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My Turn: Serving our food system

The Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board (FHREB) has been working for a number of years to better understand jobs in a sustainable or green economy.

We’ve built partnerships with clean energy companies and developed expertise in these occupations, training and industry credentials. This learning curve has been an important one for FHREB and Career Center staff as well as our region and has led us to broaden our understanding of green jobs. It has also helped us to recognize more fully the green jobs that are already so much a part of the fabric of Franklin and Hampshire counties: those in the agricultural industry — a core and key industry for us.

To aid us in this understanding, we supported the recent research of the Massachusetts Workforce Alliance to examine jobs in our regional food system, “Local Food, Local Jobs: Job Growth and Creation in the Pioneer Valley Food System.” This research uses a broad lens and examines not only agricultural work on farms, but also the work in processing, distribution, sales and local food waste management.

Of the multiple recommendations that the report highlights, there are several focused on the role that workforce development organizations such as the FHREB and Career Centers can play in helping to build a strong regional food system. Some of this work we already do. Yearly, our One Stop Career Center staff work with farms across the valley to help them secure seasonal workers. And yet, even in a time of high unemployment, there continue to be difficulties in staffing agricultural operations. One of our primary roles as a REB is to align employer needs with ready workers. As the local food movement grows in response to public health, food safety and environmental issues, we need to know how workforce development can lean in to help make that match.

A critical piece of this endeavor is to educate ourselves on the work of bringing food to our tables: growing it, as well as preparing it, moving it from farm to processing kitchen, to stores and restaurants, into our breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and ultimately back into soil or clean energy through composting and anaerobic digestion operations. Typically, in workforce development, we don’t always see the connections between truck driving for a food distributor and cooking in a food processing kitchen, or operating heavy equipment at a compost operation and working in a produce department. In a regional food system, local food is the thread that connects these different jobs. Helping our staff and job seekers follow this thread in considering work opportunities, and the skills and knowledge needed to be well qualified workers, will make us better able to capitalize on our unique assets in the Pioneer Valley — generation upon generation of farming wisdom and experience, and some of the most fertile soils on earth.

Taking this kind of systems view — one of the key overall recommendations of the report — helps us, job seekers, entrepreneurs, teachers and trainers to see that despite having a relatively strong food system in the valley, there are aspects of it that can be stronger. Food manufacturing is one such example. Massachusetts has been working hard to rebuild and strengthen its manufacturing base, which typically has included machining and plastics operations. Food manufacturing, while definitely a manufacturing operation, has unique considerations: food safety, the complexities of local sourcing in our New England climate, regulatory compliance and a shifting regulatory environment among them. We can, as the entity that helps to prepare workers for industry needs, work with current local food system employers as they build out their businesses, including food manufacturing. While local food is the thread, the system includes a diverse variety of inputs and outputs, including labor, research and education; workforce development professionals providing job training, education and job readiness services have their part to play in strengthening our local food system.

Bringing a systems view to our Pioneer Valley food system will spur job creation contends the Massachusetts Workforce Alliance in their report. The valley, ripe with local agriculture, innovative distribution models, CISA’s long-standing, nationally recognized “Be A Local Hero” campaign, and a startling number of new, young, serious and visionary farmers already functions as a system, with local strawberries in Snow’s/Bart’s ice cream, and valley broccoli prepped and frozen at the Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s Food Processing Center and eaten by school students at valley schools.

And, yet, as interconnected as our valley’s food system already is, there are ways it can grow stronger: enhancing food security (i.e. ensuring more of what we eat comes from here), creating jobs such as processing, delivering, selling locally produced food and increasing our collective health and the health of our environment. What this will take is intentional action to spur and support local food manufacturing operations making ready-to-serve local food offerings, bringing online poultry, meat and dairy processing, and continuing to build out season extending techniques at local farms.

It also requires we solve long-standing labor challenges that relate directly to the seasonality of our production, making food system jobs attractive to workers.

This is not only food for thought, but food for action.

Patricia Crosby is executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board and Alex Risley Schroeder is program director for the Massachusetts Workforce Alliance.

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