Food System Thinking at LEAP (Local Environmental Agriculture Project) in Roanoke, VA

By: Maureen McNamara Best, Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP) (

We all eat. So that means we all understand, value, and think about food, agriculture, and food producers, right?

As a society, our school systems and holidays still nod to our agrarian past. But for most us, our lives are not structured around soil preparation, planting time, harvest schedules, or feeding livestock. And, if at all, we only spend a couple minutes a day thinking about where our food comes—and that time is probably focused on the logistics of purchasing food from a retailer and/or consuming a prepared meal. In a complex, industrialized society— we specialize. And in that sense, the food industry is no different. But at what cost?

Based on 2012 USDA Agriculture Census data, farmers in the Roanoke region produced over 2.5 times (in sales value) more livestock, poultry, and their products ($125,637,000) than crops, including nursery and greenhouse crops ($50,086,000). In 2012, the vast majority (81%) of the harvested cropland was in forage crops and less than 1% was in vegetable production and orchards. The remaining 18% of harvested cropland was used to grow corn, wheat, oats, barley, and sorghum for grain, soybeans and tobacco.

Fruits and vegetables are considered “specialty crops” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And they are special (as compared to commodity crops like corn, wheat, cotton)— they have short shelf lives, don’t ship well, require human labor to plant, grow and harvest, and are seasonal.

In the Roanoke region, farms with direct sales (roadside stands, farmers markets, pick-your-own, and door-to-door sales) have increased between 2007 and 2012 (from 5.25% to 8.12% of total farms), but they still make up less than 1.5% of the total market value of sales in the region. If we, as consumers, want to be able to eat freshly picked snap peas, taste the yolks of pastured eggs, and snack on sun-ripened cherry tomatoes then we have to work together to support the people young and old who grow this food in our community.

Over the years I have learned to avoid the phrase “food system” because people’s eyes glaze over and they tune out. We eat food. But we don’t think about power, industry, systems, farmers, distribution, waste, cost of production, contract farming, etc. as part of “food.”

Here at LEAP (Local Environmental Agriculture Project), we try to make the not-thought-of food system infrastructure visible, viable, and strong. In 2009, we started the Grandin Village Farmers Market to provide a market outlet for small-scale local farmers/food producers (100-mile radius) and to make it easier for people to buy local food. In 2010, we opened a second, year-round market, West End Farmers Market. In 2011, LEAP markets started accepting and matching SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, formerly known as food stamps), the cornerstone of our Healthy Food Incentive Program. To further meet our mission to nourish healthy communities and resilient local food systems, we launched the LEAP Mobile Market in 2015 and in 2016 we opened The Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen and food business incubator.  In 2017, we published a Food and Agriculture report of the “Roanoke Local” region and held a series of Farmer Listening Sessions (click here for more) to help guide our efforts to make local food economically viable.

This work is complicated, messy, but we hope not impossible. In the words of one farmer, “can you really have a system that works both for consumers and farmers? Or are those different stakeholders and how are you being really conscious of that? … Not that consumers aren’t an important piece of this, obviously that’s how this whole thing runs, but if we are not focused on what begins the food system which is farmers and farm viability, I think we are really missing something and just catering to the convenience of consumers and forgetting the producers.”

As a region, communities of people, and a collective food system, we have a long road ahead of us. How can we plan today for the future of agriculture, food, health, community, and land use in 50 years? 200 years? We are stronger together. Here’s to the journey!