Friday, October 21, 2011

Why We Need Sustainable Food Systems

The truth about our food system is that it is completely broken. Our current system is costing us a lot of money and literally costing us millions of lives. You may not be green or eco-friendly or into leading a sustainable lifestyle, but I highly recommend that you consider the importance of a sustainable food system. Your health and the health of our future generations depends on it.

The way I see it there are 2 major problems.

First, we produce enough food to feed every single person in this country, yet people still go hungry every day. According to the US Department of Agriculture in 2010 14.5 percent of the people in this country were food insecure for at least some part of the year. That is over 40 million people who do not know where they will get their next meal.

Compare that to the fact that we waste about 40 percent of the food produced in this country  (Wasted FoodSoSAand you start wondering what is wrong with our food system. The food wasted is both food that people purchase and just never eat and fresh produce from farms that is never harvested and basically left to waste. Perfectly good food wastes away while over 40 million people go hungry every year! That is not a sustainable food system and, in my opinion, completely unacceptable.

YSFP Farmer's Market Table
Second, those of us who are food secure are eating foods that are basically making us sick. Consider that some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer and diabetes (CDC). All of these diseases are preventable, if only we feed our bodies a better diet. 

Somewhere along the way, people lost sight of the importance of feeding our body the nutrients it needs to function properly. We stopped caring about nutrition and started accepting expensive, processed and low-nutritional value foods. More importantly, those people we trust to provide us with high quality food also stopped caring about nutrition.

We have lost touch with the importance of fresh nutrition-dense food and it is time to reconnect. We need to reconnect ourselves with our food sources, consider the types of food we eat and address the importance of our food's nutritional content. We have to find a more sustainable food system. 

This is not green, tree-hugger talk, this is basic science: Our body is like a machine. We have to feed it the correct combination of nutrients so that it can function properly. This does not mean you only have to eat fruits and vegetables and never touch a cupcake again (hmm, I love cupcakes) or that you will be eating tasteless foods (you would be surprised how delicious fresh produce can be). What it means is that we have to reduce our dependence on processed foods. We have to find ways to get fresh food to everyone. We have to think about what we feed our bodies and we have to go back to a system where the focus is our health and well-being and the health and well-being of future generations.

The good news is that there are many ways to do this, whether you are part of the food secure or the food insecure population.

If you are part of the food insecure, let me go ahead and bust one myth. Healthy food does not have to be expensive. As Slow Food USA's $5 challenge has shown, there are many healthy and delicious meals you can create for $5 or less per person. All it takes it a little bit of effort.

There are also wonderful organizations like New Haven's CitySeed, where I volunteer, that are working hard to make sure fresh food is accessible to everyone. CitySeed doesn't only promote the purchase of local foods and therefore support our local farmers, they also set-up farmer's markets in various areas which make it easier for people to access and purchase these local foods. CitySeed also works hard to educate people about SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) -formerly known as Food Stamps-, which are now accepted at many Farmer's Market, thus making fresh food even more accessible to everyone.

Then there are inspirational stories like Susan Gregory Thomas' story of how she Went Back to The Land and found ways to grow her own food, keep her own chickens, create her own cleaning products and feed her family for only $100/week. As Susan says, it is a lot of work, but she also says that it is definitely doable.

If you are part of the food secure, you can also learn from Susan and others who have chosen to grow some of their own food. There really is nothing more satisfying then picking your home-grown lettuce and tossing a salad or biting into a freshly harvested tomato or carrot. There are also many other ways to contribute to improving our food system. You can actively work on reducing the amount of food you waste (and thus saving yourself money). You can start thinking about the content of your food and make better choices,which in turn can prevent your family from getting sick.

If you want to be more active in food system reform, there are literally thousands of organizations that you can support. From large organizations like Slow Food USA and Feeding America, to small local organizations like CitySeed and specialized organizations like Cooking Matters and Society of St.Andrew who have a large gleaning operation, where they go onto farms and salvage perfectly edible food that would otherwise go to waste, there are many ways to get involved.

Another way is to ask companies, like grocery stores, restaurants and other places that might have excess food to donate that food. There is even a Good Samaritan Law that "protects companies from liabilities surrounding their (food) donations" (EPA). Another way to influence companies, particularly large food producers, is by modifying your purchasing decisions. For some reason we have come under the control of the food manufacturing companies, but the reality is that they are providing us a service and thus we are the ones who are and should be in control. If you are not happy about the quality of your food, say something.

The truth is that we can all benefit from a better and more sustainable food system, but it is not going to fix itself. We have to actively work together to make it happen. We have to let our voices be heard and demand better food!

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