entire food system at risk and our narrowly defined “solutions” lead to only greater complexity.

About a month ago one of our County Supervisors hosted a “food summit” to bring community members together to talk about these challenges and the added to the mix the realization that we have significant levels of food insecurity[i] and several “food deserts” in our county and that these are accompanied by high levels of childhood obesity.  If that all sounds bizarrely paradoxical, welcome (back) to our modern food system.

While I appreciated the summit and the contributions of very experienced food producers and various researchers, what I found lacking was a framework that we might use to define where we want to go—a framework that would lay out the ultimate goal of the local food system we want to create.

In the two articles linked to above I used the work of Jacques Ellul to illustrate the problem of “Technique” in our modern food system.  In decrying the lack of a goal for our local food system I return to Ellul.  In addition to calling out the challenges of Technique, Ellul argued that we are a society focused on “means” with a generalized inattention to “ends”.  Ellul argued that everything has become means (prodigious means he said) but there is no real sense of where they should take us. He found this to be, ultimately, dehumanizing.

The food summit confirmed Ellul’s points about this because we proceeded throughout the summit to discuss the means by which we might solve the particular problems without any real reference to where we would like to go.

I believe that if we are to face the challenges in our “nearby” (be they challenges related to feeding ourselves, dispensing justice, or dealing with homelessness related to mental health problems to name a few), we must work harder at defining some ends. These “ends statements” are not set in stone, indeed they should be about creating conversations that lead to greater clarity in our collective thinking so that when we proceed to the “means”, we can evaluate them in terms of whether or not they (arguably) take us towards the ends we have worked out together.

To that end, after the summit, I sat down with my notes and the (quickly fading) memory of what I had heard at the summit and wrote up a suggested vision and goals statement around which we might create a conversation.  I offer it here not as a model others might use in their communities, but rather as an example of the type of “ends framing” work I think we need to do more of if we are to face the many and growing challenges in our homes.

I take very seriously the work of creating peace and resilience in the nearby and am trying to put some flesh on the ideas about how to create robust “economies” in the places in which we live.  Hopefully you can find some inspiration from my suggested path.  Feedback is appreciated.


Toward a “Relational” Food System Policy for Yolo County


Vision: We envision a county in which childhood obesity and under-nutrition are unknown and in which residents eat with the rhythms of the season from farms the owners of which they know by name.

Goal: The goal of the Yolo County Food Policy is that less than 3 percent1 of children under 10 years of age2 are over- or underweight3, that they have access to a nutritious meals4 made primarily of seasonally available5 local foods6 from farms and farmers with which they have a personal connection7 and that their children’s children8 will experience the same.

Notes from the forgoing:

1 – In a healthy population some small percentage of children will be large or small for their age (or height).  Thus, the goal is not to reduce these numbers to zero but to about what would be expected in a healthy population.

2 – The focus on children does not exclude other members of the population but is chosen for several reasons.  First, children are the most vulnerable members of any population—they act as nutritional “sentinel sites”. Second eating habits developed early in life set the stage for later practices. Third, there are many opportunities to engage the parents of children and children in these ages including during school, after school activities, via health providers and via child care facilities.

3 – Nutritional status is easy to measure, non-invasive and linked closely with food intake. A focus on nutritional status however, demonstrates the important point that food policy is linked to other issues related to child health including general health status (immunization status for example) and physical activity. Thus, food policy is driven by the clear end that children will be healthy.

4 – The idea of nutritious meals requires us to think not just about discrete food production but to the broader question of how food is transformed into meals.  In this way it honors the fact that food is not merely an input but rather part of a social act—eating together and sharing time with others. Again, these meals can be provided by school feeding programs or at home and this reminds us that a proper food policy will also focus on the household production of healthy meals. This point should also include a concern about providing the most nutritious meal of all for children up to two years of age: breast milk.

5 – Seasonally available reminds us that a sustainable system involves thinking about eating what is available nearby rather than being trucked in from a distance.  It is linked to points 6 (local) and 7 (personal connection) in that seasonal food is food grown nearby by people we know.  By helping people eat seasonally we also help them focus on the rhythms experienced by those who grow their food and to value the bounty and diversity of our local food system.

6 – Point 5 orients us to the local but this calls it out specifically.  There is no percentage of local diets that come from local sources but one could be developed.  The focus on local also reminds us of the need to develop policies that enable not just the growing but also the transformation, packaging and preservation of locally grown food.

7 – Fundamentally our food system is about people—the children and their parents referred to above but also the people who labor to provide food.  The personal connection between consumers and farmers does not happen by chance but must be encouraged throughout the system.  By building deeper relations we build trust, the ability to deal with conflict and we position our communities to have informed debates about how to best have a resilient food system.

8 – This point forces us to think about our food system “intergenerationally.” This points us not just to the issue of sustainable farming and land use practices but towards the necessity of preserving farm land, assuring that farmers can afford to survive on their farms and that we will build a heritage of robust and resilient local farming practices.

[i] Leave a comment if you would like me to share how food insecurity is measured and what it means.

  1. Jacqueline Clemens says:

    Yes, Robb, yes…beginning with the end! Have you shared this with Don? Seems to me that this needs to be the first and most important piece work of any food policy council.

    • robbdavis says:

      Hey Jake – I did send this to Don soon after the summit but I also told him it was for his consideration as he moves this initiative forward and that I was not looking for any particular feedback. I just wanted to try to help focus ongoing conversations. I am not aware of what the next steps are (or if there are any)–including the role of a food policy council. Of course, I am not suggesting they adopt this particular set of goals but that they wrestle through the issue of ends and start there. Thanks. Robb

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