// Sustainable and Local Foods / CTA
Long ago and not so far away, I was deeply involved in food advocacy work, was living on an organic produce farm, and writing about food ways while editing cookbooks. Food continues to be a part of my prescription for a lifetime of wellness.
In the early 2000's I started writing heavily about why local and sustainable foods mattered as I studied at Vassar College and lived in upstate New York. Having this passion has been a big part in why I eat simple, clean foods and try to have as much awareness as possible with food.
For everyone who didn't think I was a dork already, here is an old piece on sustainable and local foods.
Sustainable and Local Foods:
What it is, Why it matters, and What is being done
A Food Based Call to Action
In today's world much of our food is a result of industrial agriculture and is over-processed, and laden with chemicals or additives. This type of agriculture destroys land, and contributes to lower air, land, and soil qualities, as well as possibly effecting human health. These issues are major concerns of many consumers, and national and local organizations are taking strides to address this problem by means of promoting sustainable and local foods movements.
Dutchess County presents a unique opportunity for this movement, with a reported 112,339 acres of farm land. Situated along the Hudson River, approximately sixty miles north of New York City, Dutchess County holds the ability to work with a farming community, and provide its schools, families, and next generation with the gift of a healthy environment and healthier food choices. With a population increase of 5.4% in the last six years, Dutchess County is continuing to grow and taking steps now would be more influential than ever.
Eating and promoting sustainable and local food is important because this form of growing and supplying food supports local economy, provides more nutritious foods, decreases environmental pollutants caused by the shipping and transporting of food goods, increases working relationships with farmers, and works to promote a higher quality of life for all involved. With food in the United States traveling an average of 1500 miles and changing hands six times from its immature harvesting to when it gets to our plates, there is an obvious need for sourcing more foods locally. After talking with local individuals who are working for and passionately believe in these issues, the goal is raise consciousness about the current state of our food and environment, as up to 80% of Dutchess County is still oblivious to what is going on in this area. Americans spend approximately 8 to 10% of their earned money on food, versus other nations spending at minimum 20% of their incomes on food. Much of this is due to outdated governmental policies that manage and control food production, manufacturing, and transporting of food in this country. These agencies and policies do not have the U.S. people's best interests in mind, and are adding to the myriad problems we are now facing as a country, such as global warming, the obesity epidemic, and the gross importation of sub-par foreign food goods.
Sustainable food is still a roughly defined term that refers to "sustainable agriculture" and the items grown or produced in that manner. This type of growing and harvesting food is better for the environment, respects workers and animals, and supports the farming community according to Sustainable Table literature. Local foods are becoming a "hot topic" with the term "locavore" (someone who eats locally) to be coined within the last year, and added to the dictionary. Local can mean anything from your county to your state, but for ease of understanding, the general term refers to foods and goods from within 100 miles of where one lives. With national being paid to this subject, Dutchess County should not behave blindly, but take full advantage of this opportunity and thus help it's people, it's economy, and the country at large.
Within such a movement as this for Sustainable and local foods, certain actors are more involved than others and will be addressed accordingly. Within Dutchess County, the Congressmen for the area hold a large role as they have the highest level of political control and are a voice to national government. Farmers and working farms are directly involved as they are and will become the main producers of agriculture for this county. Schools are also a key player in that they must follow strict guidelines with food choices and can argue for change in what they serve to their students or completely alter programs in private institutions. PTA boards of schools will also be informed as a means to band individuals together, with strength existing in numbers.
Groups already working within Dutchess County and the surrounding area include Eat Local Food, a group dedicated to connecting food, people, and the planet. They provide information, resources, and education for those interested. According to Localharvest.com, there are 26 farmers markets within Dutchess County, offering a range of food goods. These farmers markets are ways in which consumers can buy from farmers, and support the local economy. CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) also exist in the area, and are flourishing, yet are still just a baby step in a larger journey that has to take place. Many national websites such as the localharvest.com, organicconsumers.org, and sustainabletable.org are sources that provide links to how one can work locally. These provide not only overall education and information on the subject and concerns, but also many lists organizations, farms, and/or places people can get started.
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Statistics to Consider
"Syndrome of Consolidation" (McKibben 2007):
- 81% of American beef is slaughtered by four companies
- 89% of American chickens are produced under contract to big companies
- More than 70% of fluid milk sales in the U.S. are controlled by four multinational companies
- Since World War II, the U.S. has lost on average a farm every half hour
- Wal-Mart is now the largest seller of food in the country
Government sponsorship (subsidy budget):
- 1/3 of all federal farm payments go to the largest 2 percent of farms
- 3/4 of payments go to farms that are among the top 10% in size
- On average, food in the U.S. travels 1,500 from farm to plate, changing hands 6 times along the way
- 75% of apples for sale in New York City are from the West Coast or overseas, even though New York State produces ten times the number of apples consumed in the Big Apple.
- Just 22% of young people eat the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables per day
- Fat-laden French-fried potatoes alone constitute 23% of all vegetables consumed
- In 1991, only four states reported obesity prevalence rates higher than 15%, with none above 20% — By 2002, 30 states reported rates higher than 20%.
- Public school system includes 13 districts, which educate over 46,000 students and employ over 3,000 teachers.
- There are 38 private/parochial schools and 8 colleges in Dutchess County
- Expenditures per student are among the highest in the state —–
- Nearly 700 farms occupy a fifth of total acreage of Dutchess County.
"The poor nations of the world need to develop. But if they develop according to our model, the planet will break under the strain (226)."
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Evaluating Existing Programs
Farms to School is a part of the broader "Farm to Cafeteria" movement, which promotes the use of locally grown foods in the cafeterias of hospitals, nursing homes, businesses and other institutions. Cornell University's Farm to School (FTS) program, established in 2002, seeks to improve the health of children and the sustainability of the food system by promoting environmental nutrition reform in New York's schools, colleges and universities. FTS initiatives implement strategies to increase the amount of locally grown food consumed by students across the state. These strategies not only help schools provide a wide range of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetable, but also encourage student awareness of the connections between farms, health and community through nutrition and food education. Farms to School initiatives include:
- Local foods featured in school/college meals
- Farmers' market salad bars
- Nutrition Food system education in the classroom
- School garden and garden-based learning
- Farmer visits to schools and college dining halls
- Student and food service staff visits to farms
- Harvest events
College and University dining services can make a significant impact by committing to geographic preferences in contracts with food suppliers. In 2003, Cornell's dining service included in its contract a commitment to us at least 20% New York State grown produce. Additionally, Cornell's vendor agreed to purchase seasonal items from local produce suppliers when available. Middlebury College, which operates its own dining service, buys a third of its food from the surrounding Champlain Valley.
Since 1989, Vassar College's dining services have been managed by Aramark. The multi-billion dollar corporation is currently in the process of renewing its contract with the college for the next five years. Sodexho, another food-service giant, lost its contract with the University of California at Santa Cruz following a student campaign in support of local foods – a movement that has since spread to all U.C. campuses. In September 2007, Aramark launched its Farm-To-College pilot program at Vassar, perhaps as a response to the growing treat posed by student campaigns. The project is administered by Green Wave, an organization that includes "farmers, educators, activists, and culinary experts who work together to promote healthy eating habits and sustainability (Vassar 2007)." Although the impacts of the new program have yet to be seen, it is likely that Aramark will receive a new contract with Vassar.
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Farmers markets are mushrooming across the United States. In 1970, there were just 340 nationwide; by 2002, the number had grown to 3,100. Today there are nearly 4,500; New York City alone has 33 of them. The tens of thousands of farmers all over the country who participate in these markets retain all of the money from the products they sell. This is a stark contrast to the 8-10% they would receive going through the industrialized food system (81). The growing popularity of farmers markets is such that earlier this year, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture declared the week of August 5-11 National Farmers Market Week.
Farmers markets are one of the most successful ways for local produce to reach the non-student population. Market customers vary according to the time of day, location, and time of year of a particular farmers market. For instance, office workers tend to comprise the target audience of farmers markets during lunch hours. Some have proposed moving the location of the City of Poughkeepsie Main Street Farmers Market closer to the train station in order to draw more of the commuter population.
In addition to promoting healthy eating habits and supporting local economies, farmers markets help to build community. A sociological study has found that consumers at farmers markets have ten times as many conversations as consumers at supermarkets (105). Yet despite the successes of farmers markets, on the official Dutchess County website, information on local markets is to be found not under "agriculture," as one might expect, but rather under "tourism." This distinction seems to indicate that representatives of Dutchess County still consider farmers markets more valuable as tourist attractions than as viable alternatives to the prevailing models of agricultural exchange.
"Every new farmers market… requires new connections between people who came together to found it, the farmers who come in from the country to meet their suburban and urban customers, the customers who emerge from the supermarket trance to meet their neighbors (128)."
A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of supporters who assume the risks and bounty of growing food throughout the season. The first CSA was founded in Massachusetts in 1985 – today there are more than 1,500 in the United States (81). The Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP) is a CSA, located on the Vassar College Farm, which requires of its members a commitment to work at least 12 hours in the fields over the course of a season. The PFP donates approximately 10-20% of its harvest to emergency food providers in the area.
According to the USDA, small local farms have far less of an environmental impact than large industrial farms, they use land, water, and oil more efficiently, and they even produce more food per acre, whether measured in tons, calories, or dollars (67). Although modern environmentalism was pioneered in the United States, a study released by Columbia University ranks the U.S. 51st out of 142 nations in environmental sustainability (102). Additionally, although the U.S. trails only Luxembourg in gross domestic product per person, Americans rank 13th for overall quality of life (103). By growing our food closer to home we would use much less energy, thereby alleviating the two most pressing global issues of our time: oil shortage and climate change.
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"Cheap energy and cheap food are dear to the most powerful interests in our society, not to mention a broad majority of citizens, and waiting until those interests are moved to take action seems a recipe for disastrous delay."