Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gleaning the Food System

       A young college student strolls leisurely down the campus nature path. As she nears the end of the trail, a branch catches her clothing and a vibrant red raspberry catches her eye. She eagerly savors its sun-ripened sweetness. This sounds like a fairy tale doesn’t it? It’s not; it was my very own experience not two months ago at a small liberal-arts school in Vermont. It’s 2014 in the United States: we have thousand-square-foot grocery stores packed with dozens of assorted fruits and vegetables, all fresh, dried, or frozen. No one picks wild berries from bushes to bring home and bake into pies anymore. But why? Why don’t we forage Vermont’s thousands of acres of forest for fresh food? It’s not as if we are a densely-populated state with no arable land. There is so much potential for Vermont to completely restructure its food production system, from the strong local-food movement to the advocacy for GMO-labeling. Vermont is arguably the best place in the U.S. to begin the transformation from behemoth factory farms to community-based agriculture. Who wants to start a revolution?

How Local is Local?
We’ve all heard the rhetoric: “Buy fresh, buy local,” or “Local food: taste the difference!”  It looks better, tastes better, is better for you—or so they say. But how local is local? During the school year I live just outside Burlington, Vt., the land of farmers markets and small dairy farms. My local can be as close as the weekly market in Winooski, a larger one in Burlington, or perhaps even one in New York, just across Lake Champlain. Or can it? When I buy Cabot brand cheese, or coffee from Keurig Green Mountain, am I really “buying local?” They are both locally-based companies that just happen to sell their products nationally. “We are a national company based in Vermont, but we’re not really a local company anymore,” says Winston Rost, Farmer Relations Manager at Keurig Green Mountain. So here’s the dilemma: at what mileage does local cease to be local enough? I could argue that once there is no longer a maple-flavored version of every available food that I have gone too far from home. Philip Ackerman-Leist, author and professor at Green Mountain College, believes the definition is about much more than physical geography. In his book Rebuilding the Foodshed, he says a successful local food system must “fit the community in question and its surrounding environment," as well as sponsor food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is the idea that people, individuals who live in a geographic location, have the right to determine their food and agricultural policies. This includes everything from GMO labeling to where you buy apples. Food sovereignty activists seek to adjust and democratize food production and agriculture. “If [the food system] was more diversified, which I think is needed nationally and in Vermont, it would actually meet our food needs,” said Theresa Snow, Executive Director of Salvation Farms, in a phone interview. “We are not meeting those needs with what we are producing [nationally] now. Not even close.” Local food could be the remedy. The more a community supports and relies on smaller, family-owned farms, the less they rely on imported goods and national companies like Monsanto. But it’s easy to say that every county needs a system of small family farms and farmers markets. Is it really that simple?

Arable Available Land
 The United States has the most arable land of any country in the world. I’ll say that again: out of all the recognized countries on planet Earth, the U.S. has the most land available and suitable for farming. In 2007 alone, over 408 million acres of land were used to raise food crops. That is still less than one-fifth of our total land area. Of all privately-held land, about 25 percent, or 613 million acres, is used as grazing land for livestock (Environmental Protection Agency). That is a lot of field, a lot of plants, and a lot of animals. But is it enough? In Chittenden County, Vt., about 20 percent of the population faces issues with food security (United States Department of Agriculture). Those who live in areas of low food security, otherwise known as food deserts, do not have easy access to healthful, affordable food. This could mean that a household does not have a car or access to public transportation, or that there are no grocery stores within a half-mile radius, which is considered to be walking distance. In urban settings, food deserts are often whole city blocks with only convenience stores and fast food chains. In more rural areas, a household may be surrounded by crops that are not edible, like soy, and the nearest grocery store may be four miles away or more. If we have hundreds of millions of acres of land being farmed, and hundreds of millions more that can be farmed, why is a quarter of our population going hungry? In the past twenty years, the number of acres used for food production decreased from 987 million to 914 million acres—that is more than an eight percent decrease (EPA). In that time, the U.S. population has increased from 263 million to almost 317 million people—over a 20 percent increase (Multpl). It seems almost counter-intuitive to decrease the amount of land farmed for food when our population is increasing at such a rapid pace. It’s not as though we are facing a housing shortage, and need the land for living area. One of the problems lies in the food system itself: when everything is owned by corporate conglomerates like Monsanto, small farmers cannot make a livable wage. Once farmers go broke, they leave. It is a “rural bloodletting…When farms go out of business, the local businesses that depend on them also disappear” (Hauter). This damages local economies, creating food deserts where there could be a system of co-ops and farmers markets, while increasing dependency on foreign imports. 

So we’re losing farmland to unnecessary housing, and farmers to minimum-wage urban jobs. The solution to this is pretty simple: the federal government could subsidize farms and food crops, and offer tax breaks to organic farmers. If there is incentive, people will go….right? Maybe not. We’ve all seen the organic food section of our local big-name grocery store. Often, it is rather small; a basket of organic apples at the end of an aisle, a few heads of lettuce placed apart from the rest. This produce often looks different from their peers, with their misshapen bodies, dull skin, and smaller overall size. Why would we pay more for them? Is the FDA Organic label really worth an extra dollar or two per pound? I’ll let you in on a secret: organic food costs just as much as “conventionally grown” produce. Don’t believe me? Here’s a little tidbit: the government spent $15.8 billion on national farm subsidies in 2012 alone (2013 Farm Study). Vermont farmers received over $11 million, almost entirely to dairy farms. That’s not always a bad thing! Government subsidies, including crop insurance, is what has kept our ever-shrinking farming industry alive and the consumer costs down. However, these subsidies most often go to corn and soy producers, leading to an overabundance of these crops and a shortage of “edible crops.” Corn and soy have become the cash crops for modern farmers, much like tobacco in the Old South. They have been turned into biodiesel, plastics, and sugary syrups in an attempt to combat this gross overproduction. “Consumer demand has little to do with what crops are grown” in the United States, which is exactly the opposite of what we have always been taught about business (Bosia). There is simply too much risk and too little profit in growing the produce we see in our grocery stores, and so the government tries to subsidize that a bit, too. Organic food is different. In order to have an organic label, farmers must go through an intense certification process that can cost up to two percent of their yearly income (Fatemi). Two percent may not seem like a lot, but two-thirds of USDA-recognized farms are classified as “mid-sized,” and make less than $20,000 in net income per year (Hauter). Because of this expensive and time-consuming process, most certified organic farms are owned and operated by large-scale industrial businesses like Monsanto. So what does this have to do with local food? While buying organic is better for your body and the environment, it can also open the doors for smaller farmers. The next time you visit a farmers market, ask the person at the tent about their growing processes. More than likely, they will be using less pesticides than traditional growers, if any at all. They are also less likely to be GMO. This could be for economic as well an environmental reasons: not only are pesticides expensive, but they are extremely destructive. When large-scale growers spray pesticides over hundreds of thousands of acres of land, it will inevitably contaminate the water supply of the entire county. Additionally, the two most common chemicals found in pesticides, atrazine and glyphosate, are proven carcinogens and have been linked to breast cancer (Fatemi). In buying locally, or even organically, you can help reduce or completely bypass these malevolent practices and support the local economy all in one.

Farmers’ Rights
Wherever you get your produce, someone somewhere had to till, sow, plant, water, weed, harvest, and otherwise tend to those precious plants. As previously mentioned, most individual farms and farmers don’t make more than $20,000 per year. But there are even more people involved in the process that are not technically farmers, yet still work twelve-hour days doing hard physical labor, tending to the food crops they may never be able to afford. Legality is a major part of modern-day agriculture. Almost every farm interacts on some level with large corporate conglomerates like Monsanto, whether through seed, pesticides, animal feed, or all of the above. In 2012, a soybean farmer was sued by Monsanto for “violat[ing] the company’s terms of use” for its “Roundup Ready” seeds, which are genetically engineered to be pesticide resistant (Laskawy). The farmer, Vernon Bowman, had bought seeds for his second crop from other farmers, which the contract allowed, but some of the seeds were “cross-contaminated” with the genetically engineered seeds, and Monsanto sued him.
Farming is already one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and also one of the most important. So why are the federal government and big businesses making their job so much more difficult? The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has been working to aid farmers with its Farm First and Farm Safety programs. The Farm First program focuses on solution for problems such as “health or family-related, stress, financial, legal, disability or other concerns,” consulting with them to not only fix these problems, but also to improve communication and reduce accidental injury (Farmer Wellness). In buying local food, you are supporting small farmers, giving them the resources to increase their standards of living and possibly even expanding their land area. Buying locally also reduces our overall dependency on foreign-grown food products, diminishing the environmental toll of processing, packaging, and shipping. “Agriculture is the ground zero of climate change,” said Robert Parkhurst of the Environmental Defense Fund. “It helps so much if you can offer farmers a little money. You just need that little push to get them over the hump (Johnson).” In supporting farmers, you reinforce the local economy, cut down on negative environmental impacts, and you could even help break the shackles companies like Monsanto have on the people who literally give us life.
Obesity and Nutrition
United States citizens are overweight. It’s nothing we haven’t heard a thousand times before: 35 percent of Americans are categorized as medically obese. That’s over 78.6 million people.
But what does that have to do with local food? Let’s start with the basics: low-income households are more likely to be overweight and have weight-related health problems than those considered to be “middle-” or “upper-class.” This goes back to the food deserts described earlier. But even when full-service grocery stores or farmers markets are available, they may still be inaccessible to low-income families. “Healthy food is often more expensive, whereas refined grains, added sugars, and fats are generally inexpensive and readily available in low-income communities,” either in supermarkets or convenience stores (Why Low-Income). When faced with limited funds, or when receiving government assistance through programs like SNAP, households often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing cheap, processed, calorie-dense food. State officials in Michigan realized this, and created the Double Up Food Bucks program. Those who are eligible for federal SNAP benefits can visit local farmers markets, and whatever they spend on fruits and veggies is matched up to $20 to spend on other SNAP-eligible food items. This encourages healthier eating habits and the support of local food systems. Additionally, certain grocery stores in the Detroit area have adopted this program through November, so families can still have access to these benefits once farmers markets have closed for the season ("How it Works"). Schools are also incorporating more local food. The Vermont Food Bank recently started a School Food Pantry To-Go in collaboration with Feeding America to serve students and families in need. Beginning in April 2013, JFK Elementary in Winooski introduced this program with the hope of providing families with fresh, nutritious food.
Since its inception, this Food Pantry To-Go has begun work with Rutland Northeast Elementary School, Rutland Northwest Elementary School, Molly Stark Elementary School, and JFK Elementary School (“School Food Pantry To-Go”). It can be extremely difficult to access fresh and affordable food, especially with a low household income. But programs like Double Up Food Bucks and the School Food Pantry, designed with local families in mind, are encouraging more people to spend their money on fruits and vegetables as opposed to fast food and prepared meals. It’s not only good for the local economy, but for the health of the next generation.

Just Do It
Knowing about the benefits of local food systems is one thing—acting on that knowledge is another entirely. So what can you do? Keep it simple: start small by buying one kind of organic produce per shopping trip. It can be bananas one week and apples the next. See what works for you.
Alternatively, if it is farmers market season, find a variety of fruits and vegetables you already like and compare them to their “traditionally-grown” cousins from the supermarket. Once you start trying these locally-grown foods, it can be easier to branch out and try new things. After you’ve found a variety of foods you like, prepare a meal! Cooking food together is beneficial on many levels. Obviously, it provides sustenance for yourself and your family, and you know exactly what is going into your meal and can make it to your specific tastes. There is also the added benefit of bringing the family together. It can seem daunting to bring the whole family into the kitchen, especially if you have small children. But studies have shown time and time again that making meals together fosters familial connections, appreciation for family members, allows for the teaching of “life lessons,” and creates memories (“4 Benefits”). Even the pickiest of eaters is more willing to try something if they’ve helped to create it! “I have learned that the best way to teach people something is to make it fun, and to have it taste good!” says Joyce Cellars, Community Relations Manager of the Intervale Center. In order to get people interested, you have to make them care. As the saying goes, the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. You could even make it a monthly or bimonthly event: a family trip to the grocery store or farmers market to buy food for that night’s meal. “Food is the biggest example of how young people, older people, people of all ages can get that connectivity back and feel that they’re making a difference, said Heather Lynch, Sustainability Coordinator at Saint Michael’s College. 
“We’re in a society that takes things for granted, and food is one of those things.” If you don’t have the time or talent to cook, there’s always container gardening. Container gardening is an easy way to grow your own fruits, vegetables, or herbs with little space or energy. Essentially, if you have a pot, soil, and water, you can grow your own food! Vegetables like carrots, peppers and tomatoes don’t take up much space, nor do most kinds of berries (Iannotti). This is even viable in areas considered to be food deserts; seed packets only cost a dollar, and it’s easy to get dirt from outside. Even old milk jugs and other empty containers can be re-purposed as a planter. It really doesn’t take much. There are all kinds of little ways to bring fresh, local, nutritious foods into your own home, no matter what your income level or geographic location.

So now what? People everywhere are making a difference, from growing tomatoes out of milk jugs, to gleaning extra produce from fields, to buying food from farmers markets. It’s not just about what we eat, but about the rights of those who grow it. The local food movement is all about the connections we make: to our neighbors, to our land, and to ourselves. “Everyone else is in their own world, with their own time frame, on their own track, and it’s amazing what a process it is to take a vision and make it into something when it isn’t just money and bricks and mortar, it’s actually building movement and change with people,” said Snow. Sure, buying local food is good for economy, and yes it is good for the environment. But at the end of the day it all comes back to people. Cellars agrees, “It’s about knowing where your food comes from, and knowing who grew it. It’s about understanding the complexities and difficult choices that we have to make to feed ourselves sustainably in our changing world. And, finally, it’s about shared responsibility – for each other, for our natural resources, and for making sure that farming is a viable livelihood.” In supporting local food systems, you are exhibiting pride for the place you call home. So I’ll ask my question again: who wants to start a food revolution?


Bosia, Michael. "Can We Eat Our Way to a Better World?" Food Sustainability Panel. Saint Michael's College, Colchester, VT. 27 Oct. 2014. Lecture.
Cellars, Joyce. E-mail interview. 28 Oct. 2014.
Fatemi, Farrah. "Can We Eat Our Way to a Better World?" Food Sustainability Panel. Saint Michael's College, Colchester, VT. 27 Oct. 2014. Lecture.
Lynch, Heather. Personal interview. 28 Oct. 2014.
Rost, Winston. Telephone interview. 30 Oct. 2014.
Snow, Theresa. Telephone Interview. 15 Oct. 2014.

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