Food for All

Nutritious, affordable food, easily accessible, for all.

The good stuff

Not too radical a concept in the world’s richest country with the most productive farmers, is it?

Evidently it is, given how far we are from reaching that goal, the essence of the concept of food security. I first learned about food security during my time on the board at the Hartford Food System (HFS), which I’ve mentioned here before. The executive director of HFS at the time, and still truly one of the sustainable food gurus of North America, was Mark Winne. I’m proud to call him a friend, and it was great to see him as one of the four panelists at an event sponsored by Yale’s Sustainable Food Project. The project, among other things, runs an organic farm on campus, in the heart of New Haven. Winne, now based in Santa Fe, was in town for the panel and to plug his newest book, Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cooking Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture. Not only is the guy smart about the topic, but he writes really smooth too. I think I hate him.

From left to right: Winne, Eisenberg, Becker, Dodge

Joining Winne on the panel were three locals involved in food projects: Erin Wirpsa Eisenberg, of City Seed, which runs farmers’ markets in the city; Bruce Becker, an architect involved with the 360 State Street project and a board member of the co-op market planned for the site; and Peter Dodge, owner of Edge of the Woods, the local vegetarian-friendly, bulk-food-and-vegan-baked-goods emporium (the pecan pie bars are to die for).

The topic for the afternoon event (attended by about 35 folks obviously very engaged in food issues) was the future of food access in New Haven. At first blush, that might seem like a silly topic: Well of course people have access to food there, right? I mean, there are stores and markets and restaurants and such. But go back to the opening statement of this post. How affordable and nutritious and accessible are the options? The city’s only major supermarket closed this year. Negotiations are underway to get a new company in the space, but doesn’t it seem a little weird that a city of 120,000 people – some, though clearly not the majority, fairly affluent – would only have one true supermarket? Other food is provided by overpriced corner stores and bodegas, where fresh produce and meat (for those who so indulge) is pretty nonexistent. New Haven, like so many US cities, is largely a food desert, where the kind of grocery stores most middle-class suburbanites take as  a given is nothing but a mirage.

Instead of delivering any kind of introductory remarks, the panelists jumped right in to taking questions from the audience. The topics varied widely, from where the four bought their own food (Dodge had the most obvious answer) to what’s your ideal food system. Several themes became readily apparent. Connecting consumers to locally produced food is key. Subsidies for foods such as corn, soybeans, and wheat are not necessarily the best thing going, when prices for more nutritious and largely unsubsidized fruits and vegetables have risen 40 percent over the last ten years. Food education is essential – teaching kids (and adults) about the healthiest food options, and how to cook those foods, is a first step in ending the health problems (obesity, diabetes) linked to the foods too many Americans eat. Perhaps the scariest factoid of the day: 10 percent of food stamps, some $4 billion worth, are used to buy soda – which just happens to be filled with subsidized corn in the form of high-fructose corn syru – oh, excuse me, corn sugar. So much healthier sounding than that fructose stuff, hmm?

Down on the ol' factory farm...

At the heart of the problems in our current food system is something Winne talked about a bit, but that I would’ve liked to have heard more about. Capitalism, the pursuit of profit at all costs, keeps many people from getting the healthiest, cheapest food possible. Becker recounted how he and the developers of 360 State Street approached every major food chain about locating at the site. But the urban demographics and the cost of parking in the city kept them all away; they could make money, but not enough for them. Becker mentioned Trader Joe’s by name, saying how New Haven just didn’t fit their business model – even when they were offered the space practically for free. Trader Joe’s, the fun store with all the reasonably priced, vegan-friendly foods I buy so often. It’s a great image, and I love the store, but the concept of “food justice” that Winne introduced just isn’t on their radar. Or on the radar of the other chains or the agribusinesses of the world – or most lawmakers. Maximizing profits does not leave much room for doing all that can be done to achieve food security.

To achieve food justice, or food democracy, Winne said individuals and communities have to be food watchdogs: We have to actively work for policies at all levels of government that promote food equity – the affordable, easily accessible,  nutritious food that is the essence of food security. That might mean giving more subsidies directly to needy consumers, as with the programs Eisenberg mentioned that help inner-city residents buy fresh produce at farmers’ markets. Or it might mean encouraging local and state governments to use zoning laws or funds to promote certain kinds of food outlets.

Since my days on the HFS board, I‘ve come to think it‘s a crime/sin for a country so rich in both money and food to have so many people who go hungry, or can‘t readily buy the healthy foods so many of us take for granted. There is a better way, and people like the four panelists at Yale and the folks who came to hear them are working towards it. Here’s hoping more will join them.


~ by mburgan on September 29, 2010.

2 Responses to “Food for All”

  1. Great article, Mike. We all have to get involved in where our food comes from. People have been fighting the ‘good’ fight for a long time! Grassroots, small sustainable farming projects are the way to fight the big agri-business and chemical processing of food. It’s too bad that so many Americans have to suffer so many food related illnesses before the message to change gets out on a larger scale. Ultimately, it will come down to the fact that we simply cannot afford to pay the medical bills. ( . . . and ‘our’ way of doing things is a good process to export to the world???) Someone across the globe is laughing . . . We are bio-individual, so what works for one person may not for another, however, there are some basic principles of good diet and the SAD (Standard American Diet) of highly processed food is not working with eighty percent of Americans overweight and about 60 percent obese, childhood rates of diabetes (which has been directly linked to heart disease) now thought of as a rather “common” illness on the rise. Something has to give, and it has to begin with individual choices at the farm and the market.

  2. Maura,

    Thanks for reading and for the great comment. A lot of the points you raise are in the food books I’ve been writing, especially that issue of choice. People who have the means to make healthy food choices–for themselves and the planet–need to do so, and we need to extend the choices to all.

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