Earlier this month, I attended the 2010 Campus Progress National Conference in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Center for American Progress. I was invigorated to see so many hundreds of passionate young people getting together to talk about ways we can influence public policy and address huge issues of our time—such as racism, climate change, and food insecurity.

Of particular interest to me was the panel discussion called “The Force of Food,” which highlighted the impact of our current food system on culture, health, and the environment.  The panel featured

  • Malik Yakini (Chairman, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network)
  • Mary Lee (Associate Director, Policy Link)
  • Samuel Fromartz (Journalist, ChewsWise.com, Washington Post)
  • Terrol Dew Johnson (Co-Founder, Tohono O’odham Community Action)

and looked specifically at the impact of industrialized food on U.S. minority populations and at questions of access and affordability of local foods.  Panel moderator, Natasha Bowens (Advocacy Associate, Campus Progress), called food “the elephant in the room” when discussing nearly any other global issue such as health, development, water, and the environment.

Our current food system has evolved from the small-scale subsistence farming that once fed communities into an elaborate industry largely run by privatized agribusinesses which import and export food from all corners of the world.

You may or may not be surprised to hear that the average plate of food travels 1,500 miles before reaching our dinner tables.1

The history of this transition can be traced back to the rise of monoculture farms (massive farms used to cultivate only one type of crop), which led to the specialization of farming. These large scale farms respond to the overwhelming economic push to keep production costs as low as possible and yet produce yields as high as possible, often with the support of policies working in their favor which consequently pushed small-scale family farmers out of business.  This push for mass production has encouraged the widespread use of fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic modification of our food, which has done proven damage to the environment as well as human health.

On a related note, the United Nations estimates that, for the first time ever, over 50% of the world population lives in cities as of 2008.2 With the massive shift towards urbanization, this means that less and less people in the world are farming, while the world population and consequently number of mouths to feed is increasing rapidly.

As I learned during the food panel discussion, some cities like Detroit are even becoming known as “food deserts”—cities where fresh food is difficult to come by. These are areas in which there are very few grocery stores, but an abundance of mini-marts where people regularly buy their food. In Detroit, for example, more than 500-900 thousand people have to go far away to find a grocery store, meaning there is low access to fresh food.

Some countries, such as Venezuela, are taking initiative in lowering their dependency on trade to meet their food needs and increasing the self-sufficiency and sovereignty of local food systems to meet the needs of their population. While the world trade system pressures countries to become more dependent on one another for food through theories of comparative advantage, over-dependence on imported food, as we saw in 2008, can leave millions hungry when the cost of imported food sky-rockets due to market forces.

In contrast, by focusing their attention on developing the dairy and beef sectors of its economy, Venezuela has increased domestic milk production by 50% and beef production 43% over the last 11 years.3 This emphasis on food sovereignty, and therefore domestic production, has resulted in reduced environmental damage in transportation, benefit for the Venezuelan economy, and a greater abundance of healthy food for Venezuelan citizens.

In the United States, policies to encourage more sovereign, local food systems, many say, is direly needed in order to make sure food is a right accessible to all.  However, the “slow food movement” as it is called, that advocates for locally and eco-friendly grown food for nations around the world, others see as a distant dream.

One student during the Q&A after the panel discussion asked, “How can we make the slow food movement less of an upper-class luxury and instead relevant and necessary one for all?” While all the panelists had thoughts to chime in, Mary Lee in particular, pushed the question back to us, saying that it’s up us to use our voice, spread awareness, and influence policies on the local level. She mentioned that in order to be a truly “sustainable” movement, slow food must be for everyone. While I already use my dollar as a vote to support local farmers, I found this call to action to be the most motivating–raising awareness in our communities, bringing others into this movement, is the only way to create widespread change.

1 The Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture. “How Far Does Your Food Travel to get to Your Plate?” http://www.cuesa.org/sustainable_ag/issues/foodtravel.php
2 United Nations Population Fund. “Linking Population, Poverty and Development” http://www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm
3 VenezuelaAnalysis.com. “Venezuela Edges Closer to Food Sovereignty by Increasing Milk Production by 50%” http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/5490