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UVA planning students audit area food systems

By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Area policy-makers should do more to encourage land use policies that promote food production. That was one basic suggestion offered Tuesday by planning students enrolled in a food systems planning course at the University of Virginia.


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Tanya Denckla Cobb

For each of the past five years, students in Tanya Denckla Cobb and Timothy Beatley’s class have examined different aspects of how this community obtains its food. This year the class analyzed the policies of

Charlottesville

and five surrounding counties to determine how they might be changed to promote the cultivation and distribution of local food.

“A resilient community is one that produces more food locally,” said Beatley. “We like to think that this is something that every community ought to be doing. Taking stock of how much we’re producing [and] how well we’re doing it.

Students in this planning course study everything involved in getting food from the farm to the dinner plate, according to Cobb. She said a community’s agriculture sector can grow if efforts are made to better plan how people eat. If major institutions can be encouraged to buy from local producers, the local economy can grow.

“We know that dollars spent in our community have a multiplier effect,” Cobb said.

The environment can benefit as well if farmers have a healthy business model.

“If we are cognizant and very intentional about how we are farming, we can also improveme environmentally our runoff, our erosion, the chemicals in the soil,” Cobb said.

For the audit, students were divided into six groups and were asked to study each community’s agricultural policies and describe how they rate in terms of promoting public health, encouraging economic development, and fostering environmental benefits.

Jessie Ray, a second-year graduate student who helped teach the class, said the audit was a way to take an inventory of how policies are currently written. Students gathered data by asking government officials and community leaders over 100 questions.  Ray will take the students’ work and incorporate it into an official report to be published later this month.





Students lined up at the end of the presentation to take questions

One of the general findings was that few comprehensive plans in the region specifically mention food. Instead, agricultural policies are mostly built up to address environmental concerns and land conservation.

Some common themes across the surveyed jurisdictions include a desire to rewrite land use policies to encourage community gardens, getting local foods into school systems, and increasing opportunities for farmers to sell their products.

One of those ways could simply be encouraging farmer’s markets in the region to purchase machines that allow those receiving federal food assistance to use their benefit cards to buy fresh produce directly from producers. The Charlottesville farmers’ market adopted such a system beginning this year.

The reports also addressed the possibility of encouraging youth to get involved with agriculture, something that has ended in some communities as they modernized.

“Children [in Nelson County] used to actually take two weeks off from school to harvest apples,” said student Sara Teaster. “The challenges of losing that food heritage is very difficult.”

Additionally, many of the groups said the Virginia Cooperative Extension should expand opportunities to assist local farmers connect with consumers.  Convenience stores should be encouraged to carry fresh produce.

The audit for Albemarle County pointed out that while the comprehensive plan calls for an agricultural support officer, the position has never been funded.  Suggestions for Albemarle included lowering the minimum acreage required to put property into land use taxation and requiring county schools to create gardens.

However, the group noted that the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will today take up an amendment to the zoning ordinance to make it easier for farmers to set up produce stands for on-site and off-site sales.

The group who audited Charlottesville’s policies suggested that the city’s comprehensive plan be updated to encourage urban food gardens. They also recommended that efforts should be made to connect farmers with local restaurants.

Albemarle County Supervisor Ann Mallek, who participated in the dialogue with the students, said she learned a lot in the process.

“So much has changed in people’s expectations and what people can do to promote their own health,” Mallek said.

Mallek said she agreed that her county’s comprehensive plan should be updated with a greater emphasis on the important of food production.

Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris also participated in interviews with students and said he heard some good ideas.

“I particularly appreciated the emphasis on improving school nutrition, expanding community gardening and finding a permanent home for our City Market,” Norris said.

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