Foodie Underground: Food, Farmers and Choice

farmers market fruit

ColumnWhy eating locally isn’t just smart. It’s the socially just thing to do.

We all know the benefits of locavorism: eat food that comes from close to where you live and you not only support the local economy, but you have better access to the people that produce your food.

But unfortunately, the infrastructure of growing local food hasn’t necessarily caught up with the increase in demand and awareness, and while the popularity of farmers markets may be on the rise, that doesn’t mean that the lives of farmers are getting any easier.

An NPR story last week highlighted the difficulties that some of these small-scale, independent farmers face. Farming in Illinois, Amy Cloud and her husband produce all those things we crave to put in our weekend farmers market basket: kale, broccoli, onions, Swiss chard. But while we’re busy sauteing a luxurious assortment of greens for dinner and pondering what organic, artisan cheese to pair with it, the Clouds are working hard to simple scrape by, living off a combined annual income of $25,000 – $30,000.

As Cloud told NPR, “Both my husband and I live off of an income that any normal person would consider to be just enough for one person, certainly not for a whole couple. We don’t have health insurance.”

Why does this discrepancy still exist and how do we fix it?

That is a complicated question with a multifaceted answer, but let’s start with this simple fact: we live in a globalized system where processed food and profit margins reign, no matter the cost to the environment, the local economy or an individual’s health. This is a world of Monsantos, and no matter where you turn, it’s hard – even impossible – to live a lifestyle where you are 100 percent removed from the powers of big agribusiness.

No matter how conscious we are, we consume more and more processed foods and chemicals, from high fructose corn syrup to residual pesticides. On the health side, food companies are fully aware of the effects that this has, but again, profits win out over public health. As former Executive Vice President at Kraft Foods stated in a New York Times Op-ed: “… executives who run these companies like to say they don’t create demand, they try only to satisfy it. “We’re just giving people what they want. We’re not putting a gun to their heads,” the refrain goes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years, relentless efforts were made to increase the number of “eating occasions” people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.

To think that we have a certain level of choice when we head to the grocery store is to live in a dream world; we are inundated with products that are meant to create an addiction, and many of those products require cheaply produced ingredients like corn. Corporate agribusiness has a tight grip on the food system, and in it, there’s certainly no room for the independent farmer.

To exist in a world where independent farming can succeed, we have to therefore think about an entire restructuring of the system, from individual consumer habits, to how grocery stores operate to the transportation of goods, and that’s why it’s going to take more than just expanding farmers markets across the country. The solution is a combination of changing personal habits and change that comes from the top down. We need a system that better supports independent agriculture; one that aims to protect food culture instead of slowly losing it.

We can all vote with our forks, but to do so, we have to really do it, not just some of the time. “Buy local” shouldn’t just be a mantra for your apples and kale, it should be a mantra for everything. Until we as consumers start really demanding locally produced goods from independent sources, we won’t get the amount of government support that we need to ensure that these products continue to exist on the shelves, and we will continue to go down a path where we have less and less say over what we are eating.

There are many things that are part of our everyday consumption habits that are difficult to change. (If you find a local farmer in North America growing coffee beans, please tell me about it.) But there’s a lot that we can change, and if we are in an economic position to shop locally, we have the obligation to do so. Not just for our own health, but for the health of our local economies and our neighbors.

If we want to keep eating freshly grown kale, we better do something to ensure that the farmers down the road can continue to grow it, and that starts with buying from them every single time. Not just once a week, but changing our shopping habits so that we really are consuming locally every chance that we get. Only when we start showing that we are serious about our demands will industry follow suit. Support local not because it’s a trend, but because it’s the socially just thing to do.

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.

Image: ianmalcm

 

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