Reclaiming our food sovereignty

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With this blog, I have explored the myriad variables that influence how and what we place on our tables. Food is a key part of our day, our lives, and our connection with each other and the planet. We cannot afford to sacrifice quality, natural products for corporate gain and convenience. Processed and fast foods are much more expensive than the “everyday low price” that they claim. We are spending countless dollars to treat our malnourished bodies and land.

Communities have the power to create their own food sovereignty. Local food production liberates people from the tight grip of addicting processed foods. We are all capable of growing food, of taking control of our diets, and demanding fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables.

Nutritious food is a right and it should not have to be expensive or special. We rely on the federal government to supply the nutritional assistance programs but it is up to cities and communities to produce properly diverse and beneficial food supplies.

When we grow in cities and support small and mid-size farmers, we are supporting the future of food. These are the farmers will grow crops over than corn, soybean, and wheat. They will care about the impact on the land and about their consumers.

Local food systems address the needs of a community and provide the nutritious food necessary to lead a productive life. When residents get involved and collaborate, amazing new innovations occur. We create more safe, fun, and green places that empower populations to control their own fate. Food is revolutionary by nature. The more we come together with resources and ideas, the more power we will have over our food choices.

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How is food waste integrated into the system?

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I have discussed policy, production, distribution, and marketing of food in a community. Another key component to a sustainable food system is waste management. Wasting food is a huge problem in the United States; about 40% of food each year goes uneaten, which equates to about $165 billion in food that is thrown out (Plumer, 2012). Large, industrial farms are one reason. The longer distances our food travels, the bigger the chance that grocers will overstock or that food goes bad quicker and gets thrown away earlier.

Community food systems are more efficient for waste management. Composting can greatly decrease the amount of methane given off from discarded fruits and vegetables (Plumer, 2012). In turn, urban farmers can use the compost to fertilize their soil.

Reducing food waste can also tie into strategies to reduce hunger in communities. The Interfaith Food Shuttle, in North Carolina, recovers food from food retailers before it is thrown away and uses it to make free hot meals for anyone in need. In 2011, they recovered 7.1 million points of food from over 350 donors. They also have urban agriculture, nutrition, and job training programs to address hunger from a variety of levels.

Doug Rouch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is starting a store called Daily Table that will prepare food that is past its sell-by date and sell the meals at junk food prices (Reeves, 2013). Rouch demonstrates that our food does not have to be perfect to eat. The closer the connection to our food, the more we will appreciate the intricate steps it takes to get to the table.

The issue of our food system is not the amount that we produce, it is the way we grow it and the way it is distributed to various populations. Each level of the food system is interconnected; our health and environment is dependent on these processes.

Plumer, B. (2012). How the U.S. manages to waste $165 billion in food each year. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/08/22/how-food-actually-gets-wasted-in-the-united-states/

Reeves, H. (2013). ‘In the old days, you’d smell the milk’ Doug Rouch wants to sell outdated food at junk-food prices. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/magazine/doug-rauch-wants-to-sell-outdated-food-at-junk-food-prices.html?_r=0

How is local food distributed?

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Urban agriculture provides us with locally sourced, fresh produce. However, local food would be much less valuable without a solid infrastructure to link farmers with institutions, businesses, and food markets. Small to mid-size farmers often have difficulty fitting with the large U.S. food infrastructure and regulations. Without the marketing and processing tools that large producers have, farmers lack access to the commercial markets they need to earn a living wage.

Food hubs have become the essential tools to develop local food infrastructures within regions and cities. Food hubs are a central component of the food value chain; a collaborative business network of all levels of the food system that coordinate activities to meet common financial, social, and environmental goals (Barham et al., 2012). Not only do they provide key distribution for small and mid-size farmers, they can create strategic alliances, process and store produce, increase sales, and provide security for farmers (Cohen, 2012).

Local food hubs are central to sustainable food systems and they are well-connected businesses that promote local buying to consumers and institutions. More importantly, they represent visible and active advocates for farmers. Support for farmers is arguably the most important part of a food system because if there are no farmers, there is no food. East Carolina Organics, in North Carolina, calls the growers after orders are placed so they know exactly what to harvest. Each year, they collaborate with customers and farmers to tailor their businesses based on local market demand. They also educate the public about the benefits of buying local, organic, and seasonal produce. Just by looking at their homepage you can get a sense of what food hubs are all about: a close and fair connection between the farmer and our table.

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 Food hubs connect the key sectors of local food systems. They provide restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, and schools with much needed fruits and vegetables. They boost local economy by providing crucial services. Also, a full capacity food hub could create 400 jobs and 60 million dollars of revenue for local economies (Barham et al., 2012). Accessible markets provide flexibility and security so that farmers can improve and thrive.

Barham, J., Tropp, D., Enterline, K., Farbman, J., Fisk, J., Kiraly, S. (2012). Regional food hub resource guide: Food hub impacts on regional food systems, and the resources available to support their growth and development. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5097957

Cohen, B.R. (2012). All praise the civics of food hubs. Civil Eats. Retrieved from: http://civileats.com/2012/09/07/all-praise-the-civics-of-food-hubs/

What motivates the urban agriculture movement?

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Americans are building development projects over farmland. According to the American Farmland Trust and the 2007 National Resources Inventory, 4,1324,800 acres of rural land were converted between 1982 and 2007. As I stated in a previous post, a majority of healthy foods are grown in vulnerable areas for development. Therefore, sustainable land use is central to the healthy food revolution.

Urban populations are growing rapidly and many communities are at risk for low-access to fresh food. Conveniently, there is land that can be un-developed; in 2001, 15.4% of urban lands were vacant (Schless-Meier, 2013). Vacant lots often represent economic decline; they are desolate and unproductive. High concentrations of abandoned lots inhabit low-income communities, which must deal with the depreciated property values and crime that the vacant lots promote (Schless-Meier, 2013). The most logical, beneficial, and transformational thing to do with these properties: grow on them.

There are a number of ways to operate urban agriculture. Commercial farms are owned by a farmer that sells produce for profit. Institutional farms are operated by an organization or group  ; produce can be sold or used for other collective farming purposes. Farmers can use Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), so that consumers can “subscribe” to their produce on a weekly basis. Community gardens are usually maintained by a group of people that grow the food to consume for themselves or give away. Sometimes community gardens are organized by a group that rent out plots for individual use.

The suitable location for these changes is near urban centers. Urban agriculture has a number of benefits to a community’s environment, social interactions, health, and economy. Urban farming adds important green space that is depleted from urban sprawl. It reduces carbon emissions by growing food nearby, opposed to the thousands of miles food travels now (Howard). Farms reduce water runoff, create shade, and reduce the heat island effect in cities (Howard).

Urban agriculture also positively impacts the health of cities. Adults who live with someone participating in a community garden were 3.5 times more likely to consume fruits and vegetables five times a day compared to someone who does not (Alaimo, Packnett, Miles, & Kruger, 2008). Urban farms often offer cooking and nutrition classes that teach urban dwellers how to cook the food that they grow (Design Trust for Public Space, 2012). Where there is proximity for fresh food and the opportunity to grow our own fruits and vegetables, it will improve our connection to healthy food.

Urban farms can also improve local economies. Food is delivered faster because it is traveling very few miles. Therefore, stores can restock more often and waste less food. There are more opportunities to buy directly from farmers or to grow your own food, so the selections are mark-up free. One can receive six dollars worth of vegetables for every one dollar invested in an urban garden (James, 2012). Also, in local markets there is a deeper awareness of the supply and demand, the cultural preferences, and behavior of the consumers (James, 2012). Most importantly, the income stays within the community instead of a multinational corporation. And this income goes toward healthy food, which will save everyone money from medical costs.

Urban agriculture utilizes all the strengths of a community: collaboration, hard work, utilizing existing resources, and social capital. As our agricultural land depletes, we must begin to create our own green and productive spaces for the betterment of our towns and cities. I will explore some urban farm movements and their impact on cities in my next post.

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All from National Geographic: Urban Farming Is Growing a Green Future

Alaimo, K., Packnett, E., Miles, R.A., & Kruger, D.J. (2008). Fruit and vegetable intake among urban community gardeners. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 40, 43-101. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2006.12.003.

Howard, B.C. Urban farming is growing a green future: Green Gotham. National Geographic. Retrieved from: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/photos/urban-farming/#/earth-day-urban-farming-new-york-rooftop_51631_600x450.jpg

James, Adam. (2012). How urban farming can transform our cities – And our agricultural system. Think Progress. Retrieved from: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/29/491271/how-urban-farming-can-transform-our-cities-and-our-agricultural-system/

Metrics Framework. (2012). Design Trust for Public Space. Retrieved from: http://www.fiveboroughfarm.org/impact/

Schleiss-Meier, Adrien. (2013, July 26). K(no)w Vacancy: From NY to PA, urban land maps support reclaiming abandoned lots. Civil Eats. Retrieved from: http://civileats.com/2013/07/26/know-vacancy-from-new-york-to-philadelphia-urban-land-maps-support-communities-in-reclaiming-abandoned-lots/

What’s happening to our farmland?. American Farmland Trust. Retrieved from: http://www.farmland.org/resources/fote/default.asp

What are the impacts on public health?

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The food industry has a fundamental influence on the American food diet and culture. Processed foods with high quantities of high fructose corn syrup, salt, hydrogenated oils and fat are ubiquitous. Fast food and pre-prepared foods are high in energy but have very little nutritional value (Neff, Palmer, McKenzie, & Lawrence, 2009). These images have become the norm:

We are all fully aware that chronic diseases like obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are a serious threat to the public health of the United States. Since 1980, the number of obese adults has more than doubled and the number of obese children is now four times what it was thirty years ago (Ikerd, 2010). These rates are not a result of poor self-control or refusal to diet, they stem from the food system.

The biotechnology giant, Monsanto, exhibits this widespread impact. Monsanto’s website labels them as a “sustainable agriculture” company and that their aim is to improve food security around the world. This seems like an admirable goal. In America, 11.1% of people are food insecure and 4.1% have “very low food security” (Neff et al., 2009).

However, Monsanto’s website says, “Our goal is to double yields of corn, soybeans, cotton, and spring-planted canola between 2000 and 2030.” They expect this will also reduce hunger around the world. However, their business is intrinsically benefits industrial agriculture and the imbalance in food production towards unhealthy foods. Clearly they would rather sustain the unsustainable monoculture that already threatens our land and livelihood. Although the claims that genetically engineered food cause serious health issues (such as allergies and cancer) are troubling, the larger issue is the hidden cost of high incentives for commodity crops and extreme barriers for the production, manufacturing, and marketing of healthier, fresh food.

The lack of healthy food options disproportionally affects populations of low-income, ethnic minority, lower education attainment, inner city and rural communities (Neff et al., 2009). African Americans and Latinos suffer from higher rates of heart disease and diabetes and have almost double the national average of food insecurity. The lack of incentives for fresh food is most detrimental to these vulnerable populations.

Affordable and local fruits and vegetables are becoming a rarity due to lack of proper distribution infrastructure, higher production costs, and lack of governmental support (Neff et al., 2009). Fruits and vegetables are not standardized like corn, soy, and wheat, they perishable and need to be sold fresh. This simply does not fit into to our national model of mega-agriculture. Fresh food is less profitable and more susceptible to development; 91% of fruits and 78% of vegetables are produced in urban-influenced areas, where land can be sold to build storefronts and suburbs (American Farmland Trust).

Healthy food disparity can only be fixed with regional empowerment to create systems to improve the distribution of fresh food. Putting a Walmart in a low-income community with limited food access is not the answer (Food & Water Watch). Large businesses consolidate to take money away from communities, farmers and workers in order to benefit the agribusiness sector (Food & Water Watch). On the other hand, small farms and regional fruits and vegetables keep income within a community. Cutting the distance food travels will cut the costs to communities, individuals, and the environment. This creates sustainable and healthy change for all Americans. In my next post, I will explore how this revolution has already begun in communities across the country.

 

 

Neff, R.A., Palmer, A.M., McKenzie, S.E., & Lawrence, R.S. (2009). Food Systems and Public Health Disparities. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, 3, 169-185. doi: 10.1080/19320240802243241

(2012). Why Walmart Can’t Fix the Food System. Food & Water Watch. Retrieved from: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/reports/why-walmart-cant-fix-the-food-system/

Ikerd, John. (2010). Corporate Food System: Consequences for Public Health. Small Farm Today Magazine. Retrieved from: http://web.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/SFT-Corporate%20Food%20System%20(11-10).htm

What is Monsanto doing to help? Producing more. Retrieved from: http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/Pages/producing-more.aspx

What’s Happening to Our Farmland?. American Farmland Trust. Retrieved from: http://www.farmland.org/resources/fote/default.asp

Introduction to the food system

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Take a minute to consider all the things you have eaten today. What were some of the ingredients and where were they sourced? How was it made? What companies were involved?

Some of these questions may be difficult to answer, even after checking the label and various websites. Food and nutrients are intrinsic to our culture, daily life, and wellbeing. Yet, many of us accept our food sources at face value. It can be overwhelming to consider all the implications and sources of every pre-packaged meal and snack.

A “food system” is a term used to describe the processes to produce, package, transport, distribute, consume, and dispose of our food. The system also includes a variety of inputs from consumers, policies, businesses, and communities. National policies heavily influence the amount of support and subsidies that certain parts of the process receive.  Investment has a significant impact on federal agencies that develop the policies, such as the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The imbalance of power in the system is rapidly increasing the gap between food and people, both physically and cognitively. Large corporations are gaining far too much momentum without the consideration of the environment, communities, and health.

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The Food System – Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Social Issues Team and Elliott Kuhn (graphic artist), 2004.

The absurdly high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and food insecurity are a direct result of their policies. In 2012, 14.5% of households were food insecure, which means 49 million Americans are going hungry (Colman-Jensen, Nord, & Singh, 2013). In addition, the annual medical cost of obesity in the US is about $147 billion (Finklestein, Trogdon, Cohen, & Dietz, 2009). The issue is not with production, but with the distribution, access, and marketing of the wrong types of food. The “Value Menu” causes detrimental, hidden costs on all levels of the system.

Positive change must begin through the empowerment of farmers, consumers, and community initiatives to change the food culture of our nation. Local and regional markets of healthy produce help farmers diversify their supply. Building infrastructure that connects farmers to consumers will expand access to affordable, fresh food. Then, with real evidence and demand from around the country, we can change destructive food policies.

References:

Finkelstein, E. A., Trogdon, J. G., Cohen, J.W., & William Dietz. (2009). Annual Medical Spending Attributable to Obesity: Payer-And Service-Specific Estimates. Health Affairs, 28(5). Retrieved from: Health Affairs.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., & Singh, A.. (2013). Household Food Security in the United States in 2012. USDA ERS. Retrieved from: USDA ERS.