Farm to Table
The Long and Complex Route That Food Travels
By Sandy Graham
Food is relatively plentiful, relatively inexpensive – and headed for trouble.
Around the globe – even in the United States, the land of plenty – food production is under tremendous stress. The planet now has 7 billion mouths to feed, shrinking supplies of land and water with which to produce food, fewer people farming and a widening obesity epidemic that calls for adoption of a different and healthier diet.
Changing the cumbersome processes that feed us, referred to in the aggregate as "the food system," is like turning the Titanic away from the iceberg.
"As the population increases, there's going to be either a combination of radical changes in dietary habits or food is going to get really expensive, causing a lot more starvation in the world. Or we're going to find new ways to produce food," says Michael Hamm, PhD, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Americans especially have been lulled into thinking the food system will be a boundless cornucopia, according to Mark Winne, a consultant and writer about food issues who headed the Hartford (Conn.) Food System from 1979 to 2003. (For more about Winne's work, see story, Taking the Pulse of a Community's Food System.)
"Since after World War II, we've taken food for granted. There always will be enough of it. It will always be cheap and the natural resources on which the food system depends will always be there," says Winne, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. "We have to realize that's not always going to be true."
The food system consists of many interwoven systems that vary by geographic area, Winne notes. Santa Fe's food system is not the same as Denver's food system – or Fort Morgan's or Chicago's or Aspen's.
However, regardless of location, food systems all contain similar elements: fertile land on which crops are grown or animals are raised; water to sustain crops and herds; places where harvests are stored or processed; transportation systems to move foodstuffs from field to table and points between; consumer access through grocery stores, farmers markets or other retailers; energy used for production and transportation; and disposal of waste products.
The "who" and "how" of these elements has changed, however. Fewer people call themselves farmers or make decent livings in farming. Less than 1 percent of the population now claims farming as its primary occupation, down from 30 percent 100 years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since the 1970s, farming has consolidated and, at the same time, grown more productive to feed a growing population. USDA statistics show that median farm-related income of big commercial farms (those with $250,000 or more in annual sales) grew 11.5 percent in 2010 to $78,466. With some earnings from nonfarm activities, commercial farms' total income was $117,158. However, some 60 percent of small farms (which make up the largest number of U.S. farms) had gross sales of less than $10,000. These had lost money from farm operations and made all of their household income from off-farm sources, on average, USDA reported.
Food is more global, assuring us Chilean grapes, New Zealand apples or Dutch sweet peppers no matter the season, but with a huge carbon footprint. Vast acres of farmland and grazing pastures are turning into suburbia. Consumers rely more on processed – and less healthy – foods than before. (See box below.)
Moving to Local Food
The hope now is to turn around some of these trends. By making food production more sustainable and encouraging production closer to home, proponents hope to ease environmental impacts, make the food system more secure, spur economic development and fight obesity by increasing access to more fresh foods.
"Our understanding of what a food system is keeps evolving and becomes more sophisticated," Winne says. "We're finally thinking about it in terms of health – a relatively new addition to our way of thinking."
Change is not easy, but there are glimmers of encouragement, the experts say:
- The number of farmers markets, where people can buy local foods including fresh fruits and vegetables direct from the field, has tripled in the past 15 years to more than 7,175, according to the USDA. The Colorado Farmers Market Association lists about 95 locations statewide; 16 accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly called food stamps), which makes fresh produce more accessible to people with lower incomes.
- Many states have launched programs like the 13-year-old Colorado Proud initiative, which promotes the state's bounty of agricultural products through labeling in grocery stores, farmers markets, restaurants and other locales.
- First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative to stop childhood obesity has enlisted food producers and restaurant owners. Darden Restaurants, owner of 1,900 restaurants including Olive Garden, pledged last fall to make 1 percent milk the "default" beverage choice for kids' meals. (Studies show that consumers often opt for the easiest choices.)
- In these tough budget times, local agriculture is winning fans for its potential economic benefits. Even in Colorado, where agriculture and food will generate roughly $40 billion of economic activity in 2012, the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council is working to expand fruit and vegetable production by linking growers to schools or institutions that want to buy local produce. (For more about the council's work, see story, Setting Colorado's Table for a More Robust, Healthier Food System.)
- Supermarket chains are helping customers make better choices. NuVal, a rating system developed by Topco Associates and Connecticut's Griffin Hospital, assigns numbers from 1 to 100 to food products – the higher the number, the higher a product's nutritional value. NuVal has been licensed to more than 30 grocery chains, including Colorado's City Market and King Soopers, divisions of The Kroger Co.
Change Too Slow?
Some argue that the transition to more sustainable, locally grown and healthy foods is not happening quickly enough. But it can't be done overnight: USDA research shows that if all Americans were to follow dietary recommendations, another 13 million acres of fruits and vegetables would be needed.
Retailers don't want to be the "food police."
"We're a country of free choice," says Russ Dispense, president of King Soopers and member of the Colorado Health Foundation's Board of Directors. "We can't just exclude [unhealthy] things."
Still, most food retailers are taking steps to offer healthier choices as well, Dispense says. At Kroger headquarters, a research team works to improve the nutritional value and expand the scope of the company's private-label foods. Kroger recently introduced its own line of organic milk and has reduced the sodium and sugar content of some foods. These efforts also improve access to healthier, affordable foods since store brands cost less than name brands.
King Soopers, with 143 stores throughout Colorado, has hired five dietitians to counsel customers in stores and speak about healthy eating in the community.
"We see it as our obligation to provide the choices and the information on which to make the choices," Dispense says.
Jim Miller, Colorado deputy commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and head of the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council, is pleased to see that more Coloradans are interested in buying local foods and growing their own, but dismayed by the apparent distrust people have in traditional food producers.
"There's a growing suspicion of 'Big Food' as there is of 'Big Oil,'" Miller says. "But it's the choices people make that affect the food system – that's not Big Food's fault as much as people would like to think it is."
Food producers must be aware of consumers' choices, Miller adds. "Modern agriculture ignores the consumer at its own peril. If consumers don't have the kinds of food choices they want, they're going to demand and get them one way or the other," he says.
Winne agrees that the food system is driven by consumer choices.
"The food system very much depends on the decisions we make as individuals about what we eat," he says.
Hamm hopes the evolution can head off the looming crisis in food production.
"We have an opportunity here," he says. "We haven't hit what I think of as the coming crisis. We can get ahead of the curve and develop systems, from production through distribution and storage and consumers' eating habits, before we have a tsunami."
|Policy and Food
Increasingly, Coloradans are using policies as levers to encourage access to healthy foods and spur economic opportunities in local food production.
Policies are being examined at every level: Do neighborhood associations block development of community gardens? Do school policies mean children drink sugary sodas and eat fatty pizzas? Do land use policies allow development of prime agricultural lands? Do state educational policies discourage nutrition education?
"Policy work to me is removing those barriers and institutionalizing our strengths and opportunities," says Lisa Walvoord, vice president of Policy for LiveWell Colorado, a not-for-profit organization that works to reduce obesity through healthy eating and active living.
LiveWell has developed the HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living) Library, a database of codes, ordinances, resolutions, policies and other tools that can help communities fight obesity. It also offers a "Guide to Integrating Healthy Eating and Active Living into Colorado's Rural and Small Town Communities" with local action strategies for fighting obesity. Finally, through stimulus dollars given to the state, LiveWell has developed a framework that communities can use to assess their food systems and identify opportunities for improvement. (All of these can be accessed at www.livewellcolorado.org.)
LiveWell is far from the only Colorado organization interested in food policy: "We have a lot of company these days," Walvoord says.
The HEAL Policy Coalition, originally convened by the Colorado Health Foundation and the Colorado Children's Campaign in 2008 to stop soft drink sales in schools, continues to work on key public policy issues, including food access and school food. Members include national, state and local advocacy organizations; health care providers; state and local government representatives; and public health, education and transportation experts.
Numerous food policy councils and similar food-focused organizations have sprung up in Boulder County, Denver, the San Luis Valley, Summit County, Durango, northern Colorado, Paonia and other communities. The Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council provides communication and guidance to local groups.
"Little things are happening in pockets of the state that the spotlight is starting to shine on," Walvoord says. "A lot of these things are not new, but food is a hot topic so you're seeing them more broadly."
|The Food System by the Numbers
Trends in the American food system are clear: Farmers are becoming an endangered species, most Americans are too heavy, and food production is being concentrated in fewer hands.
- Americans spend just 9.5 percent of their income on food. 1
- Farmers account for 1 percent of the population. Their average age has increased to 57. 1
- Just 19 cents of every dollar spent on food goes back to the farm. Most households earn the majority of their income from off-farm sources such as additional employment. 1
- From 2002 to 2007, the country lost 28 million acres of cropland. 1
- Four firms control more than 80 percent of beef packing; the top five food retailers sell 48 percent of America's food, up from 24 percent in 1997. 2
- Americans consumed an average of 2,673 calories per day in 2008, a 23 percent increase from 1970. 1
- Nearly three-fourths of adult Americans are overweight or obese. 3
- Worldwide, obesity has doubled since 1980. 4
||U.S. Department of Agriculture.
||"Concentration of Agricultural Markets," Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan, University of Missouri, Department of Rural Sociology, 2007.
||Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
||World Health Organization.