Foodsheds Part 1: Restoring our Sense of Place

Feature Stories Summer 2011 Issue

Foodsheds Part 1: Restoring our Sense of Place

By Jessica Luhning 0

Thirty years ago, Frances Moore Lappé ignited the real food conversation with her bestselling book Diet for a Small Planet, and more recently, authors like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) have brought the conversation into the mainstream.

The real food conversation has made us increasingly more mindful of how our food choices can strengthen place-based relationships between local farmers, food producers and community. As a society of eaters, we are being asked to shift our conscious behavior and do more than just debate our food choices. We are being encouraged to rebuild lost food connections in an effort to strengthen the sustainability of local food systems. Through this conversation we have learned that by choosing food that is local, organic and sustainable we are not only improving our health, but the health of our communities and biophysical environments as well. In the process, we are also restoring our sense of place.

Food in its raw, most simple form is nourishment and an earth-given right, as declared by the principals of the food sovereignty movement. It is a right that has become so convoluted that the connections between soil, seed, food and body have nearly disappeared. In The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells argues the fundamental fact that places are becoming more diluted and diffused. With global interdependence we lose the connections between food and the land from which it was sourced, and as a result, we may be losing our sense of place.

Food and the concept of a “foodshed” are inherently embedded in place and naturally serve as a catalyst to understanding and reconnecting with one’s sense of place. The vision of a foodshed was first introduced by W.P. Hedden in his 1929 book, How Great Cities Are Fed. The idea lay dormant until the 1991 Permaculture Activist article “Urban Foodsheds,” where author Arthur Getz used the concept to describe how local and regional food systems work. Then in 1996, UW-Madison Community and Environmental Sociology Professor Jack Kloppenburg and his colleagues, John Hendrickson and G.W. Stevenson, reinvigorated the concept in their article “Coming In To The Foodshed” where they describe the concept as follows:

How better to grasp the shape and the unity of something as complex as a food system than to graphically imagine the flow of food into a particular place? Moreover, the replacement of ‘water’ with ‘food’ does something very important: it connects the cultural (‘food’) to the natural (‘…shed’). The term ‘foodshed’ thus becomes a unifying and organizing metaphor for conceptual development that starts from a premise of the unity of place and people, of nature and society.

In a recent conversation with Professor Kloppenburg, we discussed how one’s foodshed serves as a “starting point for personal reflections” on food and place. Kloppenburg spoke about food as a “portal to place.” Through food we can begin to ask place-based questions like “What food grows in the Driftless Region?” and “How does the topography of southern Wisconsin affect agricultural systems and the natural environment?” and “What types of food crops are most suitable for my region?” We will be inspired to think about the places where our food grows and ask “Where is Star Valley?” or “Where is Vermont Valley?” and “What does the land look like there and how do the land uses upstream impact the food that is grown in the valley?”

Kloppenburg believes through knowing our foodshed we can “enhance our understanding of sustainability as we reconnect with the biophysical environment and the place in which we are embedded.” So how do we begin to know our foodshed?

Foodsheds do not have hard and fixed boundaries but are, instead, made distinct by place-based features, such as population size and attributes, farmland and farmers, climate and soil, food infrastructure and food outlets, transportation, water resources, economic activities, cultural traditions and ethnicities.

Kloppenburg visualizes a foodshed as a network of “flows,” like rivers of food flowing toward you, and uses the following exercise as a method to understanding how we as humans fit within this network. Imagine yourself as a point in a particular place. Now imagine how your food flows to you. Envision a network of flows starting from the source of your food to your dinner table.

Kloppenburg’s exercise triggers a series, or mosaic, of rich mental images. These images are rooted in your personal perception of your foodshed and are inflected by the preconceptions, values and emotions of your sense of place. What if you were to “map” these images? Mapping one’s foodshed is a great way to begin to understand your foodshed while also reconnecting with place.

Mentally Mapping your Foodshed
It is partly through maps that I have come to understand the places I have lived, traveled and daydreamed. My graduate school professor of geography, Gigi Berardi, would instruct my graduate cohort and I to create “mental maps” to help us better understand how we as individuals and as a group of people perceive a particular geographic space. Mental maps and the process of creating one can be used to help us easily organize information about people, places and environments in a spatial context. In mental mapping, we use colors, images, codes, key words and numbers to graphically represent our thoughts about a central idea, concept or topic. It is essentially a person’s perception of place.

You can use this fun exercise to better understand your foodshed. Mental maps can be completed by any person of any age, so long as you can do both of the following: 1) Close your eyes and imagine your home, community, food and food sources; and 2) Hold and maneuver a coloring device (marker, pencil and/or crayon) of your choice.

Mental Map Instructions
All that you need to draw a mental map:

  • Paper
  • Color markers, pencils and/or crayons
  • A comfortable place to work with a hard, steady surface
  • Your imagination!

Find that comfortable place to let your mind and imagination run free. There is no right or wrong way to map your foodshed. The colors, images, codes, key words and numbers you use are completely your own and represent your thoughts. Physical distances are often distorted, so don’t fret about the scale(s) used in your map…just start mapping!

You can do this exercise alone or get your family, friends and coworkers involved. Mental maps are a wonderful education and discussion tool. You will be surprised to see how people in your life perceive familiar places similarly or, often, very differently.

If you find that you are unable to map your foodshed because you are not familiar with the sources of your food and how it flows to you from field to plate, take this as an opportunity to begin your own journey of food enlightenment. Visit your local food co-op or other natural food grocery and ask the friendly staff about the farmers and food producers that supply them with local, organic and sustainably produced food. Take a trip to the farmers market and talk to your farmers face-to-face. There are many great things about farmers, but one of the best is that they love to talk about their passion: growing food for community members like you.

When you are finished with your map, please send it to us by August 1, 2011. We will use a selection of foodshed maps drawn by readers in the follow-up article, “Foodsheds: Part II,” which will appear in the fall issue of Edible Madison. In addition, readers’ maps will appear on the Edible Madison website for your viewing pleasure.

You may email your map to, or send by postal mail to Edible Madison, P.O. Box 2, Viroqua, WI 54665. Electronic scans must be a high-resolution (300 dpi or higher) file. Be sure to include your name, address and age with your submission.

Happy mapping!

Jessica Luhning is a writer intrigued by the origins of great flavor and inspired by people and places that care about good, clean food. With an M.S. in Geography and Natural Resource Planning she founded and guided the helm of the Wisconsin-based consulting firm EarthVision for seven years. Now exploring the mountains, forests and farms of central Oregon, she relishes in her new remote role as Grant & Resource Development Manager for Organic Valley. Writing, eating, planting, scheming and day-dreaming make full the spaces between honest work and family escapades.

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