Imagine a healthy food system that produced enough real good food for everyone. What would it look like? And how would you characterize real good food?
Healthy: It provides nourishment and enables people to thrive.
Green: It was produced in a manner that is environmentally sustainable.
Fair: No one along the supply chain was exploited for its creation.
Affordable: All people have access to it.
With two more criteria, I agree with this definition.
• Regarding real good food, I’d add, humane: it promotes the fairest treatment of animals possible.
• Regarding a food system that produces real good food, I’d add that it should be participatory. Engagement would result in the populace appreciating sustainable agriculture practices. While their participation may range from growing herbs on a windowsill to having several raised beds in their backyard to volunteering at a CSA (i.e., community supported agriculture), this participation would begin to build community awareness in sustainable food production, storage, and use: planning, growing, tending, harvesting, distributing, preserving, preparing, composting, and more.
Using these six criteria as a guide, our current food system is a failure:
• There is a dramatically unhealthy production imbalance and, thus, grocery stores are filled with highly-processed foods:
• Regarding the production imbalance, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Only about 2 percent of U.S. farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables, while 59 percent is devoted to commodity crops.”
• And as for lack of nourishment in foods, not only do too many neighborhoods not have stores with enough affordable healthy food options for everyone in its community, nearly all grocery and convenience stores are filled with highly-subsidized and highly-processed, cheap food options. These foods undervalue our health as modern diseases and ailments like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol problems have become rampant.
• We often treat soil like dirt: Soil is a mix of minerals, water, air, organic matter, and the decaying remains of once-living things. It is also home to bacteria, earthworms, and other microscopic living things that convert all the decaying stuff into food for what will grow in and above it. Soil is home to our livelihood. Soil makes much of our real good food possible. What’s terrible is that sometimes we actively convert soil into dirt. We poison it. We make it inhospitable to the bacteria, earthworms, and other microscopic living things necessary for it to continue being soil and for it to continue growing healthy things — like real good food — out of it.
• We severely undervalue our real food farmers and farmworkers: What does it say about us when we don’t value those who want to tend soil and food as stewards and provide us with real good food? Why are so many farmers and farm workers poor? Why are some farmers and farm workers (and their families) forced to skip meals! Why do farmers have to take second jobs? They are feeding us! Something is wrong when we don’t value the time and care a farmer of real and whole foods puts in to provide healthy food in our bellies while taking care of the soil that grows it.
• Thousands of communities lack full-service grocery stores where affordable real good food is accessible: In my state (i.e., Minnesota), the Wilder Research Center notes that “About 1.6 million Minnesotans (about 30 percent) have low retail access to healthy food, based on their distance to a full-service grocery store.” And “[b]oth price and distance create barriers to healthy food access, but price constitutes a more significant barrier. An estimated 341,000 Minnesotans face both income and distance barriers to purchasing healthy food.”
• Current meat consumption promotes maltreatment of animals: As noted in “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter,” “Factory farming … inflicts prolonged suffering of sows who spend most of their lives in crates that are too narrow for them to turn around in; … on chickens kept in unnaturally large flocks, bred to grow too fast, and transported and killed in appalling conditions; on dairy cows who are regularly made pregnant and kept separate from their calves; and on beef cattle kept on bare dirt feedlots … buying factory farm products is not the right thing to do.
• Rather than people widely participating in the food system, we have become passive eaters: Modern-day agrarian and essayist, Wendell Berry, only partially jokes: “The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, pre-chewed, into your mouth is only because that they have found no profitable way to do so.”
However, as the post “four options to greatly reduce hunger” points out, insurmountable scarcity is not why these injurious and poor decisions are made. Manageable, coordinated choices could be made to flood our food system with healthy, real good food options. While not addressing all the issues noted above, the following are just two examples of how small changes could begin to transform our food system:
• The Union of Concerned Scientists report referenced above goes on to say that “if meat and dairy consumption fell to levels recommended by the Harvard University School of Public Health, farmers would grow less corn and other grains used as livestock feed — 8 million acres less. This, in turn, would drive changes in farming practices that would build healthier soil, improve air and water quality, and increase access to fresh, affordable, healthy foods in farm communities.”
• And as Mark Bittman writes in the NYT article “Lawns into Gardens,” “converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates.”
Finally, this blog is not just about changing our food system for societal improvements; it is also about promoting healthier individuals. I’ve covered above just a couple of aspects of the physical health improvements that could produce more real good food. But on the individual level, the simple act of gardening can promote better mental health.
Let me get personal here. My act of gardening regularly improves my mental health. As I note in the blog post “my garden mends an anxious mind,” I have a chronic Anxiety disorder that can make me obsess about my mistakes of the past and create immense fears of the future. Luckily, there are many tactics an Anxiety-ridden person can use to abbreviate their period of distress. One good practice is to jolt your mind out of the past or future, focusing, instead, on the now. Mind you, this isn’t just “snapping out” of your Anxiety. It is highly intentional and often disciplined work to get your brain to move from swirling around “fight or flight” chemical reactions to either a more neutral or even better place. One of the most common things I do during the summer is to head out to my garden and become fully aware of how my five senses ground me in the present, making the past and future disappear.
The issues above are the ones Dissident Potato hopes to take on while addressing ways we can create a healthier food system is the challenge this blog accepts.
Are you along for the ride?