The food system in the United States is undergoing a remarkable shift. The revival of small farms and artisanal producers has generated new partnerships with restaurants, institutional food services, and retail outlets to make locally sourced, sustainably produced food more widely available. This shift has stimulated, and is now responding to, a growing demand from health-conscious consumers in ways that are affecting America's economy as well as its eating habits and well-being.
"We're seeing a new level of civic engagement around food," said Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center, a keynote speaker at a March 4 daylong United States Studies conference on farm-fresh food and the economy. In his view, sustainable agriculture requires restoring soil health and using up less fresh water and energy. It's about "local people getting together as food citizens to engage the community," he said.
The 2007 U.S. census cited 2.2 million farmers, an increase from previous years. Despite the aging population of farmers, Kirschenmann said a new generation of young people wants to farm, but they need access to capital and arable land.
At this conference, co-sponsored by the Program on America and the Global Economy, farmers sharing their personal stories were joined by researchers and economists who discussed emerging trends in sustainable agriculture.
Shaping Our Food Culture
Throughout the day, panelists emphasized the need to connect people of all ages to their food so they can make healthier, environmentally sustainable choices. Shaping that culture requires an all-encompassing effort from educators, government, business, media, and society.
To influence healthier diets, Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at Worldwatch Institute, highlighted grocery stores that rate the healthiest foods and the growth of farmers markets. More can be done, though, he said, such as governments subsidizing healthier foods.
A vegetable garden can help kids connect to their food, said Assadourian, as can school cafeterias. Ed Bruske, an independent author and journalist in Washington, was appalled at the processed, fatt, and sugar-laden meals his 11-year-old daughter was eating in her school cafeteria. Some 31 million children go through school lunch lines where they are offered food he referred to as "a glycemic bomb." Bruske became involved in a local effort, "Fresh Cooked," to bring healthier foods to elementary school cafeterias in DC, from salads and wraps to baked chicken instead of fried nuggets.
One challenge is the increased food costs. Another is getting kids to eat these healthier foods rather than tossing them in the trash. Education and training, Bruske said, are needed to encourage kids to eat healthier. Advertising also can help change culture. Assadourian cited a successful ad campaign targeted to kids that packaged carrots to look like individual packets of junk food and placed them in school vending machines.
Efforts to change eating habits have been more successful among college students and restaurant-going adults. Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale University Dining Services, recalled that when he first removed chicken nuggets from his Ivy League school's menu, he received howls of protest. Now, when an organic, healthily prepared version of the dish makes an occasional appearance on the menu, "Chicken Nugget Day" is celebrated across the campus.
For Dean Gold, chef and owner of Dino Restaurant in Washington, the problem is not convincing customers to eat locally sourced food but meeting the demand. He came to choose local and organic food because it was sustainable as well as the best tasting and freshest available to him. In his restaurant, Gold uses local ingredients combined with artisanal products from around the world.
"The way we eat matters," said Devora Kimelman-Block, founder of KOL Foods, a grass-fed, sustainable kosher meat distributor in Silver Spring, Maryland. Kosher, she noted, means "fit for consumption," so in practice, kosher foods should honor food sources, ethics, treatment of animals, and respect for the environment. Through her business, she seeks to combine a healthy and spiritual connection to food.
Understanding where our food originates is at the heart of "terroir," a French concept that builds our relationship with food by connecting it to locality. "Food and drink," said Amy Trubek, who teaches nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont, "is a product of the land, of the people working the landscape, and of rich cultural traditions." Her state, she continued, adapts well to this "taste of place" model, since Vermont is a rural, agrarian state with a history of small-scale farming. Trubek pointed to a commodity often associated with Vermont: maple syrup, noting that all maple syrup is sapped from trees that only grow in the United States and Canada. But, she said, maple syrup actually has many aromatic and flavor variations.
Challenges to Sustainable Food Production
At the national and global level, populations and consumption are rising while available productive land is declining, partly due to soil erosion and climate change. Rising demand also is causing great strain, leading to overuse of land and the undervaluing of commodities. This helps explain why many products are getting shipped away from their communities. Yet sending tomatoes cross country instead of selling them locally, for example, adds to consumer expense and deepens the carbon footprint.
Long in decline are fisheries along the East Coast, due to overfishing and lack of oversight. Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association—a group whose lobbying efforts have led to stricter regulations over the past decade—said some 85 percent of fish consumed in the United States is imported from countries whose food practices and ecology are little known to Americans. Moreover, only 1 percent of fish imports are inspected. Sanfilippo runs a community-supported fishery called Cape Ann Fresh Catch, which delivers sustainably caught seafood to the local communities in New England.
According to Anthony Flaccavento, a small-scale organic farmer who is also a certified food and farming consultant, a major challenge is securing adequate prices for farmers while making good food affordable. He suggested that farmers share farm equipment to maximize production and look at import-substitution ideas to coordinate production to meet demand. "Our goal should not be exotic products and niche markets," he said, but rather "ordinary food for ordinary folks."
Many aspiring farmers put in many years of hard work only to break even financially with the hope of future profit. Artisanal cheese maker Angela Miller and her husband bought a 300-acre dairy farm in Vermont 10 years ago, but they still have to retain their day jobs to keep the farm going. Their farm made and sold 45,000 pounds of cheese last year, Miller reported, but fuel, production, supply, and labor costs, including workman's compensation, ate up potential profit. They primarily sell to farmer's markets in Vermont and New York and prefer the direct-to-consumer model. "We don't want to become a factory," she said.
Farms of the Future
According to the 2007 census, Iowa State agricultural economist David Swenson found direct-to-consumer sales are highest near large population centers, particularly in the Northeast, the West, and a few isolated metropolitan areas. But according to Stephen Vogel, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, small farms that rely heavily on direct sales struggle to achieve profitability.
Rosalie Koenig, who grew up on a vegetable farm in New Jersey and is now an agronomy lecturer at the University of Florida, said human capital remains a major obstacle to sustainable food production. Only 1 percent of the population is producing the nation's food, she said, "and we need smart people going into agriculture." But college students often pursue more financially secure job opportunities and are not returning to the farms. Farming, Koenig proposed, must be marketed differently to attract the younger generation.
That is a challenge being taken up by Gary Matteson, vice president for Young, Beginning and Small Farmer Programs at the Farm Credit Council. New models are needed, he said, and in the coming years, small farmers will succeed by layering multiple businesses into farms. "Farmers need to think of themselves as rural entrepreneurs," he said. Indeed, some of the most profitable businesses may not be connected to the farm itself.