The Future of Food Access
I'm going to ask you a question. It’s an important one. And I hope it will make you consider thoughtfully the source of your food. But, first, a preamble.
In a couple of days, my husband, Randy, and I leave town again—my fourth trip this year. This one serves as the final leg of our participation in the Beginning Farmer Institute (BFI), offered by National Farmers Union. (Applications are currently being accepted for this nearly free program. I will shout this all day long if I need to—it’s an incredible program for beginning farmers; apply!). On the tail end of BFI in Kansas City, Missouri, we also will be attending the National Farmers Union 116th Annual Convention, which brings farmers and industry leaders from all over the country together to learn and network.
These trips inform and inspire me. They fire me up, really. Each convention, conference, in-person meeting, phone call, and conversation that I’ve participated in this past year has taught me just enough about the American food system to be dangerous. It’s also taught me just enough to have an opinion. An opinion that I’m maybe a little too prone to share.
But I can’t help it. Here’s why.
Last week, I posted a little something on Facebook about food access, but I think it’s important to really unpack what food access means here. I had participated in a panel discussion about the future of food access at the NWI Food Council's FED (Food Expo & Discussion) event in Hobart, Indiana. Here was some of what I said: Food access might mean more than what you think. Food access issues are oftentimes concerned with food deserts, which are areas defined by their lack of grocery stores and their lack of transportation to get consumers to grocery stores. Indiana is riddled with food deserts. Our nation is riddled with them. But there’s so much more to food access than just food deserts.
There’s this issue of food justice. Communities need sovereignty. They must be able to grow, sell, and eat good, healthful food. What is healthful food? It’s fresh, nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate. It’s grown locally with care given to the land, the workers, and the animals. There’s a lot in those few sentences. Read them again, if you will. They describe why I do everything that I do.
Food access (and food justice) means our farmers must have access to clean land, air, and water to grow good, healthful food. According to the Hoosier Environmental Council’s website, “livestock production in Indiana is becoming increasingly industrialized, resulting in large concentrations of livestock and manure in a small area. Indiana has about 2,000 Confined Feeding Operations (CFOs) of which about 500 are the larger Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).” Indiana isn’t the only state being covered up in concentrated animal feeding operations. We’re one of many.
These large-scale operations negatively impact rural economies and communities, affecting our quality of life, our health, and our air, water, and land quality. Our waterways are flowing with manure in this country. That's the long and the short of it. There's some serious discussion about how much meat we eat and its impact on our natural resources and environment that needs to happen here, but that's a topic for another day. Put simply, industrialized systems lead to sick people. Here’s some lovely info on that.
So food access is about food safety. We have to know that what we’re eating won’t make us sick. We have to be reassured that it won’t kill us. This means regulations must be put into place on industrial systems of agriculture. Read about one piece of legislation trying to take away states’ rights to regulate such things. If you’re a farmer and you wish to sign onto a farmer-only letter to oppose this legislation, contact me. I would love to add your name to the growing list.
Food access (and food justice) also means funding must be available to train our local farmers on food safety issues. There is funding available right now to teach farmers about the Food Safety Modernization Act. This year, Indiana Farmers Union is able to offer one-on-one consultations and farm food safety plan workshops for free to local farmers, thanks to this funding. (Contact me if you want this training now.) The bad news: This funding may be gone soon. Further, many of the cuts suggested for the Farm Bill will hinder farmers from getting the training they need.
Food access is also about environmental conservation. Climate change is threatening farmers’ livelihoods and food production. Proposed cuts to the Farm Bill will take millions from conservation programs. Conservation-informed farming keeps our surface waters clean, and American Farmland Trust recently issued a few studies that found intrinsic greenhouse gas benefits to keeping land in farming as opposed to residential or commercial development. We need to reward farmers for the ecosystem services they provide. In other words, we need to keep environmentally sustainable farming financially sustainable for farmers. They need to keep doing their good work. They need to be able to afford to do that good work. That’s an issue of food justice, too.
I work for both Indiana Farmers Union and The Humane Society of the United States on all these issues. We lobby on behalf of our land, our animals, our food systems, and our farmers. We fight to make our government work for the best interests of its people. Oftentimes, we lose. But this much I’ve learned in the past year of doing this: Food access affects all of you, whether you reside in a food desert or not. Food policy affects all of you, too, and it requires your involvement, your voice, your opinion, and your vote.
I will leave off with this one question, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It's one that Indiana Farmers Union President Jim Benham once posed to me: If a natural disaster knocked out transportation, and food was no longer being trucked across this country, leaving grocery store shelves empty, how much food would you have access to? How many farmers do you know? How much food do you grow? Would you have enough to feed your family for a week? For two weeks? Or for just a few days?
That's all I have to say. Food access affects us all, in more ways than you might think.
Sherri Dugger serves as the Media and Outreach Director for Indiana Farmers Union and as a Rural Affairs Consultant for The Humane Society of the United States. She also created this website that you're reading. Email Sherri at email@example.com.