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The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council is working to create a regional food economy that works for everyone

This story was originally published by NEXTpittsburgh, a PublicSource information partner. NEXTPittsburgh is an online publication about the people driving the region forward and the innovative and cool things that are happening here. Sign up to get NEXTpittsburgh for free.

From farm to fork, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in figuring out what we eat.

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council’s New Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan is an attempt to understand our complex and interwoven local food system – which includes 8,500 food facilities and 420 farms in Allegheny County – and to promote a food economy region that benefits everyone.

At the moment, it doesn’t work for everyone.

“Food insecurity is higher in the city of Pittsburgh than in the county or the United States as a whole,” says Shelly Danko + Day, urban agriculture and food policy advisor for the city of Pittsburgh, part of the project team.

Among Pittsburgh residents, 21% were classified as “food insecure” before Covid, according to Danko + Day. “It is now estimated at 35 to 40 percent,” she notes. “So it’s a big problem. People do not have enough food to lead active lives.

The 125-page Food Action Plan examines how to have maximum impact in a progressive and transformative way. This is a community-driven assessment and strategy to improve the way we grow, distribute and dispose of food in Allegheny County.

People gathered around a table during a Food Action Plan planning session.

Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan Planning Session. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council)

“The Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan is a comprehensive set of food systems strategies aimed at building a healthy, fair, equitable and sustainable food system in Allegheny County,” said Dawn Plummer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council.

“There are 150 strategies that we have identified. In light of Covid and growing racial injustice, we have really worked to put the goal of our network first. “

Solutions range from harnessing the purchasing power of large institutions to supporting local food producers, expanding access to land for urban agriculture, to seeking support through the Pennsylvania Farm Bill for urban agriculture.

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council started this project two years ago, with the help of more than 80 government, nonprofit, academic and community partners.

Our strengths

Pittsburgh’s food system has some advantages.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that we have a tremendous amount of creativity and innovation in the food system,” says Danko + Day. “There is a real desire to deepen the collaboration. Our region is known to be good collaborators. That’s something this plan hopes to build on.

To uncover the needs and challenges of residents, the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council hosted community engagement sessions in the East End, McKeesport, Natrona Heights, McKees Rocks, Downtown, Penn Hills and South Hills.

Food systems need investment, as do other infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

“We need continued investments of all kinds,” Plummer says. “In community food systems and neighborhoods with access to things like farmers’ markets, gardens and farms.”

A concern ? “The average age of a farmer is in his 50s,” Plummer explains. “So if we’re going to teach people how to grow food in the future, we really need to train a new generation of producers. “

Agriculture in Allegheny County also shows surprising strengths.

“I would say that especially during Covid-19, we have seen an intensification of the work being carried out by our black farmers and producers in the region,” Plummer explains. “Food needs were skyrocketing and rates of food insecurity were rising. We have had huge groups of black led community organizations that have really used community gardens and farms to increase production and make sure people have access to fresh food.

When Covid arrived, the problems with the local food system did not change, but they became more evident.

“One of the only positive things that came out of this was that the pandemic has helped shed light on all the flaws in our system,” said Danko + Day. “It was the perfect time for the Food Action Plan to be implemented as well, to fill these gaps with local solutions.”

Food security encompasses many factors, from lack of money to buy food to convenient access to SNAP.

“Are there 20 hills to climb to get to the grocery store? When they bring the food home, do they have a pot? The right tools to cook it? A recipe to know what to do with it? A refrigerator to keep food fresh? Do they even have running water? These are things that are real in the city of Pittsburgh.

Of course, there are those who work on these issues every day who need support.

“We need to empower and help our food providers,” says Danko + Day. “Community members in churches, community centers, synagogues, 412 Food Rescue and the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. It is to them that we must turn and help support their work as well.

“They do the job and feed the people today. Politics takes a long time, but people need to eat every day.

Pittsburgh, along with New York and Oakland, will celebrate World Food Day on October 16, which will feature cooking demonstrations, music, interviews and the inaugural EAT Initiative Exceptional Service Awards, recognizing individuals and organizations who stand behind are mobilized during the pandemic.

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