10 Ways to Save Real Food

Yesterday, I wrote about a confluence of factors that helped create the substantial sustainability problems our food system now faces (see “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology“). The post’s title suggests that the “Fall” has occured, but we know better.  I was simply setting up today’s post which describes one coordinated strategy for accelerating what I hope is nutritionism’s eventual decline.

My suggestions primarily focus on the marketing side of food, since people like David Murphy at Food Democracy and others are attacking food related issues at the legislative and policy level.  There are obviously overlaps where lobbying Congress and the Administration will be required, and I look forward to joining coalitions of sustainable food advocates fighting for the necessary legislative changes.

Rather than wade into such political battles, my focus is on a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy, where regions, retailers and consumers have the power to ultimately rule the day. The following list outlines the major components of that strategy.  I strongly encourage any and all comments, suggestions, etc. to these recommendations, especially if you see something missing!

  1. Food Labeling – Reinstate the Food, Drug and Commerce Act of 1938’s “imitation” label requirement, which may be the most important label for consumers since it instantly identifies fake food.  Taking the food industry head-on faces steep odds, so I am recommending a new breed of food retailers applies such labels on its shelves, moving consumers’ focus from products and packaging.
  2. Industry-Sponsored Research – Outlaw the use of nutritional claims from “independent research” funded by corporate interests, unless the sponsoring companies are listed as the lead in the study.  As long as industry is able to regularly shift its “nutritional orthodoxy” using the sophisticated marketing of these studies, consumers will be kept off balance and less able to make informed decisions on a regular basis.
  3. Regional Food Systems – Accelerate the development of regional food systems that expand the production of sustainable crops and livestock, and allow for affordable local and/or regional processing of those foods, e.g., slaughterhouses.  States and regions should also evaluate land use laws, land trusts and other measures to preserve (and hopefully expand) valuable crop land.
  4. Consumer Access – Rapidly expand consumer access to regional and other (e.g., Fair Trade) sustainable foods, including raw foods and lightly-processed products.  While farmers markets and CSA programs are very popular right now, we must develop new retail formats that bring food to a greatly expanded customer base (see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough).  One caution: This may require some regional foods be temporarily diverted from restaurants and institutions (except K-12 schools) until supply can catch up.  A happy problem to solve!
  5. Food Experiences – Create intimate food buying experiences to build consumer confidence in cooking at home and positively reinforce such behaviors over time.  For example, many farmers market shoppers state that they enjoy talking to the farmer that grew the food they are buying.  It gives them confidence in the food and makes them feel good at the same time.  Now imagine replacing the farmer (who I hope will grow even more real food) with chefs and cooks capable of creating similar positive experiences around cooking that same food.
  6. School Kitchens – Bring cooking back to every school kitchen in America and utilize as much local food as possible, including food harvested from edible schoolyards.  This will help reacquaint a generation with real foods and where they come from, and will be made even more powerful if it is accompanied by a creative and fun “farm-to-table” curriculum.
  7. No Food Marketing Zones – Progress is being made in some school districts already, e.g., NYC, but what I am recommending calls for the removal of all branded food products and related advertising from K-12 schools (exceptions: branded foods used in school kitchens).  Our children need “safe zones” where industry can’t reach them, and where they can objectively learn the pros and cons of different types of foods. District by district we can do this!
  8. No Fast Food Zones – Ban fast food restaurants within an appropriate distance from schools, making it inconvenient or impossible for kids to get there and back during lunch time.  The more we can do to “expand” healthy food options for the children the better.
  9. Low-Income Programs – Provide financial incentives for low-income households to purchase sustainable food by making benefits go further when making such purchases.  While this may require additional funds be made available up front, improving the diets of children and parents in these households offers significant returns on the investment, e.g., better health, better grades, etc.
  10. Food Pyramid – Tear down the long standing food pyramid, which simply repackages the food industry’s play book, and replace it with a message that encourages people to eat less, which is what the U.S. Senate initially recommended in 1977 before an onslaught of industry pressure got them to back off.  We could also channel Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Or we might consider Harvard’s alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.

The common theme running throughout these recommendations is improving how consumers (households, really) interface with food at the point of purchase.  Currently, the typical American consmer is at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” that Pollan describes.  What I am envisioning are innovative retail experiences that answer to consumers, not food giants or the government (except as required by law, of course), thus giving consumers back the control over their experience with food.

Thanks to Foodimentary (via Twitter), I have a new favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that sums up this post rather nicely…

If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”

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20 responses to “10 Ways to Save Real Food

  1. Pingback: 10 Ways To Save Real Food « Farm To Table: The Emerging American Meal

  2. I love your recommendations for the public schools – when I was in school (it doesn’t seem that long ago) there were absolutely no branded products – and it wasn’t an issue at all. And we had real food. It wasn’t great, but it was better than the fast food options most kids have access to now. We need to get back to that. I think the initial resistance will be overcome reality – that life goes on without branded processed food and children can easily get through the day without it and not even notice. They’re spoiled by access.

    Your idea for incentives for low-income families is a great one. The key, however is access; in many cities, where the urban poor are concentrated, access to fresh food remains a huge problem and the highest order need. Baby steps. First let’s increase access. Then let’s talk about sustainability. If the two can be rolled out together, that would be ideal.

    • Linsey: Thanks for the feedback. On schools, “spoiled by access” captures things nicely. The funny thing about kids is their resilience. Take away one thing and they find another. Wouldn’t it be great if they found good, health foods and water? As for the low-income incentives, my working knowledge is limited, but I can see where you are coming from. Perhaps to increase access in the near term we could develop “mobile” fresh food vans like the library bookmobiles and ice cream trucks. Over time, these could be replaced by brick-and-mortar outlets. Just so long as we are taking “baby steps”.

  3. Very thoughtful post, thanks for putting this plausible list together, Rob.
    I like the idea of creating a ‘no fast food zones’ around a school. I don’t think this will be an easy battle at all, considering the targeted market for many of the fast food chains – but it could be a start. Again, as Linsey brings up, much of this is due to access. Which brings me to red-lining – when a business refuses to go into a low income neighborhood to set up shop. Just six years ago this activity was fairly common (I learned of this first hand when I was given a tour in a low income/high crime area in a major Southern city by a doctor and women’s health advocate. Dr. Hardt took me into the only existing general grocery store in a zip code area; its shelves were half empty, carrying mostly boxed & canned items. The produce selection was paltry at best); today, I believe, it is slowly changing. It needs to continue to change in order for hard working people to be able to access good fresh food.

  4. Excellent post. Each of those 10 things is important and compelling, and has the potential to make a real difference. What if we could really get just one of them right? Which do you think would move the needle the most? Labeling? Starting with the kids?

    • Lee, as you know, I am a big fan of changing the retail experience people have with food. The analogy that comes to mind is Saturn (the soon to be former car company). They fundamentally changed the experience people had when buying a car, something most people detested. With this change, Saturn built a loyalty like no other American car company. That is what I feel must be done with food.

      I am curious which item you and others would choose, and look forward to your comments.

  5. I agree that the architecture of our current food supply and distribution system is of economic and strategic concern. Some regulatory and policy action would be of value in the long term. However, I think economics always rules the day and changes will be made based on the cost of food.

    Underlying our current food architecture is cheap oil. We saw a brief peek at the future when oil skyrocketed to $147/barrel. Food stocks from oversupply suddenly vanished and staple items began to climb in price.

    Large scale, mass production agriculture and the current distribution system relies on cheap oil to easily defeat, smaller, local and regional competitors. This advantage will quickly evaporate once oil climbs above $100/barrell, permanently, which will happen within the next several years. And don’t let anybody convince you that drilling in Sarah Palin’s backyard will put even a dent in the price of oil on the world market.

    • Jeff: I appreciate your “optimistic” scenario where industrial agriculture becomes significantly more expensive due to rising fuel costs.

      The impact of this on the monoculture crops dominating big ag will definitely shift the balance, especially soybean and corn crops, which respectively contribute 75% and 50% of the low-cost oils and sweeteners used in highly processed foods. Without these cheap raw ingredients, industrial food and fast food will feel the pain, but so will a vast majority of consumers that end up having to pay more for “edible foodlike substances.”

      Just one more reason why we need to significantly increase and accelerate the development of alternative food systems with an emphasis on sustainability and regional economies.

  6. Pingback: Around the Internet Kitchen: Farmer’s Markets! | Macheesmo

  7. These are all really good ideas, and ones that I hope take off. Any single one of them would make such a dramatic and huge difference!

    Thanks for submitting it to Fight Back Fridays!

    Cheers,
    KristenM
    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  8. One thing that would go a long ways towards this is to stop subsidies. No farm subsidies. No oil subsidies. None. When subsidies are eliminated the true costs of things will come through. Local small farmers are producing produce and meat at real prices because we are not subsidized. Big Ag produces food at a lower price because the tax payer is picking up the extra costs in the forms of subsidies. Subsidies are making food cost more even though they give us the illusion of cheap food. Of course, once we stop the subsidies we have the tricky and difficult proposition of getting the government to give back our money that they are currently taking to hand over to Big Ag. (Did you know that 96% of farm subsidies go to big producers?)

    Big Ag also needs to have their feet held to the fire regarding the damage they do to the world both ecological and social. If they paid the full cost of doing business their prices would be more real. Details, details…

    Eating less food, eating non-processed food are two other really big factors. We make hot dogs from our all natural pastured pork. The hot dogs only contain good stuff (short label list: Pork, Water, Milk, Maple Syrup, Salt – very little of the last). Pork can either become hamburger or hot dog. Taking it the hot dog route doubles the cost because of the extra fine grinding, sausage casing, stuffing, smoking, cooling, further drive to a more distant processor, etc so the price goes up too. Simply buying things in their more raw state keeps the cost down while still getting quality.

  9. Rob, what I see missing in your list is education for adults, particular those who are parents or will become parents soon. There’s a great need for this–people not only need techniques and recipes, but they are looking for time management and organizational tools that help them prepare real food at home on a limited budget and with limited time. Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew how to manage this with far fewer conveniences that we have today. Our generation now has the task of re-learning those lost arts.

    • Chris: Thanks for the add of “Education” to the list of ways to save real food. I completely agree. In rethinking people’s food experiences, creating nurturing, informative, and educational interactions in everyday food buying experiences is something I hope to figure out how to do. We should talk, since I really like what you are doing at Lost Arts Kitchen in Portland, OR.

  10. I believe another factor that will help local food growers will be an increased, international demand for food. For decades our ability to efficiently produce food has far outstripped the market’s ability to consume food. This is why we have government subsidies and why food has been relatively cheap provided farmers can produce on the scale of big Ag.

    As international demand for food in the developing countries like China and India increases, demand will begin to catch-up with our ability to produce. This will have the effect of increasing the price of food which should create opportunities for local, smaller scale growers who sell locally.

    • Jeff, thanks for the insights regarding supply and demand. Which food types you feel fit the definition of our supply outstripping demand? If monoculture crops, especially corn and soybean, then I can see that being the case, although I would argue for shifting subsidies, rather than continuing to over produce. I assume you are not suggesting over supply of locally grown/raised specialty produce and livestock. If so, can you tell me more about what you are seeing?

  11. Rob,

    I am referring to those products that are produced on a large scale and are distributed nationally and internationally. For years we have overproduced food, and through government programs, we have redirected it into our public schools or abroad to Africa and other regions of the world.

    When commodities, including food, skyrocketed in price this summer we suddenly saw the surplus warehouses devoid of food and international aid agencies raising the alarm that masses of people in third world countries were in immanent danger of starving.

    Much of the demand and price movement was driven by investment and speculation. Investors were retreating out of securities into commodities, like oil, gold, and food. Even though in the short term this movement was driven by speculation, the fundamentals behind the increase in oil and food prices was the belief that the developing world was poised to begin consuming commodities on a scale never before seen.

    When the global economy collapsed later that year, it reset near term expectations about rising demand for commodities. However, the majority of analysts believe that this isn’t anything but a temporary slowdown. There is general consensus we will see and sustain $4.00 gas due to exploding growth in developing economies within the next 5 years.

    Economies that are growing and consuming more energy will also consume more food. Just like we saw this summer there won’t be food sitting around in warehouses with no buyer. What this means for local growers is that it won’t be long before it makes sense to make a trip to the farm stand to save some money on food, and the consumer may be able to pay a price that supports a real profit to a small grower

  12. I would add, “and packaging” to “moving consumers’ focus from products” in #1. While not all packaged (and therefore typically processed) foods are unhealthy, companies often use their packaging to highlight useless or irrelevant information, mask what drawbacks they must report in the fine print, and, of course, catch the eye and draw in a purchase with a sumptuous-looking “suggested serving” or get kids’ attention through the use of popular cartoon characters.

    Great post!
    –Rebecca

    • Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for the great, yet subtle, suggestion. I’ve add “and packaging” to the post, since I agree 100% with your suggestion. Cheers, Rob Smart

  13. I agree with Chris. Make shopping and cooking an exciting experience. One that is not a burden one has to experience at the end of a long day. I took my son shopping with me and we read labels and created the weeks menu. A few times I put limits and would not buy anything with sugar in it. Those were long trips yet beneficial.

    Crock pots make it so easy to put together a great meal.

    Great list. Great ideas. Best wishes. Sue

    • Hi Sue,

      Thanks for adding your thoughts to this post.

      We are 100% in agreement on the importance of making food fun again, from the shopping experience to cooking and, possibly most important, eating with friends and family. I’ve been thinking about how to do that – in the back of my mind, since it wasn’t my day job – for a decade. I can confidently say that things are starting to feel ripe for innovative ideas to deliver on that vision.

      Cheers,

      Rob Smart

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