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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois
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Adressing Fragility in Food Distribution (Part 1)

Posted by Ron Wolford -

The United States has one of the most effective and efficient food production and food distribution systems ever created by man. That system makes the quality of life that we experience in the 21st century possible. However, that system can be rather fragile. The average unit of food consumed travels nearly 1500 miles from its place of origin before it arrives on one's plate. That we can transport goods like this is incredible, but citizens can easily lose access to this incredible system in one of four ways. It is not alarmist to imagine that one of the following scenarios will likely occur within the next 15 years.

First, access to food could be hampered by food safety concerns. E coli and Salmonella outbreaks have compromised portions of that distribution system over the past few years, and such an outbreak – in the right locale – could possibly eliminate much larger components of that system.

Second, the system itself can be compromised by natural disasters. Illinois residents have seen the very real breakdown in food supply following hurricanes and flooding in other parts of our country. Similar problems can arise in the state of Illinois. The most likely events include severe blizzards, flooding, and tornados – all of which can, given the right combination of events, collapse access to the food distribution system for a period of time. A more extreme - yet very possible – example is a solar storm. A severe solar storm could destroy the electrical grid and could destroy food distribution overnight. It would take weeks or months to recover from such an event (some say even longer). Combine this with the fact that most Illinois grocery stores have a few to several day supply of food, and one finds that a single natural disaster could quickly cascade into a much larger disaster.

Third, the food distribution system could be compromised by a terrorist attack. The type of attack capable of doing this would dwarf that of September 11, 2001. We have all heard the possible scenarios (scenarios that span from nuclear attacks to the use of biological agents). The attacks of ten years ago actually provide an example of this because they did have an impact on that system. Coffee distribution was briefly disrupted as aircraft were grounded. It takes little skill/imagination to extrapolate that food distribution impact to one of the scenarios mentioned earlier.

Fourth, economic instability can compromise access to the food distribution system. An example of this can be found in southern Illinois where economic stress has resulted in some areas with marginal access to groceries. The United States is in the third year of what is now being called "The Great Recession." Should our economic woes continue the situation in southern Illinois could be transferred to other regions and multiplied.

How can we address this fragility? The solution to this problem is two-fold. First, we must guide Illinois toward more resiliency in our current food production/food distribution system. We should find ways to build more fail safes into the system and we should build contingencies into the system that better weather natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Second, we must institute mechanisms that reduce the impact should the food production/food distribution system be compromised. We must develop mechanisms that provide some marginal level of support when our efforts toward resiliency fail. We will detail the local Extension office's approach to this two-fold strategy in the second part of this column.

Source: Matt Montgomery, Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms,

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