We Already Know Our Food System Is Broken, Here's How We Can Fix It


The following is an excerpt from Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2011.

Many of our country's systems are in need of repair. We have an education system that is failing some of our youth and ultimately compromising our future. We have a health care system whose costs are spiraling out of control, leaving many without insurance coverage and depriving more and more low-income and working families of adequate medical care. We rely on an energy system that will not sustain us in the future. And we have a financial system that has come close to melting down.

But there is another system that gets much less attention than it deserves, even though we all rely on it to keep us alive -- if we are lucky, three times a day: our food system. When a system we depend on to meet essential needs isn't working, the consequences are enormous. The food system that evolved to bring us abundant food at low cost has grown out of control, nourishing us by destroying some of what we hold most precious: our environment, our health, and our future. The problems it has engendered -- from agricultural chemical runoff in our rivers, streams, and oceans, to soaring rates of diet-related illness (such as diabetes) in our inner cities, to the loss of prime farmland due to urban and suburban sprawl, to corporate conglomeration that concentrates 80 percent of our meat supply in the hands of only four companies -- are not isolated issues to be solved one by one. Rather, they are symptoms of a food system that is broken and needs to be redesigned.

With any broken system, the place where the dysfunction is most acute is in our inner cities. Take one city, Detroit, which stands out as the most troubled of them all. Detroit is enormous. At 138 square miles, it could encompass San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan all at once, yet it has lost residents and jobs at an alarming rate. Designed to accommodate more than two million people, it houses fewer than 900,000, and its citizens live among almost 130,000 abandoned homes.

At around 16 percent, Detroit's official unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation, but the city's mayor and local leaders are suggesting a far more disturbing figure -- the actual jobless rate, they say, is closer to 50 percent. One in every three people lives below the poverty line. The federal government pumped more than $480 million worth of food stamps into the city in the past year, but less than 10 percent of the stores where these benefits can be redeemed are considered grocery stores or supermarkets. Many of these benefits are spent at what are considered "fringe" retailers, such as gas stations, liquor stores, party stores, dollar stores, bakeries, pharmacies, and convenience stores.

Good food has all but forsaken Detroit. The last two supermarket chains moved out in July 2007, making it the only big city (the eleventh-largest in the United States) without any major supermarkets. Most of the city's residents would have to travel more than twice as far to reach a grocery store as they would to get to a corner store. Many rely on gas stations, liquor stores, or convenience stores for their food. It's not uncommon to be asked in Detroit, "What gas station do you buy your groceries at?"

If we want to repair this broken food system and create a chance for a healthy generation of Americans, we need to start in cities like Detroit. The men and women of this city, like many others, want change. They recognize the gaps in their diet and enjoy cooking. They'd love to have access to the fresh produce available at suburban supermarkets, but transportation difficulties keep them away. "People would walk to their neighborhood store if it offered a selection of healthy, fresh produce and if it was clean and safe. . . . There's so much excess demand for that kind of thing in our local neighborhoods," one Detroiter told me recently. "You can't get any produce," fumed another. "And the children, they don't even know what produce is. I was picking a pea pod this morning, and none of the children knew what a pea pod was. Never heard of it."

These men and women feel overlooked. Ignored. Disrespected. While there is the beginning of a national conversation about our food system that sings the praises of backyard vegetable gardens and pricey organic produce, the people of Detroit don't even have a supermarket.

Along with my colleagues in the fair food movement, I am thrilled that the country has finally started talking about what we eat and where our food comes from. But conversations don't build grocery stores or make fresh food more affordable at inner-city farmers' markets. The advice to "eat food, mostly plants, not too much" doesn't help if, as Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush once pointed out, you can buy ketchup where you live, but not fresh tomatoes.

The food system is failing Detroiters and many other families who live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has termed "food deserts," places where access to healthy food is severely limited. But actually the system is failing us all. Even those of us who live in "food oases" and have enough money to buy virtually any food product from any place in the world are living with the fallout of a broken system.

These symptoms all point to a system that is working poorly for us at this moment in history. But Fair Food is not a book primarily about how broken the system is. Rather, it is a book that aims to foster the creation of a redesigned system, one that is healthy for people, communities, and the environment. To redesign that system, we need to understand that the one we have was developed at a time when we needed lots of cheap food and needed to encourage farmers to produce it. Plentiful, affordable food for all is still a vital need and an essential objective for a redesigned system.

Good food means a lot to me. Because I suffer from ulcerative colitis, otherwise known as Crohn's disease, my efforts to find food that soothes my symptoms have led to numerous revelations about the healing power of a good diet. In addition, I've devoted my entire thirty-five-year career to making sure good food is available and affordable for everyone. In the 1970s, long before "organic" was a word in the national vocabulary, I started an organic alfalfa sprout farm; in the years since, I've worked as a farmer, food salesman, university professor, and president of a foundation focused on food issues.

As a scientifically trained agronomist, I know what it takes to grow good food, from the right climate conditions and soil pH levels to the best fertilizers and crop-rotation sequences. While I was a professor of agronomy at Michigan State University, I spent several years as a consultant to the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the oldest and largest philanthropic institutions in the United States. In 1996, I left academia to work as a full-time program director at the foundation, first leading its Integrated Farming Systems and then its Food and Society Programs. For fifteen years, I co-directed the largest philanthropic program in sustainable food and agriculture that had ever been developed. During that time, the Kellogg Foundation granted more than $200 million to organizations attempting to shift food and agriculture systems in their communities and through public policy. In 2008, I left Kellogg to start Fair Food Network, a new institution committed to building a more just and sustainable food system. This national nonprofit organization has projects on the ground in Michigan focused on creating greater access to healthy, fresh, and sustainably grown food, especially in historically underserved communities. We also work to change public policy so that it facilitates greater access to healthy food while supporting local small and midsize farmers to produce it.

While many of our country's systems are in need of repair, if we do not fix the food system, efforts in all of the other areas will be for naught. We are, after all, living creatures, a species that, just like any other on this planet, needs to eat to survive. Our relationship to food is the most basic relationship we have with our environment -- whether we are environmentalists or not. The natural ecological systems of soil, water, and air are needed to produce every ingredient of every meal. If we do not feed ourselves in a way that sustains our environment, our agriculture, and our communities, then as a species we are not long for this world. So while we focus attention on education, health care, and energy, we also need to focus our attention on fixing the broken food system.

With most other large systems, we must rely primarily, if not solely, on our policy makers and industry leaders to act on our behalf. We can write letters, attend meetings, and try to make our voices heard on local and national levels. But in the long run, there is little that one individual, family, or neighborhood can do to fix the broken education or energy system.

With the food system we can have more impact. We can take responsibility for fixing it both through individual decisions and through collective action. As individuals we can make different choices about what we purchase and what we eat. We can choose to support a more local and sustainable agriculture and can decide to eat in a way that keeps us healthier. We can join with other concerned individuals to demand different food at our children's school cafeteria and at our college food service. We can plant backyard and community gardens. We can shop at farmers' markets. All of these individual actions can and will make a difference in our own lives and in the food system-now more than a $1 trillion economic engine in our national economy-but they alone will not produce the kind of change we need.

At the same time that we shift our own food habits, we also need our policy makers and industry leaders to work toward a redesigned food system --one that provides safe, healthy, and nutritious food to all our residents in a manner that protects our natural resource base for future generations. As is the case with the health care problem and the energy problem and the environmental problem, if we're going to solve the food problem we need to look at bigger, systems-level solutions and not get caught up in the small stuff.

Not sweating the small stuff is a principle that President Barack Obama understands. In the run-up to the 2008 election, Newsweek caught him in a great off-the-cuff moment. During a prep session for a debate among the Democratic candidates, he was riffing on what he'd say if moderator Brian Williams asked him a fluffy question, for example, what he did every day to make the world a greener place. "Well," he said, "the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f-ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective."

He's right. Changing your incandescent lightbulbs isn't a bad thing, but if you really want to impact the course of climate change, other goals should be higher on your list of priorities, such as new laws and economic incentives that will create lasting change. You won't solve much by staying in your house. I know that the president and the First Lady care deeply about sustainable eating, and the lightbulb principle applies there, too. The vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House is a wonderful symbol and an inspiring action, and the first family's focus on ending childhood hunger while also tackling the tricky issue of childhood obesity is admirable. But it will take more than symbolic gestures to truly change the food environment for kids and their parents. It will require redesigning our food system, which is the focus of this book.

Fair Food is divided into three parts. The first part discusses our current food system, how and why it evolved as it has, and the ways in which it is no longer serving us well. Part Two describes four key principles a redesigned food system should embody and offers examples of how various individuals and organizations have started to integrate these principles, providing inspiring new models for farmers and foodies, businesses and communities. Finally, Part Three offers a practical guide to how you can participate in precipitating big, collective changes in our food system, from your kitchen to your community to your statehouse and the White House. I'll give you questions to ask about community-supported agriculture and at farmers' markets; tools for starting Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaigns in your community; advice for forming buyers' clubs that purchase food directly from farmers and fishermen; and guidance about the legislation you should support at the local, state, and federal level so that your dollars and your votes encourage the development of an efficient, sustainable food economy. Throughout these pages, many of the examples I use to illustrate what a redesigned food system might look like focus on plants or crops rather than meat or livestock. This is a reflection of my orientation as an academically trained agronomist and not because I think animal agriculture is any less important.

This book, a product of my long career and ground-level experience, is intended to add needed perspective and pragmatism to a shelf dominated by journalists and chefs. Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and their peers have compellingly documented and aroused public concern about the full extent of our food problem and have been passionate advocates for reform. But they haven't shown us exactly what we need to do to make sustainable farming and eating a reality. They write from interviews, reading, and observation. I write from experience, based on years of training in agricultural science, and my years of practice evaluating, funding, and assessing the results of sustainable food and agriculture projects nationwide.

I'm not saying that these writers' books aren't useful, or that they haven't contributed an enormous amount to the fair food movement. But you can't go to a journalist or a chef for advice about how to bring fresh, sustainable food to everyone. That would be like coming to me for advice on how to prepare a great tomato salad. I could give you my amateur opinion as a food lover who cooks, but my specialty is how to redesign the food system so that we all have access to tasty tomatoes grown in environmentally friendly ways. My concern isn't only about bringing back heirloom tomatoes to farmers' markets or demonstrating in my upscale restaurant how much more delicious my tomato salad is for using them. My concern is making sure that those living in inner-city neighborhoods have access to tomatoes in a form other than a ketchup packet at a fast food joint.

National change is not going to come from upscale restaurants and backyard gardens alone. It's going to come from the kinds of people you will meet in this book. Now that nearly everyone with the means to subscribe to the New York Times, shop at Whole Foods, or eat at expensive locally sourced restaurants is doing so, the time for systemic, practical, and widespread action is at hand. And I can't wait to show you how to do it.

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