Capital area’s food deficit growing
WASHINGTON — It takes a lot of food to feed the more than 5 million people living in and around the nation’s capital — and the Washington, D.C. region is growing only a small fraction of it.
That’s among the findings in a new report on what the 8,600-square-mile swath of land surrounding the District of Columbia produces, detailed in a report preview released on Sept. 24 during a first-of-its-kind Chesapeake Food Summit.
“Despite its contributions to jobs and economic growth, agriculture in this region faces challenges that discourage and threaten the future viability of certain sub-sectors, such as medium-scale fresh produce production and the dairy industry,” the report states.
In 2012, agriculture generated $760 million in crop and livestock sales in the Washington agricultural region (which includes D.C. along with 10 counties apiece in Maryland and Virginia and one in West Virginia), according to the report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
But the average net farm income in the area that year was $2,676, with almost two-thirds of farmers in the Washington region also working off-farm jobs.
“Ultimately, to create food that is accessible for those who need it, we need to make sure the farmers and other producers are able to make a livable wage while producing food,” Celeste James, executive director of community health at Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic, said during a panel discussion at the summit. “If we’re not supporting farmers and preserving land… then we’re not supporting the whole system.”
The sold-out conference held at D.C.’s revived Union Market convened a cross-section of people who care about the region’s food supply, from nonprofit leaders and hunger advocates to startup investors and food producers. Hosted by the Washington Regional Food Funders, a network of organizations investing a thriving local food system, the event furthered conversations on how to strengthen the so-called “Chesapeake Foodshed.”
Event speakers and the report highlighted some of the region’s agricultural bright spots. A beginning farmer training program held by Future Harvest CASA enrolled its largest class of 80 trainees this year, despite the challenges that come with careers in the field.
In the cities, more organizations are connecting the dots between diet-related diseases and access to healthful foods. Some see the additional jobs that can come with food entrepreneurship as a way to alleviate poverty and hunger in urban settings.
Still, production of the foods that residents want is being pushed farther from the cities where they live as the cost of land rises and the share of farmland shrinks.
Despite a growing population and demand for food, the amount of farmland in the region has been on a downward slide since World War II.
The organization behind the report, MWCOG, has a goal to maintain just under 500,000 acres of the region’s land in farms. But, as of 2012, the region was just 3,600 acres above that goal. Information from the 2017 Census of Agriculture will be available in 2019 to help assess how the region’s farmland has fared since then.
The report also found the production of many key foods historically grown near the District — from apples and sweet corn to wheat — also declined at alarming rates.
The number of acres devoted to apple growing declined by 61 percent in the decade leading up to 2012, and sweet corn acres shrunk similarly. The number of chickens, hogs, beef and dairy cows all declined between 34 and 76 percent between 1997 and 2012. The dairy industry in the region, once robust, continues to struggle and posted 53 percent fewer farms in 2017 than in 2002.
Corn and soybeans grown for the Eastern Shore and Shenandoah Valley poultry markets also declined in the counties that make up the broader Washington metro area.
The report didn’t include what’s grown on the Delmarva Peninsula or in Pennsylvania, though much of the food that finds its way into Washington originates in those areas. Instead, it focused on areas that are close enough to the city to make the region’s food system more resilient and reliable.
The report’s preview suggests several steps to improve the region’s food landscape with more investment in agricultural education, diversification and food supply chains, among others.
“The findings and recommendations in this report,” it states, “suggest that supporting agriculture has economic, social and food security benefits.”
Find the report preview at mwcog.org.
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