Why do we need a Multnomah Food Action Plan anyway?

Kyle Curtis Facebook

For those viewers of the first episode of “Portlandia,” you probably enjoyed a chuckle at Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s lampooning of the overly conscious food consumers who enquire of every detail to the chicken they order, including the chicken’s name. The genius of the joke, of course, lies rooted in the commitment to social awareness that comprises the diet of the typical Portland resident. Chances are, if you are reading this post and took a moment to reflect on your most recent mea, a detailed list of information comparable to Fred and Carrie’s chicken Colin could be compiled. This list might include the name of the farmer that grew the produce prepared, the growing methods this farmer used, the humane manner in which your beef was raised. Indeed, the daily choices made regarding the food we consume are both personal and political like very few other choices we make.

Considering this prevailing politically conscious ethic throughout the Portland area, the need for the Multnomah Food Action Plan might be questioned. On Thursday, January 27th, the Multnomah County Commissioners passed the Action Plan by a unanimous vote, officially adopting a 15-year action plan for the region’s food system. This plan addresses key components of the food system, with the four main pillars comprised of economic vitality, social equity, local food, and encouraging a healthier diet. While a good number of Portland residents may not think twice of shopping at the 20 farmers markets within the city of Portland- a number that is doubled when you include farmers markets throughout the metropolitan region- there are just as many residents that facie numerous barriers preventing access to healthy local food.

Despite the reputation of the Portland metro region as a mecca for foodies and their commitment to sustainable and healthy diets, certain segments of the population are vulnerable to the negative health effects caused by a lack of nutritious food. According to recent rankings by the USDA, who characterize hunger as “low food security,” Oregon ranks fourth in the country in the number of households dealing with very low food security. The households disproportionately affected by low food security are households headed by single parents, Black or Hispanic households, and households in urban areas opposed to rural areas. Considering this information, it seems natural that the efforts of the Multnomah Food Initiative are spearheaded through a partnership between the County’s sustainability and health departments.

“The Multnomah Food Action Plan sprung out of 2009’s Portland-Multnomah climate action plan,” says Kat West, the director of the County’s Office of Sustainability.

“One of the recommendations of the Climate Action Plan was to launch an initiative that relocalizes the region’s food system in an effort to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. In an effort to address the whole food system, a series of community listening sessions were held to create an Action Plan with a collective voice that everyone could rally around. Commissioners Cogen and Shiprack were approached for political leadership, and with their go-ahead a steering committee was created in October of 2009 to oversee the Multnomah Food Initiative. For a model food action plan, we originally used the plan adopted by Brighton, England which we soon found wasn’t applicable in the United States. During the process of the Multnomah Food Action Plan, a number of communities around the country begin to develop their own food action plans, and now use the plan adopted by Multnomah County as their model.”

In regards to the community involvement process, Katie Lynd, the County’s food policy coordinator provides the following description:

“Multnomah County served as a convener and also a stakeholder in bringing together organizations and individuals to reshape the food system in our region. When the draft of the Multnomah Food Action Plan was released for public comment in November 2010, the County received over 150 responses that helped refine the plan. Many community projects have been proposed since the release of the Action Plan in December. There is a role for every individual and every organization at every level to help transport our food system so that it is increasingly healthy, equitable, and prosperous for our region."

When asked for his thoughts on the Multnomah Food Action Plan, County Commission Chair Jeff Cogen responded:

“Our industrial food system threatens our health and our environment. This Action Plan creates the path to a local food system that is just, sustainable and a vibrant part of our local economy.”

For the interest of full disclosure, I have represented the Montavilla Farmers Market on the steering committee of the Multnomah Food Initiative. Through my involvement with developing this action plan, the efforts of the Market are being considered within the larger regional food system. Although the primary objective of the Montavilla Farmers Market is to provide an outlet in southeast Portland that connects farm fresh food with neighborhood customers, the Market is considering its efforts within the four pillars of the Action Plan. Partnerships are being pursued to ensure increased access of healthy food for all residents of southeast Portland, while also ensuring that the Market’s vendors are able to make an economically viable living- an example of the spirit of collaboration that Katie Lynd refers to. Further examples of similar collaborations can be found on the Food Initiative’s website, along with a calendar of events and further resources. For those looking to proactively shape the region’s food system in a sustainable and equitable manner, the Multnomah Food Action Plan will provide such opportunities over the next 15 years.

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