Tompkins Weekly

Building sustainable, equitable food systems

Katie Hallas, coordinator of Tompkins Food Future, and Don Barber, chair of the Tompkins County Food Policy Council. Photos provided.

Food is a necessity for life. But with agriculture, food became a commodity and, as such, a source of power. The 2020 global food system was valued at $6.1 trillion. Corporations have grown to control between 80 and 95% of local food systems. Food production can happen anywhere the building blocks of soil, water and sun exist.

Even in Tompkins County, with several farmers markets, roadside stands, CSAs and its “foodie” culture, corporate players control most food sold and consumed in our county. At the same time, this abundance is not enjoyed by all residents.

The history of the U.S. food system is dark, rooted in oppression and racism. European colonization meant the land upon which our food was ultimately farmed was stolen from Indigenous peoples. Slavery was more than just a regional institution of cruelty — it was the driver of U.S. economic prosperity and the origin of inequities still plaguing our nation today.

This historical context matters when it comes to understanding the food-related health, economic and social disparities experienced by Black, Brown and Indigenous people today. Food system inequities include but are not limited to:

  • Lack of access to land and food production resources: Fewer than five of over 525 farmers in Tompkins County are farmers of color. In New York state, there are only 139 Black farmers among the 57,000 total farmers.
  • Food access and security: In Tompkins County, despite representing 4% of the total population, Black residents were overrepresented among SNAP (food stamp) recipients at 12.7%. Nationwide, Black Americans face food insecurity rates twice those of white households.
  • Food as a barrier to and predictor of health: Diabetes and other nutrition-related illnesses are higher among communities of color. Black people in Tompkins County have a 96% higher rate of diabetes hospitalizations compared to white people.

While consumers think of food as the sustenance of life, corporations think of food as profit centers, and these impacts are widely felt. Rural communities are seeing the wealth and profit from local food production sucked into the bottom lines of the largest food corporations. At the same time, communities of color — whose wisdom, labor and leadership have long been the backbone of the U.S. food system — are ravaged by this system.

Almost every part of the supply chain — from seed suppliers to processors to grocery stores — has become highly concentrated. Consolidation among food processing corporations has dramatically reduced the number of buyers for milk, meat and other farm products.

This has allowed a few dominant players to dictate prices and terms to farmers. And this unbridled market power affects workers and wages all the way down the supply chain.

Most of the items on grocery store shelves come from a handful of megacorporations that dominate the industry. This has led to vulnerabilities in our food supply, as demonstrated by the need for food pantries in every community, and most recently, even the food secure portion of our population was impacted by shortages caused by COVID-19.

Our “cheap” food system is built on externalized costs. The U.S. food system externalizes the costs of diet-related disease; air pollution from livestock operations, processing and shipping; soil loss and destruction with chemical fertilizers; use of finite resources like petroleum; the economic decline of rural communities; and much more.

Industrial agriculture would not be nearly as profitable for agricultural corporations and they would not produce food so cheaply if corporations had to take these expenses into account.

Community food system planning efforts, like Tompkins Food Future (led by the Tompkins County Food Policy Council), aim to strengthen local food systems by addressing root causes of injustice and inequity and bringing about a more sustainable, equitable vision for our community’s future.

Funded by Tompkins County and the Community Foundation, we are gathering input, insight and data from the community about our current food system and then beginning our work to articulate the community’s vision for our food future.

Our goal is to develop a comprehensive long-term plan for an equitable, sustainable, affordable, healthy food system. Reversing this corporate concentration while eliminating policies and practices that reinforce differential outcomes by social identities such as race, class, gender and others is critical for creating a fair and sustainable food system.

We can choose a different future if we put control over our food system back in the hands of the people, particularly local, small-scale food producers and those most impacted by food system challenges.

Because we are all eaters, we’re all part of the food system. All Tompkins County residents are invited and welcome to join this community effort to bring about much-needed change to our local food system. To join the Food Policy Council, volunteer for the Food System Planning Team, or simply to share and learn more, visit: or email Katie Hallas

Katie Hallas has worked in sustainable community development and food systems for 15 years as an educator, planner, grant maker and program designer. She has worked on farms throughout the Northeast, helped launch a food co-operative in Keene, New York, developed nonprofit programs as a board member of the Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming in Ithaca and led the Sustainable Ithaca grantmaking program at the Park Foundation in Ithaca.

Hallas also taught in the Sustainable Farming and Food Systems Program at Tompkins Cortland Community College and led long-term community planning initiatives throughout Tompkins County. Hallas is the coordinator of Tompkins Food Future.

Don Barber has been connected to farming in Tompkins County his entire life. He was a founding member of the Tompkins County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board and served on the Caroline Town Board for 22 years. In his retirement, he and his wife Rita operate Rosebarb Farm in Brooktondale. Don is the chair of the Tompkins County Food Policy Council.

The Democratic View is edited by Tompkins County Democratic Committee Communications Director Renate Ferro. Democratic residents with current topics are invited to submit them for consideration. Contact

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