Changing the Way America Eats
Nourishing the Shift to Farm-Fresh Foods
Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry states that in order for people to care about their food, “They have to taste it.”
Tasting the difference between fresh, local, organic foods and those that travel hundreds or thousands of miles before touching our taste buds is catalyzing a healthy change across America. Consider the growth in patronage of farmers’ markets alone: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports the number of markets has soared, from 1,755 in 1994 to 7,175 in 2011.
What’s driving the surge? Incentives include our appreciation of scrumptious seasonal flavor, a comforting sense of community and the reassurance of knowing exactly where our food comes from and who—often on a first-name basis—grew or produced it. Good, healthy food germinates in genuine relationships—between growers and consumers, and farmers and the Earth. Local markets boost hometown economies, too; the USDA predicts a record $7 billion in such food sales this year, delivering a greater proportion of food dollars directly to farmers.
Regional food systems also support the biological diversity that is vital to sustainability. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “different varieties of the same species,” have “statistically different nutrient contents.” In other words, each variety promises a unique mix of healthprotecting compounds. Supermarkets must rely on crops and animal products that can withstand longdistance travel and also meet uniform appearance standards. Small farmers serving local markets, on the other hand, can better preserve the legacy of biologically diverse heirloom crops and heritage breeds because of the shorter distances between field and plate. An heirloom tomato picked ripe at peak flavor can’t survive a lengthy commute, but nothing tastes better when it’s plucked fresh from the vine and still warm from the sun.
Planting diverse, region-specific crops also reduces the burden of weeds, pests and plant diseases—and any related chemical use—and helps provide safe nourishment for pollinators and wildlife, as well. No wonder the Organic Farming Research Foundation characterizes farmers as the largest group of ecosystem managers on Earth. Everyone can support a cause that feeds us well while caring for the planet.
Farmers’ Job Market
With 57 being the current average age of American farmers, and more than a quarter 65 or older, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition recognizes the desperate need for more young farmers. When the National Young Farmer’s Coalition recently surveyed 1,000 beginning farmers, it found that access to capital, land and health insurance presented the biggest hurdles to entering farming as a career. The Women, Food and Agriculture Network has identified access to health care as the main challenge facing females that want to farm.
While city dwellers tend to idealize farming as a romantic occupation in a bucolic setting, it is actually a risky, physically demanding job. Despite the challenges, farmers say they love their work because they enjoy being outside, working with their hands, producing high-quality food and being their own boss. It helps to be healthy, smart and an optimist at heart.
Sticker Price versus Hidden Costs
To consumers coping in a down economy, the cheapest price may sometimes seem like the best choice. John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, notes that, “Americans, on average, are spending only half as much of their disposable income for food today as they were in the 1960s.” However, at the same time, “The percentage spent on health care has doubled.”
Scores of studies show that many of today’s chronic diseases are related to poor diet. Factor in medical costs associated with food-borne illnesses, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticideand hormone-contaminated food and water, and it’s easy to understand why Michael Carolan, author of The Real Cost of Cheap Food, declares, “Cheap food... is actually quite expensive.”
One way for families to save money on food costs is to reduce waste. Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, says Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption, throwing away $100 billion-plus in food a year. Most of it ends up in landfills.
Instead of providing incentives to agribusinesses to produce less expensive food, smarter national farm and food policies could prioritize producing higher quality food and wasting less
of it. Kathy Bero, board president of NuGenesis Farm, in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, advocates shifting commodity payments to organic farmers. Her nonprofit educational farm promotes “food as medicine,” along with cost-saving, health-boosting consumer strategies such as learning how to garden and cook to maximize nutritional value.
Stephanie Coughlin, a farmer in San Diego, California, says: “If you don’t have local farms, you don’t have local security.” Across the country, communities are proving how a few conscious buyers can improve everyone’s access to high-quality local foods.
Farm to Hospital: As director of nutrition services at Fletcher Allen Health Care, in Burlington, Vermont, Registered Dietitian Diane Imrie has the power to influence the economic security and sustainability of her community and surrounding region. Imrie sources approximately 40 percent of the food served at her hospital from farms located within a day’s drive. In her work, she helps keep farmers on their land while providing higher quality food to patients and staff.
The facility also supports onsite gardens, which yielded $2,000 worth of produce in 2011, despite Vermont’s short growing season. The hospital food is so popular that its café serves downtown businesspeople, further bolstering profitability and community benefits.
For local maple sugar producer Bernie Comeau, Imrie’s consistent purchases provide an income he can count on every month. Imrie is glad to note that for farmers, selling their food to the hospital is “like a stamp of approval.”
Marydale DeBor, who founded and led the “plow to plate” comprehensive food and disease-prevention initiative associated with Connecticut’s New Milford Hospital, maintains that, “Institutional leadership is critical.” She says that thanks to a supportive CEO that believed in bringing farm-fresh foods to hospital food services, their retail café more than doubled its revenue within two years.
DeBor believes that hospital food should set an example for public health. “We need to support beginning farmers, and more food hubs and new distribution systems to facilitate access,” she says. “Consumers need to let their hospitals know they should focus on good food and nutrition.”
Farm to Restaurant: Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze Natural Foods Café and Juice Bar, in Columbia, Missouri, buys supplies directly from local organic farmers and never quibbles about price. She composts any food waste in her garden, where she grows some of the produce used in her restaurant. Rather than large plates of cheap food, Lockhart serves portions within U.S. Dietary Guidelines, comprising higher quality, more satisfying meals.
Relationships with chefs are important to farmers, advises Carol Ann Sayle, owner of Boggy Creek Organic Farm, in Austin, Texas. Farmers can rely on a sure buyer; chefs appreciate dependable and high quality food; and customers return because of the great taste.
Farm to School: Organic farmer Don Bustos, program director for the American Friends Service Committee of New Mexico, trains beginning farmers and ranchers in ways to provide food to the Albuquerque Public School District and beyond. For example, farmers grow crops during the winter in solar-powered greenhouses, and aggregate their products to meet school needs. Mobile meat processing and distribution networks also create jobs while keeping small farmers economically and environmentally viable, explains Bustos. Local agriculture fuels strong communities and fresh local foods help children thrive.
In the Pacific Northwest, AmeriCorps volunteer Emma Brewster works with the Real Food Challenge, a national youth-based program that encourages colleges and universities to shift 20 percent of their food budgets to farm-fresh, locally sourced foods. Brewster works with Lucy Norris, project manager for the Puget Sound Food Network, which creates opportunities beyond farmers’ markets for local area farmers to connect with regional processors, distributors and end users, including Seattle Public Schools.
Hands in the Dirt
Regardless of occupation, many people feel a natural urge to work with the soil and witness the miracle of seeds sprouting new life. Rose Hayden-Smith, Ph.D., a garden historian and a designated leader in sustainable food systems at the University of California–Davis, points out that home, school, community and workplace victory gardens established during World War II succeeded in producing about 40 percent of our nation’s vegetables. In both world wars, she says, our national leadership “recognized that food and health were vital national security issues.” They still are today.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, a.k.a. the Food Sleuth (FoodSleuth@gmail.com), is a registered dietitian and award-winning writer and radio host, based in Columbia, Missouri. She co-created F.A.R.M.: Food, Art, Revolution Media – a Focus on Photography to Re-vitalize Agriculture and Strengthen Democracy to increase advocacy for organic farmers (Enduring-Image.blogspot.com). Learn more at Food Sleuth Radio at kopn.org.