Community Food Utilities

Public Utilities for Community Food Security

John Ikerd

Hunger is avoidable or discretionary—globally as well as in the United States. Except under circumstances of war, insurrection, or natural disasters, plenty of food is produced to provide an adequate diet for everyone in the world—mostly certainly in the U.S. We could also provide more than enough good food for everyone, meaning wholesome, nutritious, sustainably produced food—if we reduced food waste, fed less grain to livestock, and stopped using farmland to produce crops for fuel.

 Experiences of the past 400-plus years have proven that food security, meaning the elimination of hunger, cannot be left to the indifference of markets, the vagaries of charity, or impersonal government programs. Markets provide food for those who are able to earn enough money to pay market prices for food. This inevitably excludes many of those who most need good food. Government programs and charities respond well to disasters but have failed to solve the problem of chronic hunger. Hunger is a reflection of systemic problems embedded deeply within our food system, economy, and society. Food security will require a comprehensive approach that addresses the logistical, economic, demographic, social, and cultural challenges of hunger.

Prior to the enclosure movement, which began in Europe in the 1600s, land was not owned by individuals but was freely available for everyone to use to produce food and to meet other basic needs. Land was also farmed in common or by communities and no one in the community went hungry unless all were hungry. When hunger occurred then, it was not discretionary but unavoidable. In his classic book, The Great Transformation, economist Karl Polanyi details the historical consequence of “commodifying” or privatizing land.[i]

Land was privatized or commodified so it could be priced, allowing competition in markets, rather than consensus in communities, to determine who had access to and benefited from land. The commodification of land essentially forced the commodification of labor, as those left without access to land to produce their own food were forced to sell their labor to employers in order to feed their families. While all people may be of equal “inherent worth,” people are inherently unequal in their ability to produce things of economic value. A significant portion of people in any given community or population has always been unable to earn enough money to meet even their basic needs for food. English Poor Laws were instituted in 1601 to provide food for those physically unable to meet their basic needs but failed to address inequities among others. 

By 1795, Thomas Paine concluded, “The landed monopoly… has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance… and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.”[ii] Paine was not advocating a return to common ownership of land. He proposed a universal government indemnity to compensate the people for their loss of access to the commons and their right to produce their own food. His proposal was never implemented. In 1834, after many decades of enclosures, the English Poor Laws were nationalized and expanded to cover the entire working class, not just the young, old, and disabled. Various other attempts were made to protect the working class from the social upheaval caused by privatizing land. Nothing seemed to work.

A variety of social welfare and food assistance programs have been tried over many years, culminating in the U.S. with the New Deal programs of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. None have adequately addressed the twin perils of chronic poverty and discretionary hunger, which began with the privatization of land and labor. Experiments with socialism and communism have been frustrated by the same basic challenges as today’s social welfare programs—primarily impersonal bureaucracy and functional inefficiency. With the resurgence of free-market fundamentalism in the U.S. in the 1980s, social welfare and food assistance programs came under, and remain under persistent attack. Obviously, government programs have at least mitigated hunger for many, but “poverty and wretchedness” seem destined to continue.

 Admittedly, the challenges of food security are formidable—but are not insurmountable. I have proposed a specific approach to ensuring food security primarily for the purpose of stimulating a dialogue concerning how best to meet the historic challenge of chronic hunger. History has shown that to solve large, systemic problems such as hunger we first have to find points of leverage where small, doable actions can lead to large, seemingly impossible effects – like the small trim tab that helps turn the rudder of a ship—causing the whole ship to change direction. My proposal is to find, build, and turn a trim tab—trusting that fundamental change will follow.

First, we must recognize that hunger is a “market failure.” A market failure is a situation in which rational individual market decisions fail to produce results that serve the common interest of society. While markets are capable of meeting the needs of those who have the ability to earn enough money to buy good food, markets are fundamentally incapable of meeting the needs of those who can’t earn enough money to buy enough good food. Hunger is a market failure, and thus, government programs or public assistance of some kind are a requisite for food security.

Current government food assistance programs are a recognition of this fact. Unfortunately, today’s public food assistance programs have the same basic weakness as markets: they are “impersonal.” Markets are indifferent to needs unless those in need have money. Government food assistance programs also have been impersonal. There is no sense of “personal” connectedness between the taxpayers who pay for the programs and those who receive the benefits. Recipients may be seen as “those people on welfare”—who could and should be working. Recipients may see providers of benefits as “the government,”—with no sense of personal gratitude or responsibility toward those who pay taxes to support the government.

Many organized food charities have also become large and impersonal. Supporters of such charities simply write checks and trust that their money will be put to good use. Personal knowledge of or connections with individual recipients is rare. Those who receive food assistance from charities may be thankful, but there is little sense of personal connection with or responsibility to those who fund the charities. Increasingly, large charitable food assistance organizations receive most of the food they distribute from large food corporations. These corporations receive tax write-offs for their “charitable contribution” of food items they can’t sell. Such charitable transactions are as impersonal as market transactions.

The failure of these past efforts to provide food security is clearly and consistently documented by government statistics. In 2019, before the COVID pandemic, the U.S Department of Agriculture classified nearly 11% or one in nine U.S. households as “food insecure.” Nearly 14% or one-in-seven of households with children were food insecure.[iii] It’s likely those included well over 14% of all American children living with the fear of hunger. Food insecurity in the case of government statistics means uncertainty regarding whether enough food will be available to meet the nutritional needs of households at all times. The percentage of food insecure households with children has been as high as 20% in recent years. In 1968, when CBS-TV aired its classic documentary, “Hunger in America,” only 5% of the people in the U.S. were estimated to be hungry.[iv] For several decades, food insecurity was closely linked with unemployment. In recent decades, the “working poor” account for a major portion of food insecurity in America. Sixty years of agricultural and economic “progress” has done nothing to alleviate hunger in America. 

Furthermore, the industrialization of the American agri-food system has led to a new kind of food insecurity, foods that lack sufficient nutritional value to support healthy, active lifestyles. The U.S. is confronted with a growing epidemic of obesity and related diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and a variety of diet-related cancers. While the percentage of the GDP spent for food has declined, the percentage of GDP spent on health care in the U.S. has more than tripled, from 5% in 1960 to nearly 18% in 2019.[v] A large portion of increasing healthcare costs has been linked to diet-related illnesses.

I’m convinced we will not eliminate hunger in America until we accept that everyone has a “right to good food”—as a basic human right. Once accepted, the assurance of rights is no longer discretionary but becomes a moral obligation. As long as hunger is accepted as an inevitable consequence of human frailty or moral deficiency, there will be starving children living in the midst of abundant wealth. Accepting food as a basic right at the national level might seem impossible, at least at this time in history. However, progressive local communities might well accept this responsibility, much as some communities have accepted the challenge of global climate change. These communities could be the “trim tabs” of national and global food security.

Ultimately, hunger is a reflection of a lack of caring. Discretionary hunger emerged from the depersonalization of local economies when buying and selling replaced personal relationships. I am convinced hunger has persisted because of the same basic reason: the impersonal nature of markets and government food assistance programs and even some major food charities. The best hope for re-establishing the sense of personal connectedness essential to eliminate hunger is the re-emergence of caring communities—communities where people share a personal sense of connectedness, concern, and mutual responsibility.

A commitment to food security today requires more than simply ensuring that everyone has access to enough food calories to meet their daily requirements. Food security requires sufficient “nourishment,” meaning enough wholesome, nutrient-dense foods to sustain health and vitality, life and longevity. Today’s profit-driven agri-food system simply cannot be trusted to provide “good food” as long as they can make more money selling “junk food.” Food corporations may provide good food for those willing and able to pay for it, but they will not provide good food for poor people. They can make more money selling poor people “cheap junk food”—meaning foods with an abundance of calories, fat, and salt, but largely lacking in essential nutrients.

The organic and local food movements have emerged as a rejection of the industrial agri-food system, not simply for food safety and environmental reasons but also because of the nutrient-deficient foods produced by industrial agriculture that are further diminished in nutrient value during processing and distribution. With the industrialization of organic foods, many concerned eaters turned to local farmers, to people they knew or could know and could trust, to ensure the nutritional and ecological integrity of their food.  True food security will require nothing less to ensure food quality, meaning nutritious foods produced with ecological and social integrity, to meet the basic food needs of all—including those who are poor and hungry.

Thus far, the sustainable agriculture movement has been reluctant to embrace or even accept a commitment to ensuring enough good food for all. A sustainable agriculture, by definition, must meet the food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for those of the future to meet their food needs as well. Thus far, primary emphasis has been placed on providing opportunities for those who can afford the higher costs of good food today while maintaining the productivity of land and water resources needed for future food production. Little attention has been given to the first requisite of agriculture sustainability: ensuring “enough good food for all.”

The right to good food is a foundational principle of the global Food Sovereignty movement. The movement was initiated globally in the mid-1990s by Via Campesina, an organization bringing together small-scale farmers, farm workers, women farmers, and indigenous people to resist agricultural industrialization. Food Sovereignty is defined as the “people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”[vi]  Food Sovereignty not only proclaims a right to food, but also the right of local communities to determine the basic nature of their own agri-food systems.

While a commitment to national or global food sovereignty may require a few more decades, local commitments for community food sovereignty could be made today. A community could simply proclaim that access to good, sustainably produced food is a fundamental right of everyone in the community. The community could then accept the responsibility of ensuring that right to those who are unable to afford enough good food to meet their basic nutritional needs. Those who benefit directly from the assurance of that right could logically be expected to contribute something of comparable value to the well-being of the community, regardless of the economic value of their contribution. A personal sense of reciprocity could replace impersonal transactions in cases where the markets have failed to provide food security.

Obviously, a commitment to community food security would require some form of local organizational structure to facilitate carrying out the commitment. I have suggested the establishment of Community Food Utilities (CFUs). Some Americans are quick to label government food assistance and other social welfare programs as socialist or communist. Some also might see a “right to food” as a step toward socialism rather than a step toward ensuring the unalienable rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—as proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence. Public utilities are commonly used to provide essential public services such as electricity, water, sewers, and telecommunications. Few people think of their water or electricity as being steps toward socialism or communism. Thus, a Community Food Utility should minimize local political resistance to accepting enough good food as a basic human right, and equally important, could be organized under existing laws that authorize and regulate other public utilities.

Some might question using public utilities for food security because utilities are typically used in cases that economists refer to as “natural monopolies.” For example, it is logical to utilize only one electrical system, water system, or sewer system because of the high cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure for these systems. Only one service provider would constitute a monopoly with the power to exploit its customers. Thus, the justification for government intervention. However, public utilities are appropriate in any case of “market failure.” Natural monopolies are just one example of market failure and hunger is another.

For example, I grew up without electricity, because our house was a couple of miles from the end of the existing “power line.” It didn’t make economic sense to extend the power line to serve a couple of customers who would pay “light bills” of a couple of dollars a month. This wasn’t a case of a natural monopoly, there simply was no economic incentive, but nonetheless a “market failure.” The Rural Electrification Association (REA), a public utility, was established to provide electricity for everyone in the county, regardless of the economic costs and benefits of doing so. The REA even paid electricians to install electrical wiring in our old house—which was quite a task. Access to electricity had become a “right,” rather than a privilege, at least in my county.

Some may contend that a Community Food Utility would represent unfair competition with local food retailers. However, local food retailers are not currently meeting the needs of “everyone” in the county, even if they are offering low quality foods at low prices to people with low incomes. In addition, public utilities are often used to provide public services when private services exist but are inadequate to meet the basic needs of all people in the community or municipality. Public transportation, including busses, light rails, and even taxi cabs, are frequently provided by municipalities or regulated as public utilities.

Public utilities essentially establish local “public service monopolies.” This would allow communities that are committed to local food security to “insulate,” but not isolate, themselves from national and global agri-food markets. One of the primary reasons that hunger has persisted in the U.S. is that current interstate commerce laws have prevented local communities from interfering with the market-based agri-food system that has limited food access to those in low-income areas—rural as well as urban. “Food deserts” in America will persist as long as communities are unable to insulate local food systems from national and global markets. Community Food Utilities could provide a legal means for communities to declare Food Sovereignty: the right to determine the nature of their own community-based food systems.

Legal local protection from the global food system, such as that provided by public utilities, is essential for several logical reasons.  First, wholesome, nutritious, sustainably produced food will cost more to produce than the industrial “junk foods” that are currently affordable for people with low incomes. A CFU could simply choose to pay the higher costs of providing good food to low-income recipients, without allowing potential providers of cheaper industrial foods to compete for the earned incomes or government assistance food dollars of food recipients.

A CFU could also give priority to locally produced and locally processed foods, even if the costs of local foods were higher than similar foods that could be procured elsewhere. A fundamental purpose of the CFU would be to establish personal relationships among food recipients, local farmers and food providers, and members of communities in general. Local procurement of food could also provide the personal assurance that foods purchased by the CFU met locally-determined standards of “good” food—in terms of wholesomeness, nutrition, and ecologically sound and sustainable production methods. The CFU could also assure that local food producers who met those standards of quality were paid enough to cover their production costs plus a reasonable return for investments and efforts—ensuring their economic sustainability. None of these things would be possible without the protection provided by a public utility or local public monopoly.

The higher procurement costs of the CFU could be mitigated by providing raw or minimally-processed foods to recipients. Approximately 85% of the average costs of food in the U.S. is not to cover costs of the actual food but costs of processing, transportation, packaging, advertising, and corporate profits. While these non-food costs cannot be totally eliminated, they can be greatly reduced by providing locally-grown, raw or minimally-processed foods. Raw and minimally processed foods are also higher in nutritional value than are processed foods. Such foods would not ordinarily be selected by many low-income consumers who lack knowledge regarding selection and preparation of healthful foods. The CFU would need to accommodate recipients by providing educational programs for food selection, preparation, home processing and storage, and such. Current government programs supporting food and nutrition education could be administered and augmented by the CFU.

In fact, the CFU could be largely funded by administering all government food assistance programs for which recipients are eligible through the CFU. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program currently provides recipients with a SNAP “debit card” to use to buy food. Additional funds are added to the SNAP card account for each payment period. SNAP funds for which CFU food recipients are eligible could instead be deposited in a CFU account. In return, the CFU would ensure that each recipient received enough good food to meet their basic needs, regardless of the amount of their individual SNAP payment. Some non-profit organizations are currently operating this general fashion. I don’t know how widespread the practice may be, but it’s possible. Funds available to recipients through other public food assistance programs could be handled similarly.

The CFU’s commitment to local food security through food sovereignty would require a commitment to sustainable community development and sustainable local food production. So, the CFU would be eligible for government subsidies and grants that support community development and could also seek grants from non-profit and philanthropic organizations—particularly during the formative stages of conceptual development and implementation. 

No blueprint or recipe for the development of a CFU is possible. Food security through Food Sovereignty would require that each community develop its own food system and CFU to fit the culture of its community and the ecology of its agricultural area. That being said, some common characteristics are likely to evolve over time that define the “essential principles” for successful CFUs. The following are some characteristics that are at least worthy of consideration when contemplating the development of a CFU.

The basic mission of a CFU is: “to ensure enough good, sustainably produced food for members of the community who have insufficient funds to buy enough good food to meet their basic needs.” The maximum levels of income or economic means allowed to be eligible for “membership” in the CFU should be determined locally—reflecting a consensus of the CFU community. However, if government food assistance funds are to be used to support the CFU, federal and state requirements would need to be met or exceeded in determining local CFU requirements. The geographic scope of the CFU would also need to be a factor in determining eligibility, with consideration for maintaining a sense of interpersonal community connectedness. The local community must share common values and a common commitment to community food security.

Membership in the CFU would need to be a voluntary choice on the part of eligible recipients. A CFU would not replace government food assistance programs or food charities but rather would be an additional option that eligible members could choose—similar to “Medicare Advantage” health insurance programs. Some ongoing functions of local food charities could become an integral part of the CFU, but there will always be a need for charities to deal with short-term disruptions in food access. Community members who prefer government food assistance programs would be under no pressure to join the CFU. A logical approach to establishing a CFU might be to start with a pilot program, with an initial limited membership of “believers” in the concept. The concept could be fully implemented and expanded in scope and membership after the inevitable “bugs” have been worked out during the pilot program.

The CFU could be organized utilizing any structure available to public utilities in states where CFUs are located. Existing public utilities include cooperatives, government agencies, and investor-owned/publicly-regulated corporations. The cooperative organizational structure would seem most appropriate for a CFU. The emphases on food security, food sovereignty, and sustainability all suggest that everyone involved with the CFU, or all “stakeholders,” should be involved in organizing and governing the organization. CFUs organized as government agencies, or investor-owned corporations might be more likely to fall back into the same impersonal bureaucratic or economic efficiency patterns that have failed to provide food security.

I have suggested that CFUs be organized as “vertical cooperatives.”[vii]  Most current food-related cooperatives function at “one level” in the “vertical food chain”—linking farmers, to processors, to distributors, to retailers, and finally to consumers. The boards of these ‘horizontal” cooperatives may include representatives of different stakeholder groups, but the focus is on serving the interest of those at one level—whether it is a consumer cooperative, producer cooperative, or focused on some other level in a vertical system. The focus of a vertical cooperative must be on meeting the needs of “all vertical levels” or links in the food system. The system as a whole must be sustainable if the CFU is to continue to provide food security for the community. All recipients and participants in the vertical system would be members of the CFU cooperative.

This suggests also that stakeholders at all levels from farmers to recipients, as well as local government officials and community members, should be involved in governing the organization. Each group could have representatives on the CFU Board with the ability to “veto” any major decision to protect the interests of all. The CFU must be supported by a consensus of the membership to ensure the community consensus essential for its sustainability. CFU managers obviously should be given the authority to make most routine decisions without continually consulting the Board. This decision-making process may be a bit messy, but so are constitutional democracies.

As indicated previously, a CFU should give priority to local producers in procuring foods. The highest priority should be given to local farmers who are willing and able to provide food products that meet locally determined standards of quality and ecological integrity. Priority should be given also to small-scale, local producers who rely on the CFU as a market for a significant part of their production—if not their sole market. The purpose of favoring such producers would be to establish “mutually-beneficial” personal relationships between the CFU and its suppliers. For large-scale producers, the CFU would simply be an unessential niche market, even if the large producers were “local.”

A CFU could have an active program to support beginning local farmers and recruit existing local farmers as CFU suppliers. Beginning farmers in particular might be potential recipients of food as well as food suppliers. The CFU would also give priority to local food processors and packers. As with small producers, this would give priority to those for whom the CFU would represent a major market rather than a nonessential market niche. In cases where critical processing and distribution functions are not available locally, the CFU could encourage and support the establishment of new facilities—or even establish such facilities as part of the CFU.

Food needs of the CFU that cannot be met locally could be met by establishing personal contacts with food networks or individual producers in other communities who are willing to meet local standards for food production. If such sources are not available for some foods, the remaining needs of the CFU could be met by working through local distributors or retailers. Priority would be given to securing foods from elsewhere that best meet the quality and production standards of the CFU, rather than prioritizing food costs. Efforts should be made to include local food retailers and distributors whenever the CFU’s needs cannot be met internally. However, the CFU must be vigilant and avoid being pulled back into the failed “cheap food” mentality of the industrial agri-food system.  

CFUs should make foods available to recipients by a variety of means in order to ensure that the basic food needs of everyone in the community is met. One logical means of distribution would be for the CFU to operate a retail food store where recipients could freely choose food items from the assortment chosen by the CFU to best meet their needs. Their choices at the CFU store would exclude “junk foods,” highly-processed foods, overly-packaged foods, partially-prepared foods, and ready-to-eat foods. A limited variety of dessert items and such might be available, but the emphasis would be on providing ingredients for items that could be prepared at home.

The CFU Board, in collaboration with local dietitians, could decide what kinds of foods to exclude from those made available to recipients.  Other food choices would be made with critical input from recipients, farmers, and other food providers. The food items made available must accommodate the needs of food recipients as well as producers and everyone else in the vertical cooperative system. However, the emphasis on wholesomeness, nutrition, and opportunities for healthy balanced diets must remain the priority of any CFU committed to food security.

Similar assortments of food items could also be provided as weekly or biweekly food boxes. These boxes could be picked up by recipients at convenient pickup points in the community—or perhaps even delivered to recipients’ homes by the CFU. Recipients could be given box options that reflect different preferences—vegetarian, vegan, low-meat, low-carb, and such—but each box would include sufficient variety and quantities of food to provide healthful, balanced meals for the individual or family until the next box is to be picked up or delivered. Recipes and meal planning guides could be provided with each box to ensure that recipients were able to use the foods effectively. One objective of the box programs would be to teach people how to select and prepare healthy meals for themselves. Single meal boxes could be made available for those who are physically or mentally unable to be fully engaged in meal preparation.

The CFU could also work with operators of local commercial kitchens to provide prepared meals for those who have no or very limited abilities to prepare their own meals— “good meals on wheels.” Alternatively, the CFU would operate its own commercial kitchen or could even operate a restaurant to prepare and provide meals for food recipients. In such cases, some provision would need to be made to limit the utilization of prepared meals to some maximum portion of total food provided to individual recipients as a means of controlling the cost of operation.

One of the basic causes of food insecurity is that low-income workers often eat many meals away from home. Or they may pick up or have prepared foods delivered because they don’t feel they have time to cook. They often end up paying high prices for unhealthy food without actually saving very much time. A major task of any CFU will be to help food recipients understand that taking time and learning to prepare nutritious meals at home can often save more money for the family than spending extra hours of work and buying prepared foods. Parents preparing healthful, nutritious meals with children can also be far more important to healthy families and healthy children than spending money for various “lessons” or spending time attending sporting activities. A primary mission of a CFU should be to develop a healthier community food culture, not only for recipients or members of the CFU but for the whole community.

The day-to-day operation of a Community Food Utility must accommodate the social and economic culture of the community. Some communities are more altruistic and might be willing to provide good food to all recipients in need, regardless of the willingness or ability of recipients to provide anything in return. Other communities are more utilitarian and believe that people must earn or be willing to work for whatever they receive.

One alternative means of accommodating a variety of community cultures would be for the CFU to issue its own currency to be used to purchase food available through the CFU. Community Food Dollars, or CFU$, could serve the same basic function as food stamps or SNAP payments in current government food assistance programs—with some notable exceptions. All foods offered by the CFU would be “priced” to allow and to encourage the selection of healthy, balanced diets by recipients.  A sufficient number of CFU$ would be made available to all recipients to ensure their right to food security—enough good food to support healthy, active lifestyles.

For recipients who currently qualify for maximum SNAP payments, particularly those who are disabled or elderly, the allocation of CFU$ would logically be provided to them without requiring anything other than SNAP eligibility. (For simplicity, I will ignore government benefits other than SNAP payments for the following examples.) The CFU would be required to make up any difference between the cost of providing these recipients with food security and the amount of SNAP benefits deposited in the CFU on their behalf.

The amount of current maximum SNAP benefits range from 20% to 25% of maximum incomes for families of one to four people allowed to qualify for SNAP benefits. “Average” SNAP benefits in 2017 were just over $125 per person and $250 “per family” per month. The “maximum” family income for two-member families was about $1,760 per month or $21,120 per year. For simplicity, assume that the median family income in the CFU community is $52,800 per year or 2.50 times as great as the maximum for SNAP recipient families. Next, assume that median-income families in the CFU community on average spend 15% of their income on food, amounting to $7,920 per year or $660 per month. The average family size in the U.S. is about 2.6 people, so food cost per person would be just over $250 per person—compared with $125 per person average SNAP benefits. This means the average deficit or difference between CFU income from SNAP benefits and the average amount non-SNAP families spend on food would be about $125 per person, per month.

Some of this deficit could be made up by focusing on raw and minimally processed foods, but the CFU would also need to come up with additional operating money in addition to government food assistance payments. Since the food made available through the CFU would be greater in quantity—to eliminate hunger, and superior in quality—fresher, more nutritious, and more healthful. Recipients who are physically capable might be asked to make contributions to offset some of the operating costs of the CFU—in money, if fully employed, or time, if not employed or underemployed.

If the average family in the community spends 15% of its income for food, presumably family members spend 15% of their combined working hours earning money to buy food. An alternative for those who cannot afford to pay their share of the operating deficit of the CFU in dollars would be to allow them to spend an equivalent number of hours working for the CFU, or doing something else they are able to do to provide benefits to the community. If SNAP benefits make up only half or 50%of the total CFU costs of providing good food, then recipients might be required to provide one-half as much time as the average person in the community spends working to buy their food. One-half of 15% would be 7.5% or 3 hours of a 40-hour work week.

The work requirement could be adjusted to account for SNAP benefits larger or smaller than the average, the actual CFU operating deficit, and the willingness of the community to fund the CFU with local tax dollars. Those who choose to work for the CFU could contribute time as farmers, farm workers, in food processing, food preparation, nutritional education, food preparation education, food distribution or delivery, clerical work, maintenance, or whatever needs to be done. Those whose talents do not fit the needs of the CFU could contribute to the community in other ways—as musicians, artists, in child care, in nursing homes, or in any other way the CFU deems is of real value to the community. Time is the greater leveler of human value. We all have only 24 hours a day and none of us knows how many days we have left.

CFU$ would then represent a composite of government food assistance benefits and earned benefits for those able to work and provide valuable services to the CFU directly or to the larger community. For recipients who are fully employed or prefer to supplement their SNAP benefits with US dollars, CFU$ would represent a composite of the two sources. CFU prices could be assigned to accommodate the various options for securing food—the coop supermarket, food boxes, meal boxes, or home delivery. A CFU might decide to operate a restaurant or other retail prepared food service to provide an attractive alternative means of food access. If so, a limited percentage of special CFU$ could be allocated for prepared foods to encourage the purchase of raw or minimally processed foods for home preparation.

Over time, as local food production expands beyond the amounts needed to eliminate local hunger, CFU$ could be made available for purchase by anyone in the community. The cost of community purchases would be sufficient to cover the CFU’s full cost of items purchased, in order to avoid unfair competition with local food retailers. This would be similar to public transportation systems. Once they are operational, those who can afford private transportation are asked to pay a full share of the total cost of public transportation. When shopping in the CFU supermarket, eating in the CFU restaurant, or receiving a CFU food box, the community member who paid full cost for their CFU$ would be indistinguishable from those who paid less than full cost, worked for the CFU, or were unable to contribute anything of economic value. Relationships formed by patronizing and participating in the CFU would perhaps be the most important community-building aspect of the community food sovereignty program.

With the success of the CFU and positive testimonials of CFU families, more SNAP recipients would voluntarily choose to join the CFU, until “involuntary” hunger or food insecurity is eliminated from the community.  There will always be some people who will choose “junk food” or choose to live “on the streets” and beg for money to buy food.  As more non-SNAP community members join the CFU the quality and variety of its services can expand accordingly. At some point, the CFU could begin to provide food through local schools, hospitals, and other publicly supported local institutions.

As local farmers expanded in numbers and volume of production beyond the needs of their local community, they can begin providing food to other markets—giving priority to other CFUs that are being established in their bioregions. Community food sovereignty does not mean community self-sufficiency, but simply the right and the ability to choose what food items communities produce locally and what they choose to procure from other communities.

Relationships among sovereign communities would not be impersonal economic or political relationships but personal relationships based on a shared commitment to the fundamental principles of food sovereignty— “people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Slowly but surely, the “trim tabs” of food sovereign communities will begin to move national and global agri-food systems toward a more just and sustainable future for humanity. The poor will always be among us, but if we care enough, the poor need not be hungry.

End Notes

[i] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation; The Political and Economic Origins of our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944, 1957).

[ii] Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, 1795, 

[iii] Economic Research Service, USDA, Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2017, .

[iv] CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” 1968,

[v], Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services,,For%20additional%20information%2C%20see%20below.

[vi] Carney, M. (2012). “Food security” and “food sovereignty”: What frameworks are best suited for social equity in food systems? Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 2(2), 71–88.  

[vii] Ikerd, J. (2013). Reflections on cooperation. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. .