Food policy covers more than health and welfare; it is also a key component of emergency preparedness and homeland security. A community’s ability to withstand disasters – to be what Gaston Armour, Statewide Emergency Preparedness coordinator in the Illinois Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness, calls a “resilient community” – necessarily depends upon the community’s ability to provide food for its citizens in troubled times. One key to being resilient is producing as much food as possible as close to home as possible, he said.

“We understand that people think they’re self-sufficient, but they don’t know just how vulnerable they are,” said Mr. Armour. Most food travels between 1,200 and 1,500 miles before reaching Evanston tables. The Chicago area has a standing food supply that would last only 2 to 5 days, and that includes all foodstuffs stored in huge warehouse stores like Sam’s Club and Costco stores. Because of a “mechanized model” that dictates that retail outlets do not store food but rather simply bring more in, interruptions in the supply chain could prove disastrous.

Any of a number of scenarios could lead to prolonged interruptions in the supply chain, Mr. Armour said. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, man-made disasters, like the September 11 attacks, or economic disasters, like the 1970s oil embargo or even a stock-market crash, could result in a transportation halt that would prevent food from reaching Evanston, continued Mr. Armour. “People could literally starve to death if the system breaks down,” he added.

“We have to change the way we think,” Mr. Armour said, adding, “Right now, we don’t have a systematic, organized way to feed our populace.” His agency promotes the relocalization of food production and distribution, with a stated goal of supplying as much food as possible within 150 to 200 miles of where it is consumed. We need to think of food supply in both quantitative as qualitative terms as well, he said. The quality of the food, nutritionally and in policy terms, is just as important as the quantity of food.

Part of changing the way we think is as simple as planting gardens. Citing Michelle Obama’s Victory Garden and community garden efforts in Detroit, Mr. Armour said he believes relocalization efforts are gaining traction.  

Still, a truly sustainable model has a long way to go. “We live in a world so skewed from true north… and we’ve got some choices to make,” he concludes.

Food policy extends beyond spectacular disasters and includes slow-developing disasters as well. “Most people don’t know that our food-growing policy is harmful,” said Mr. Armour at a Nov. 21 meeting [convened by Evanston’s Food Policy Council and titled “Home Grown Evanston.”]

Transporting food over great distances burns tremendous amounts of fossil fuels and pollutes the environment. Further, health disasters such as a diabetes epidemic are directly linked to an over-reliance on processed food and the omnipresence of unhealthy ingredients in foods. Mr. Armour said he views relocalization as a potent method of combating these types of disasters as well.

Mr. Armour’s agency is collaborating with state and local partners to promote and help support relocation efforts.“If we can’t buy [food from local farmers] in mass, then maybe we can at least compost cafeteria scraps. We have to do something,” he said. “If something happens, at least we can be somewhat self-sufficient.”