Ethical Eating

Fort Lauderdale Vegetables' Michael Madfis: We Need a Food Policy Council

Like most issues in our labyrinthian modern lives, the concept of eating locally can be a lot more complicated than it looks. From a lack of local farms to dubious sourcing by supermarkets, it can be tough for consumers to make the right decisions, even with the best of intentions behind them.

Michael Madfis, owner of Fort Lauderdale Vegetables and advocate for decentralized farming, thinks that one of the key elements to upping our consumption of locally grown food is to start a Food Policy Council (FPC). An FPC is, essentially, a group of stakeholders from different food-related sectors that examine how the food system is operating and figure out how to improve it. And Madfis thinks South Florida needs one, stat.

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When discussing the issue of local consumption, Madfis references states like Vermont and Massachusetts, where it's far more common for people to eat from nearby farms. Madfis grew up in Boston, where community gardens are common.

"There's a need for an organization to champion this local food movement. Those northern areas, they all have food policy councils that started with grassroots movements with constituents getting together and saying they don't like these big box supermarkets," Madfis says. "I think about it when I travel, we should have this here. We don't connect it here anymore. I think if we can get the consumer inspired to push for the products and all that then that will help."

A Florida Food Policy Council was started last year, but Madfis claims their model is based on big agriculture, and isn't the same as what he's suggesting. In addition, there are a few groups around the state dedicated to the local food movement, but none like, say, the New York Food Policy Council on Food Policy or the

Boston Food Council.

In addition to the need for an FPC, Madfis thinks community gardens are an excellent way to encourage local produce consumption - but they need to have the proper leadership.

"Community and gardens are two of most beautiful words in the world, they can only be good together," he adds. But not all community gardens are created equal. Madfis has helped to build quite a few - but they don't all survive the test of time.

He argues that for gardens to prosper, they need a working farmer behind them - one who's earning a living from its proceeds. Enterprise farming, as it's called. In Florida, many community gardens are subsidized by the government, so there's no real incentive for productivity or production.

"They take our tax dollars and spend it on this stuff. There's nothing wrong with that if it's going to be put to a productive use, but we end up with tomatoes costing $300 to $3,000 apiece. There are highly paid people involved and the output is very little," he says.

In addition, he says, the lower income demographics who really need access to fresh, affordable food often can't participate in these kinds of projects.

"People who need fresh food who don't have jobs or car or extra money to spend on fertilizers really can't participate. They don't have the time and failure rate is so high, so they'll spend their dollars and food stamps on fast food instead."

Madfis says that the best gardens are under the stewardship of an enterprise farmer, who's invested in its output and overall success.

In order to be effective, Madfis says the system has to work so the "farmer can earn a living, so that people can connect to the farmer and have access to knowledge and information it takes to be successful. You see this in Portland, Oregon; Hartford, Connecticut; Vancouver, Candada; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - places where there is farming activity happening nearby."

And one of the key ways to start this kind of system in South Florida is through the FPC - which most of these other communities already have.

"We have to get food policy taken out of political realm where it sits right now. We have no food policy council but we have housing authorities, housing councils, people planning affordable housing - we have the same thing for work, but we don't have anything like that for food. CDCs willl train you on how to get a house, walk you through the process step by step."

The same system should exist for food issues, Madfis says. When farming becomes decentralized and local - everybody wins, from the farmers to the low income folks who need access to fresh food.

Madfis is currently on the hunt for people interested in joining such a council, so if you're interested, visit his website.