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Let's Make Sustainable Food Less Elitist

Sustainable food initiatives don't serve everyday Americans. Here's how to change that.

It's hard to argue with the mission of the Women, Infants and Children Farmers Market Nutrition Program. This federal initiative aims to boost health among those most vulnerable to malnutrition, obesity, heart disease, cancers, and other health maladies by helping supply low-income women and young children with fresh fruits and vegetables they could not otherwise afford. More than 2 million Americans received benefits from WIC’s farmers market program in 2010 alone.

But despite the program’s wide reach and invaluable purpose, the 2012 appropriations bill cut its funding by 30 percent. As food writer Mark Bittman recently noted, about 300,000 families saw a decrease in their WIC benefits as a result of federal budget cuts. Sustainable food and anti-hunger advocates are pushing to get the WIC program’s funding restored in 2013, but it’s unclear whether they’ll succeed.

Leaving poor moms and children without healthy foods is an obvious public health problem. But slashing funding for programs that expand access to nutritious fruits and vegetables illustrates a larger, even more troubling trend: The sustainable food movement is an elitist one—and many Americans are just too poor to join the club.

Money—or a lack thereof—is certainly part of the problem. Certified organic foods, fresh produce, artisanal cheeses, humanely raised meats, and other “sustainable” fare typically cost more than their industrially produced, heavily processed counterparts. But price tags are just a small piece of the very complex puzzle of why the sustainable food movement is inaccessible to many. The real issues at hand are federal subsidies to Big Ag and low-income citizens’ lack of practical access to healthy foods.

Consider this: The federal government pays farmers millions of dollars a year in the form of crop subsidies, payments intended to provide stability in the face of variables like weather and fluctuating market prices. Between 1995 and 2010, U.S. farms received $261.9 billion in subsidies. But those subsidies aren’t distributed evenly—not even close. Ten percent of the nation’s farmers collect a whopping 74 percent of the subsidies, and the lion’s share goes to industrial-scale corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, and rice farmers. Small-scale producers (like family farms) and farmers producing vegetables, fruits, and meats are almost entirely excluded from these corporate kickbacks. Unfair federal handouts mean that industrial-scale growers who make ingredients for cheap, commodity products are able to produce and sell their wares at lower prices. By the time groceries hit the aisle, corn syrup-loaded processed and packaged foods cost significantly less than healthy fare like fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.

Not only are healthy products more expensive than processed junk, poor Americans lack access to more nutritious fare. Many farmers markets are sited in relatively affluent neighborhoods, while others fail to accept food stamps and other government-issued benefits as a form of payment. Highly publicized political dust-ups and petty infighting at co-ops have failed to rehabilitate the movement’s image.

And keep in mind that many poor Americans don’t even live anywhere near a supermarket. More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, regions where citizens must travel more than a mile to the nearest grocery store. Food desert residents must buy their necessities at fast-food restaurants and convenience marts—places that aren’t exactly flush with healthy options. Big Food is certainly hip to this dangerous trend—McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFC, and other unhealthy purveyors often specifically target these neighborhoods and their citizens, further exacerbating the connection between poverty and obesity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Expanding access to healthy foods is very doable. In fact, many programs and organizations are already doing just that—and deserve all the help they can get. Take Wholesome Wave: The nonprofit works to expand access to fresh fruits and vegetables by offering incentives for food stamp recipients to shop at farmers markets. Through the organization’s Double Value Coupon Program, food stamp recipients receive additional benefits if they use their funds at participating farmers markets. This forward-thinking program encourages low-income Americans to shop at farmers markets and eat fresh produce by defraying the costs of healthy foods.

That’s not the only program breaking down sustainable food’s class barrier. Farm-to-school programs provide public school students with cafeteria meals boasting ingredients sourced from small, local farms. Other schools are cultivating onsite gardens. Alice Waters’ famed Edible Schoolyard Project, for example, created a one-acre organic garden at a Berkeley school. This garden not only provides fresh fruits and veggies for students’ meals, it also serves as a classroom for learning about sustainable food production. Other schools have implemented similar programs, and even food banks are starting to plant gardens to provide both food and education.

Legislation and government-backed programs are also expanding sustainable food’s reach. Cities across America are starting to legalize backyard and urban farms for growing fruits and veggies, raising chickens, and even making honey. These pro-farming laws allow urban residents to grow food on their own properties or get involved with local community gardens. Some counties, cities, and neighborhoods are starting to limit the number of fast-food restaurants allowed in their communities, a move that prevents food deserts from becoming completely overrun with unhealthy options. WIC’s Farmers Market Nutrition Program may have seen a recent funding setback, but the initiative’s mission is still an effective one. And the USDA has even started offering financial grants to wannabe sustainable farmers through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

The good food movement has a long way to go reach all socioeconomic classes. But these programs show that with creativity, innovation, hard work, and changes in policy at both the federal and local levels, sustainable food initiatives can stop turning up their noses at everyday Americans—and start feeding everyone well.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ianmalcm

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