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 does local food connect to schools?

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In elementary school, our teacher always told us, “You will need to know this” or “This will be useful later.” We worked through abstract lessons in biology and multiplication tables, sometimes questioning the connection it had to our lives. There is never that question when it comes to food. Our eating choices affect how we feel, act and think. Yet, for a long time we have not provided kids with essential knowledge about where our food comes from or why we eat what we eat. One of the most important life skills is choosing and preparing foods that are good for you. Kids love eating, playing, and being outside; so let us take advantage of their energy and teach them about food.

Many schools are beginning to integrate local food into school meals in order to support nearby farmers and improve the health of students. A healthy meal is essential for a productive day of school and most of us are familiar with the mystery meat served with soggy vegetables and sugary sides that have graced the plates of many school meals. Now, farm to school programs have been started in approximately 38,629 schools nationwide and many schools have committed to providing fresh, delicious meals for students (USDA). Schools use clever terms like “crunch lunch” for salad bars and “grab apples” for sliced apples. Creative new options have been proven to improve kids’ food choices at home and the amount of fruits and vegetable servings (Elsener, Eschmeyer, & Davidson, n.d.).

Farm to school lunch programs open up a multimillion-dollar market to family farmers. In 2011-2012, schools farm to school initiatives bought $350 million in local food and more than 50% of those schools planned to use more in the future (USDA).

Farm to school can often be supplemented with curriculum that covers nutrition, cooking, and ecological lessons about food. Starting a school edible garden is one of the best ways to integrate the food curriculum and bring the school to the farm. Kids love to get dirty and be active, so why don’t we put them to work in a garden? This interaction with the origins of food provides sustainable, positive change to food habits. Students start to prefer fruits and vegetables and they gain a full understanding and positive attitude toward the school lunch program, their food choices, seasonal produce, and the ecological impact of food systems (Turpin, 2010). Of course these gardens require lots of time, funding, and hard work (Turpin, 2010). School districts must be dedicated to the cause. However, it is possible to use a variety of resources from farmers and food organizations. Lessons in food and eating are more crucial than ever to support healthy, productive, and happy students. 

 

Elsener, M., Eschmeyer, D., & Davidson, S. (n.d.). Nourishing the nation one tray at a time: Farm to school initiatives in the child nutrition reauthorization. National Farm to School Network. Retrieved from: http://www.farmtoschool.org/files/publications_192.pdf

“Farm to School.” USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Retrieved from: http://www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/farm-school

Turpin, A. (2010). Study on school gardens brings fresh results. Civil Eats. Retrieved from: http://civileats.com/2010/10/01/study-on-school-gardens-brings-fresh-results/

What does equitable food retail look like?

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The term “food desert” implies impossibility for growth; it implies that an area is dried up, that the environment has determined one’s fate to have low access to fresh food. But any community can have “fertile” land if community members are willing to collaborate for healthy food access. Large corporate grocery stores have begun to use the “food desert” term as a public relations tool. Walmart has started an initiative to put more stores in “food desserts”, as a way to demonstrate a commitment to social change. Michelle Obama may have praised them for their efforts to make fruits and vegetables more affordable but real solutions lie within communities themselves. Walmart does not support sustainable food systems. Healthy, local food sales have started to appear in already existing corner convenient stores in order to address food availability and health disparity. These initiatives allow businesses and consumers to increase healthy options while also enhancing local food movements.

 The hidden costs of food have a severe effect on health disparities in the US. Chronic illnesses associated with food insecurity (diabetes, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease) are more avoidable than ever. Store accessibility is a major factor on SNAP redemption choices (FRAC, 2013). Convenient stores are beginning to utilize existing resources and strength of location to stock healthy food. Before, the challenges were too great and demand too low to bother but this is starting to change (Gittelsohn & Anliker, 2010). Corner stores can provide healthy, local food in areas that are relying on fast and processed meals. They are also typically in places of low-income and racial minority settings, in close proximity with SNAP recipients.

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This demonstrates the relationship between unhealthy food options, income, and race in Durham and Chapel Hill, NC.
Source: The spatial and socio-economic distribution of healthy food options in Durham-Chapel Hill, NC. US EPA/ORD

 In Philadelphia, the Healthy Corner Store Network has made great strides to expand fruit and vegetable sales in low-access areas. They provide direct support for store owners to properly stock, display and sell healthy food. They have decals and posters that identify that the store has healthy options. The website also has a map of healthy corner stores, SNAP participating stores, and farmers markets to make finding a convenient location easy and simple. They also evaluate barriers for storeowners and the impact and sale of healthy food in order to make appropriate changes and increase efficiency.

In order for SNAP benefits to truly improve the health disparities in our nation, local movements must provide a wide range of healthy and convenient choices. Convenient stores have more flexibility with the marketing of healthy food and maximizing efficiency based on customer preferences and local availability. With networks such as the Healthy Corner Store Network, cities can stock food directly from farmers or community gardens can supply produce to the nearest convenient store. Enhancing fresh food availability in unexpected places can strengthen the scope and impact of SNAP benefits. Most importantly, keeping food supply local maintains power for residents to make their own food decisions and have a say in the sources and supply of healthy food.

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Gittelsohn, J. & Anliker, J.A. (2010). Process evaluation of Baltimore healthy stores: A pilot health intervention program with supermarkets and corner stores in Baltimore City. Health Promotion Practice, 11(5). Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3042858/

 (2013). A review of strategies to bolster SNAP’s role in improving nutrition as well as food security. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Retrieved from: http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/SNAPstrategies.pdf

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