By Courtney Helgoe, Experience Life
America’s food industry is in the midst of a dramatic culture shift that’s challenging everything we’ve been taught about eating. Here’s how to take advantage of this exciting new movement and eat more healthfully than ever before.
If, on some beautiful summer morning, you decide to head to your local farmers’ market, chances are good that you’ll have your pick of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes: green zebras, Brandywines, yellow pear or sugar plum. Maybe you’ll grab a cup of fair-trade coffee to enjoy while you chat with growers. On your way back you could stop at the local food co-op for a few more staples: a carton of organic milk, some spelt pasta. Pulling up in front of the house on your bike, you gratefully contemplate how easy it is to eat well close to home.
Later in the week, however, you’re just as likely to find yourself in the center aisles of the mega-market, surrounded by bags of salty snacks and temptingly easy-to-make (and heavily processed) prepackaged meals. Your youngest child, fresh from daycare, is howling for the toaster tarts with her favorite cartoon heroes on the box. Hungry and ready to flee, you grab a frozen pizza, submit to the demand for toaster tarts, and drive home through rush-hour traffic, munching a bag of cheese curls as you go. Pulling up in front of your house, you consider how easy it is to be distracted from your goals to eat better food.
America’s food culture has never been so polarized. Locally grown heirloom crops square off with mass-produced frozen pizzas. Organic seeds compete with genetically modified ones. Pasture-fed cattle are shadowed by crowded feedlots. While Italy’s Slow Food Movement catches on across the country, our addiction to fast food shows no signs of abating.
Clearly, our food system is heading in two radically different directions, and the decisions we make as eaters play a vital role in determining its fate. Read on for a glimpse of the current state of our food culture and some tips on how you can help create a food movement that’s moving in the right direction for your tastes.
Positive Trends, Challenging Realities
Our industrial food system is undergoing a seismic shift. Walmart is the country’s largest purveyor of organic milk, and Whole Foods Market has become a household name. The number of farmers’ markets has doubled in the last decade. And demand for organic food rises at an annual rate of 20 percent.
Meanwhile, books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, 2008) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins, 2007) have become bestsellers. In 2007, editors of the Oxford American Dictionary chose “locavore,” a term for people who exclusively buy foods grown close to home, as their word of the year.
What’s more, the participants in today’s food movement are not just back-to-the-land vegetarians or “health food nuts,” as your grandma might’ve called them. These movers and shakers come in all stripes — from the urban farmer to the suburban mom who can deconstruct a food label in record time. City folks are heading to the country to volunteer in community-supported agriculture (CSA) partnerships, and celebrity chefs are building public alliances with local farmers. Consumers aren’t just grabbing the local apples at the grocery store; they’re purchasing them directly from farmers at markets or through shares of a CSA.
“This is an industry born of activism,” says Whole Foods copresident Walter Robb, whose company has grown from a tiny natural foods store in Texas in 1978 into a Fortune 500 giant that grossed $6.6 billion in 2007. Robb readily acknowledges that many of the company’s directives, like its animal compassion standards and parking-lot farmers’ markets, come directly from community input and consumer demand for more sustainably produced food.
In short, consumers are playing a central role in shaping a new American food culture. And they’re beginning to see how their activism is translating into better land management and animal treatment, a healthier bottom line for small farmers, and a renaissance of delicious and healthful food.
That’s not to say we’ve seen the end of commodity-based industrial agriculture. The vast majority of American food producers continue to reap most of their profits from the sale of highly processed foods based on ingredients (like corn, wheat, soy and sugar) that spell trouble for both human and environmental health. And outdated federal legislation continues to support mass-production farming and monoculture crops, stacking the deck against small-scale growers and sweetening the profit margin for big agricultural outfits that grow commodities instead of food.
Today, organics still comprise only 2 percent of total U.S. food production. Small, diverse growing operations remain the exception to the rule of the corporate-controlled “factory” farm. In 2005, farmers devoted 4 million acres to organic crops in the United States, while federally subsidized corn, the bedrock of the processed-food and fast-food industries, occupied 81.6 million acres.
And while Americans have more access than ever to fresh, whole and organic foods, those living in low-income communities have fewer options. In these areas, people without reliable transportation are forced to buy their groceries at neighborhood gas stations and convenience stores, purveyors of what Pollan calls “food products” — shelf-stable, highly refined goods that are only distantly related to recognizable crops.
This particular inequity may seem less urgent than the broader economic and political realities from which it springs, but the lack of access to fresh, healthy food is linked to some of our most worrisome public health trends. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in four U.S. adults is medically obese, and one in three children born in the United States in 2000 will contract diet-related type 2 diabetes by 2050 — both conditions related to consuming highly processed food.
What’s more, many of our government’s policies support the production of highly refined, high-glycemic products through outdated farm subsidy programs. The U.S. government originally subsidized farmers who grew corn and other storable crops to protect Americans against starvation after the Great Depression, but today that subsidized corn appears as corn syrup in almost all our processed food and, indirectly, as livestock feed in our fast-food meals.
By making these foods artificially cheap, those subsidies effectively underwrite the obesity and diabetes epidemics. In addition, they discourage the planting of health-promoting vegetables by making corn the only crop most farmers feel they can afford to grow.
The 2007 Farm Bill contained new incentives for environmental stewardship, funding to support more farmers’ markets and urban farms, and a farm-to-school program for better school lunches — all in response to citizen demand. Subsidies for corporate farms and commodity crops remained untouched, but for the first time since the industrialization of the food system after World War II, legislation is beginning to reflect consumer desire for a healthier food system.
Time to Eat
The good news is it really doesn’t take much to lend your support to the positive trends in today’s food movement. And doing so will build a healthier, more soul-satisfying relationship with your food. One the next page, you can find a few simple ways to help revolutionize our food system for the better.
Next: 4 Ways to Revolutionize Eating