From the farm to the fork, there’s an immense amount of work that goes into determining what we eat.

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council’s newly-released Greater Pittsburgh Food Action Plan is an attempt to understand our complicated, interlocking local food system — which includes 8,500 food facilities and 420 farms in Allegheny County — and push for a regional food economy that benefits all.

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

“Food insecurity is higher in the city of Pittsburgh than it is the county or the U.S. as a whole,” says Urban Agriculture and Food Policy Advisor for the city of Pittsburgh, Shelly Danko+Day, who is part of the project team.

Among Pittsburgh residents, 21% were classified as “food insecure” before Covid, Danko+Day says. “It’s now estimated to be as much as 35 to 40 percent,” she notes. “So that’s a big problem. People don’t have enough food to live an active life.”

The 125-page Food Action Plan looks at how to have maximum impact in both incremental and transformative ways. It’s a community-driven assessment and strategy for improving how we grow, distribute and dispose of food in Allegheny County.

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, to build a healthy, just, equitable and sustainable food system in Allegheny County,” says Dawn Plummer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council.

“There’s 150 strategies that we’ve identified. In light of Covid and rising racial injustice, we’ve been really working to prioritize the focus of our network.”

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

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

Our strengths

Pittsburgh’s food system does have some advantages.

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

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

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

“We need continued investment of all kinds,” says Plummer. “In community food systems, and neighborhoods having access to things like farmer’s markets, gardens and farms.”

One concern? “The average age of the farmer is in the upper 50s,” says Plummer. “So if we want to be teaching people to grow food in the future, we really need to grow a new generation of growers.”

Farming in Allegheny County shows some surprising strengths as well.

“I’d say that particularly during Covid-19, we’ve seen an intensification of the work being led by our Black farmers and growers in the region,” says Plummer. “There was skyrocketing needs for food, and rising rates of food insecurity. We’ve had tremendous clusters of Black-led community organizations who have been really been using the 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 didn’t change but they did became more obvious.

“One of the only positive things that came out of this was the pandemic helped to shed a light on all the cracks in our system,” says Danko+Day. “It was the perfect time for the Food Action Plan to be done, too, to fill in those gaps with local solutions.”

Food security encompasses many factors, from not having enough money to buy food to convenient access to SNAP.

“Are there 20 hills to climb to get to the grocery store? When they get the food home, do they have a pan? 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 are working on these problems every day, who need support.