Local Food Sovereignty -- Community Food Utilities[1]

John Ikerd[2]

A commitment to food security today requires more than simply ensuring that everyone has access to enough food calories to meet their daily requirements. Food security requires sufficient “nourishment,” meaning enough wholesome, nutrient-dense foods to sustain health and vitality, life and longevity. Today’s corporately controlled agri-food system simply cannot be trusted to provide “good food” as long as they can make more money selling “junk food.” Corporations may provide good food for those willing and able to pay for it, but will not provide good food for poor people. They can make more money selling poor people “cheap junk food”—meaning foods with an abundance of calories, fat, and salt, but largely lacking in essential nutrients.

The organic and local food movements have emerged as a rejection of the industrial agri-food system, not simply for food safety and environmental reasons but also because of the nutrient deficient foods being produced by industrial agriculture. With the industrialization of organics, many concerned eaters turned to local farmers, to people they knew or could know and could trust, to ensure the integrity of their food. True food security will require nothing less in terms of food quality, meaning nutritious foods produced with ecological and social integrity, to meet the basic food needs of all—including those who are poor and hungry.

Thus far, the sustainable agriculture movement has been reluctant to embrace or even accept a commitment to ensuring enough good food for all. A sustainable agriculture, by definition, must meet the food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for those of the future to meet their food needs as well. Thus far, primary emphasis has been placed on providing opportunities for those who can afford the higher costs of good food today while maintaining the productivity of land and water resources needed for future food production. Little attention has been given to the first requisite of agriculture sustainability: ensuring “enough good food for all.”

The right to good food is a foundational principle of the global Food Sovereignty movement. The movement was initiated globally in the mid-1990s by Via Campesina, an organization bringing together small-scale farmers, farm workers, women farmers, and indigenous people to resist agricultural industrialization. Food Sovereignty is defined as the “people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”[3] Food Sovereignty not only proclaims a right to food, but also the right of local communities to determine the basic nature of their own agri-food systems.

While a commitment to national or global food sovereignty may require a few more decades, local commitments for community food sovereignty could be made today. A community could simply proclaim that access to good, sustainably produced food is a fundamental right of everyone in the community. The community could then accept the responsibility of ensuring that right to those who are unable to afford enough good food to meet their basic nutritional needs. Those who benefit from assurance of that right could logically be expected to contribute something of comparable value to the well-being of the community, regardless of the economic value of their contribution. A personal sense of reciprocity could replace impersonal transactions in cases where the markets have failed to provide food security.

Obviously, a commitment to community food security would require some form of local organizational structure to facilitate carrying out the commitment. I have suggested the establishment of Community Food Utilities (CFUs). Some Americans are quick to label government food assistance and other social welfare programs as socialist or communist. Some also might see a “right to food” as a step toward socialism rather than a step toward ensuring the unalienable rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—as proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence. Public utilities are commonly used to provide essential public services such as electricity, water, sewers, and telecommunications. Few people think of their water or electricity as being steps toward socialism or communism. Thus, a Community Food Utility should minimize local political resistance, and equally important, could be organized under existing laws that authorize and regulate other public utilities.

Some might question using public utilities for food security because utilities are typically used in cases that economists refer to as “natural monopolies.” For example, it is logical to utilize only one electrical system, water system, or sewer system because of the high cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure for these systems. Only one service provider would constitute a monopoly with the power to exploit its customers. Thus, the justification for government intervention. However, public utilities are appropriate in any case of “market failure.” Natural monopolies are one example of market failure and hunger is another.

For example I grew up without electricity, because our house was a couple of miles from the end of the existing “power line.” It didn’t make economic sense to extend the power line to serve a couple of customers who would pay “light bills” of a couple of dollars a month. This wasn’t a case of a natural monopoly but nonetheless a “market failure.” The Rural Electrification Association (REA), a public utility, was established to provide electricity for everyone in the county, regardless of the economic costs and benefits of doing so. The REA even paid electricians to install electrical wiring in our old house—which was quite a task. Access to electricity had become a “right,” rather than a privilege, at least in my county.

Some may contend that a Community Food Utility would represent unfair competition with local food retailers. However, local food retailers are not currently meeting the needs of “everyone” in the county, even if they are offering low quality foods at low prices to people with low incomes. In addition, public utilities are often used to provide public services when private services exist but are inadequate to meet the basic needs of all people in the community or municipality. Public transportation, including buses, light rails, and even taxi cabs, are frequently provided by municipalities or regulated as public utilities.

Public utilities essentially establish local “public service monopolies.” This would allow communities that are committed to local food security to “insulate,” but not isolate, themselves from national and global agri-food markets. One of the primary reasons that hunger has persisted in the U.S. is that current interstate commerce laws have prevented local communities from interfering with the market-based agri-food system that has limited food access to those in low-income areas—rural as well as urban. “Food deserts” in America will persist as long as communities are unable to insulate local food systems from national and global markets. Community Food Utilities could provide a legal means for communities to declare Food Sovereignty: the right to determine the nature of their own community-based food systems.

Legal local protection from the global food system, such as that provided by public utilities, is essential for several logical reasons. First, wholesome, nutritious, sustainably produced food will cost more to produce than the industrial “junk foods” that are currently affordable for people with low incomes. A CFU could simply choose to pay the higher costs of providing good food to low income recipients, without allowing potential providers of cheaper industrial foods to compete for the earned incomes or government assistance food dollars of food recipients.

A CFU could also give priority to locally produced and locally processed foods, even if costs of local foods were higher than similar foods that could be procured elsewhere. A fundamental purpose of the CFU would be to establish personal relationships among food recipients, local farmers and food providers, and members of communities in general. Local procurement of food could also provide personal assurance that foods purchased by the CFU met locally-determined standards of “good” food—in terms of wholesomeness, nutrition, and ecologically sound and sustainable production methods. The CFU could also assure that local food producers who met those standards of quality were paid enough to cover their production costs plus a reasonable return for investments and efforts—ensuring their economic sustainability. None of these things would be possible without the protection provided by a public utility or local public monopoly.

The higher procurement costs of the CFU could be mitigated by providing raw or minimally-processed foods to recipients. Approximately 85% of the average costs of food in the U.S. is not to cover costs of the actual food but costs of processing, transportation, packaging, advertising, and corporate profits. While these non-food costs cannot be totally eliminated, they can be greatly reduced by providing locally-grown, raw or minimally-processed foods. Raw and minimally processed foods are also higher in nutritional value than are processed foods. Such foods would not ordinarily be selected by many low-income consumers who lack knowledge regarding selection and preparation of healthful foods. The CFU would need to accommodate recipients by providing educational programs for food selection, preparation, home processing and storage, and such. Current government programs supporting food and nutrition education could be administered and augmented by the CFU.

In fact, the CFU could be largely funded by administering all government food assistance programs for which recipients are eligible through the CFU. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program currently provides recipients with a SNAP “debit card” to use to buy food. Additional funds are added to the SNAP card account for each payment period. SNAP funds for which CFU food recipients are eligible could instead be deposited in a CFU account. In return, the CFU would ensure that each recipient received enough good food to meet their basic needs, regardless of the amount of their individual SNAP payment. Some non-profit organizations are currently operating in this general fashion. I don’t know how widespread the practice may be, but it’s possible. Funds available to recipients through other public food assistance programs could be handled similarly.

The CFU’s commitment to local food security through food sovereignty would require a commitment to sustainable community development and sustainable local food production. So, the CFU would be eligible for government subsidies and grants that support community development and could also seek grants from non-profit and philanthropic organizations—particularly during the formative stages of conceptual development and implementation.

No blueprint or recipe for development of a CFU is possible. Food security through Food Sovereignty would require that each community develop its own food system and CFU to fit the culture of its community and the ecology of its agricultural area. That being said, some common characteristics are likely to evolve over time that define the “essentials principles” for successful CFUs. The following are some characteristics that are at least worthy of consideration when contemplating the development of a CFU.

The basic mission of a CFU is: “to ensure enough good, sustainably produced food for members of the community who have insufficient funds to buy enough good food to meet their basic needs.” The maximum levels of income or economic means allowed to be eligible for “membership” in the CFU should be determined locally—reflecting a consensus of the community. However, if government food assistance funds are to be used to support the CFU, federal and state requirements would need to be met or exceeded in determining local CFU requirements. The geographic scope of the CFU would also need to be a factor in determining eligibility, with consideration for maintaining a sense of interpersonal community connectedness. The local community must share common values and a common commitment to community food security.

Membership in the CFU would need to be a voluntary choice on the part of eligible recipients. A CFU would not replace government food assistance programs or food charities, but rather would be an additional option that eligible members could choose—similar to “Medicare Advantage” health insurance programs. Community members who prefer government food assistance programs would be under no pressure to join the CFU. A logical approach to establishing a CFU might be to start with a pilot program, with an initial limited membership of “believers” in the concept. The concept could be fully implemented and expanded in scope and membership after the inevitable “bugs” have been worked out during the pilot program.

The CFU could be organized utilizing any structure available to public utilities in states where CFUs are located. Existing public utilities include cooperative, government agencies, and investor-owned/publicly-regulated corporations. The cooperative organizational structure would seem most appropriate for a CFU. The emphases on food security, food sovereignty, and sustainability all suggest that everyone involved with the CFU, or all “stakeholders,” should be involved in organizing and governing the organization. CFUs organized as government agencies, or investor-owned corporations might be more likely to fall back into the same impersonal bureaucratic or economic efficiency patterns that have failed to provide food security.

I have suggested that CFUs be organized as “vertical cooperatives.”[4] Most current food related cooperatives function at “one level” in the “vertical food chain”—linking farmers, to processors, to distributors, to retailers, and finally to consumers. The boards of these ‘horizontal' cooperatives may include representatives of different stakeholder groups, but the focus is on serving the interest of those at one level—whether it is a consumer cooperative, producer cooperative, or focuses on some other level. The focus of a vertical cooperative must be on meeting the needs of “all vertical levels” or links in the food system. The system as a whole is to be sustainable if the CFU is to continue to provide food security for the community. All recipients and participants in the vertical system would be members of the CFU cooperative.

This suggests also that stakeholders at all levels from farmers to recipients, as well as local government officials and community members, should be involved in governing the organization. Each group could have representatives on the CFU Board with the ability to “veto” any major decision to protect the interests of all. The CFU must be supported by a consensus of the membership to ensure the community consensus essential for its sustainability. CFU managers obviously should be given the authority to make most routine decisions without continually consulting the Board. This decision-making process may be a bit messy, but so are democracies.

As indicated previously, a CFU should give priority to local producers in procuring foods. The highest priority should be given to local farmers who are willing and able to provide food products that meet locally determined standards of quality and ecological integrity. Priority should also be given to small-scale, local producers who rely on the CFU as a market for a significant part of their production—if not their sole market. The purpose of favoring such producers would be to establish “mutually-beneficial” personal relationships between the CFU and its suppliers. For large-scale producers, the CFU would simply be an unessential niche market, even if the large producers were “local.”

A CFU could have an active program to support beginning local farmers and recruit existing local farmers as CFU suppliers. Beginning farmers in particular might be potential recipients of food as well as food suppliers. The CFU would also give priority to local food processors and packers. As with small producers, this would give priority to those for whom the CFU would represent a major market rather than a nonessential market niche. In cases where critical processing and distribution functions are not available locally, the CFU could encourage and support establishment of new facilities—or even establish such facilities as part of the CFU.

Food needs of the CFU that cannot be met locally could be met by establishing personal contacts with food networks or individual producers in other communities who are willing to meet local standards for food production. If such sources are not available for some foods, remaining needs of the CFU could be met by working through local distributors or retailers. Priority would be given to securing foods from elsewhere that best meet the quality and production standards of the CFU, rather than prioritizing food costs. Efforts should be made not to exclude local food retailers and distributors from CFU activities. However, the CFU must be vigilant and avoid being pulled back into the failed “cheap food” mentality of the industrial agri-food system.

CFUs should make foods available to recipients by a variety of means in order to ensure that the basic food needs of everyone in the community is met. One logical means of distribution would be for the CFU to operate a retail food store where recipients could freely choose food items from the assortment chosen by the CFU to best meet their needs. Their choices at the CFU store would exclude “junk foods,” highly-processed foods, over-packaged foods, partially-prepared foods, and ready-to-eat foods. A limited variety of dessert items and such might be available, but the emphasis would be on providing ingredients for items that could be prepared at home.

The CFU Board, in collaboration with local dietitians, could decide what kinds of foods to exclude from those made available to recipients. Other food choices would be made with critical input from recipients, farmers, and other food providers. The food items made available must accommodate the needs of food recipients as well as everyone else in the vertical cooperative system. However, the emphasis on wholesomeness, nutrition, and opportunities for healthy balanced diets must remain the priority of any CFU committed to food security.

Similar assortments of food items could also be provided as weekly or biweekly food boxes. These boxes could be picked up by recipients at convenient pickup points in the community—or perhaps even delivered to recipients’ homes by the CFU. Recipients could be given box options that reflect different preferences—vegetarian, vegan, low-meat, low-carb, and such—but each box would include sufficient variety and quantities of food to provide healthful, balanced meals for the individual or family until the next box is to be picked up or delivered. Recipes and meal planning guides could be provided with each box to ensure that recipients were able to use the foods effectively. One objective of the box programs would be to teach people how to select and prepare healthy meals for themselves. Single meal boxes could be made available for those who are physically or mentally unable to be fully engaged in meal preparation.

The CFU could also work with operators of local commercial kitchens to provide prepared meals for those who have no or very limited abilities to prepare their own meals—“good meals on wheels.” Alternatively, the CFU would operate its own commercial kitchen or could even operate a restaurant to prepare and provide meals for food recipients. In such cases, some provision would need to be made to limit utilization of prepared meals to some maximum portion of total food provided to individual recipients as a means of controlling the cost of operation.

One of the basic causes of food insecurity is that low-income workers often eat many meals away from home. Or they may pick up or have prepared foods delivered because they don’t feel they have time to cook. They often end up paying high prices for unhealthy food without actually saving very much time. A major task of any CFU will be to help food recipients understand that taking time and learning to prepare nutritious meals at home can often save more money for the family than spending extra hours of work and buying prepared foods. Parents preparing healthful, nutritious meals with children can also be far more important to healthy families and healthy children than spending money for various “lessons” or spending time attending sporting activities. A primary mission of a CFU should be to develop a healthier community food culture, not only for recipients or members of the CFU but for the whole community.

The day-to-day operation of a Community Food Utility must accommodate the social and economic culture of the community. Some communities are more altruistic and might be willing to provide good food to all recipients in need, regardless of the willingness or ability of recipients to provide anything in return. Other communities are more utilitarian and believe that people must earn or be willing to work for whatever they receive.

One alternative means of accommodating a variety of community cultures would be for the CFU to issue its own currency to be used to purchase food available through the CFU. Community Food Dollars, or CFU$, could serve the same basic function as food stamps or SNAP payments in current government food assistance programs—with some notable exceptions. All foods offered by the CFU would be “priced” to allow and to encourage the selection of healthy, balanced diets by recipients. A sufficient number of CFU$ would be made available to all recipients to ensure their right to food security—enough good food to support healthy, active lifestyles.

For recipients who currently qualify for maximum SNAP payments, particularly those who are disabled or elderly, the allocation of CFU$ would logically be provided to them without requiring anything other than SNAP eligibility. (For simplicity, I will ignore government benefits other than SNAP payments for the following examples.) The CFU would be required to make up any difference between the cost of providing these recipients with food security and the amount of SNAP benefits deposited in the CFU on their behalf.

The amount of current maximum SNAP benefits range from 20% to 25% of maximum incomes for families of one to four people allowed to qualify for SNAP benefits. “Average” SNAP benefits in 2017 were just over $125 per person and $250 “per family” per month. The “maximum” family income for a two-member family is about $1,760 per month or $21,120 per year. For simplicity, assume that the median family income in the CFU community is $52,800 per year or 2.50 times as great as the maximum for SNAP recipient families. Next, assume that median income families in the CFU community on average spend 15% of their income for food, amounting to $7,920 per year or $660 per month. The average family size in the U.S. is about 2.6 people, so food cost per person would be just over $250 per person—compared with $125 per person average SNAP benefits. This means the average deficit or difference between CFU income from SNAP benefits and the average amount non-SNAP families spend on food would be about $125 per person, per month.

Some of this deficit could be made up by focusing on raw and minimally processed foods, but the CFU would also need to come up with additional operating money in addition to government food assistance payments. Since the food made available through the CFU would be greater in quantity—to eliminate hunger—and superior in quality—fresher, more nutritious, more healthful—recipients who are physically capable might be asked to make contributions to offset some of the operating costs of the CFU—in money, if fully employed, or time, if not employed or underemployed.

If the average family in the community spends 15% of its income for food, presumably family members spend 15% of their combined working hours earning money to buy food. An alternative for those who cannot afford to pay their share of the operating deficit of the CFU in dollars would be to allow them to spend an equivalent number of hours working for the CFU, or doing something else they are able to do to provide benefits to the community. If SNAP benefits make up only half or 50%of the total CFU costs of providing good food, then recipients might be required to provide one-half as much time as the average person in the community spends working to buy their food. One-half of 15% would be 7.5% or 3 hours of a 40-hour work week.

The work requirement could be adjusted to account for SNAP benefits larger or smaller than the average, the actual CFU operating deficit, and the willingness of the community to fund the CFU with local tax dollars. Those who choose to work for the CFU could contribute time as farmers, farm workers, in food processing, food preparation, nutritional education, food preparation education, food distribution or delivery, clerical work, maintenance, or whatever needs to be done. Those whose talents do not fit the needs of the CFU could contribute to the community in other ways—as musicians, artists, child care, in nursing homes, or any other way the CFU deems is of real value to the community. Time is the great leveler of human value. We all have only 24 hours a day and none of us knows how many days we have left.

CFU$ would then represent a composite of government food assistance benefits and earned benefits for those able to work and provide valuable services to the CFU directly or to the larger community. For recipients who are fully employed or prefer to supplement their SNAP benefits with US dollars, CFU$ would represent a composite of the two sources. CFU prices could be assigned to accommodate the various options for securing food—the coop supermarket, food boxes, meal boxes, or home delivery. If the CFU decides to operate a restaurant or other retail prepared food service, a limited percentage of special CFU$ could be allocated for prepared foods to encourage purchase of raw or minimally processed foods for home preparation.

Over time, as local food production expands beyond amounts needed to eliminate local hunger, CFU$ could be made available for purchase by anyone in the community. The cost of community purchases would be sufficient to cover the CFU’s full cost of items purchased, in order to avoid unfair competition with local food retailers. When shopping in the CFU supermarket, eating in the CFU restaurant, or receiving a CFU food box, the community member who paid full cost for their CFU$ would be indistinguishable from those who paid less than full cost, worked for the CFU, or were unable to contribute anything of economic value. Relationships formed by patronizing and participating in the CFU would perhaps be the most important community building aspect of the community food sovereignty program.

With success of the CFU and positive testimonials of CFU families, more SNAP recipients would voluntarily choose to join the CFU, until “involuntary” hunger or food insecurity is eliminated from the community. There will always be some people who will choose “junk food” or choose to live “on the streets” and beg for money to buy food. As more non-SNAP community members join the CFU the quality and variety of its services can expand accordingly. At some point, the CFU could begin to provide food through local schools, hospitals, and other publicly supported local institutions.

As local farmers expand in numbers and volume of production beyond the needs of their local community, they can begin providing food to other markets—giving priority to other CFUs that are being established in their bioregions. Community food sovereignty does not mean community self-sufficiency, but simply the right and the ability to choose what food items communities produce locally and what they choose to procure from other communities.

Relationships among sovereign communities would not be impersonal economic or political relationships but personal relationships based on a shared commitment to the fundamental principles of food sovereignty—“people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Slowly but surely, the “trim tabs” of food sovereign communities will begin to move national and global agri-food systems toward a more just and sustainable future for humanity.

Note: For more complete information on community food utilities, see https://sites.google.com/site/communityfoodutility .


[1] Prepared in 2019 for presentation and various venues. For more complete information on community food utilities, see https://sites.google.com/site/communityfoodutility .

[2] Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri-Columbia, email: jeikerd@gmail.com website: https://johnikerd.com

[3] Carney, M. (2012). “Food security” and “food sovereignty”: What frameworks are best suited for social equity in food systems? Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 2(2), 71–88. http://dx.doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2012.022.004

[4] Ikerd, J. (2013). Reflections on cooperation. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

http://dx.doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2013.032.001 .