Tag Archives: farming

Self-determination and Resiliency: The Case for Community-based Food Systems

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There are no unicorns, and there are no unicorn foods. This was the analogy given by an agricultural economist speaking on a panel about the future of our food system in reference to the fact that we as humans have multiple, and sometimes conflicting, values and needs that cannot be met by one perfect food. Since no one food, or one food system, is likely to live up to meet all of our needs, we ultimately need to make decisions and prioritize what is most important to us. Personally, I have oscillated through periods of shopping at farmers’ markets and supporting local food systems, and also periods of relying on grocery store chains to deliver the most convenient and economical source of daily sustenance. After the book Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, landed on my reading list this past summer, my commitment to community-based food systems once again strengthened as I reflected on the themes of self-determination and economic diversity.

Dark money is a detailed history that tells the story of a wealthy network of capitalists who have organized and funded a strategy to promote a neoliberal policy agenda aiming to capture the state and impose a new order around corporate interests. This strategy is designed by powerful business leaders to influence public opinion in support of policies that seek to privatize public goods, erode environmental and safety regulations, and suppress wages and labor rights, ultimately boosting corporate wealth and power at the expense of the public. Organizations, like the Koch Foundation, use their tax-exempt foundations to channel money to tax-exempt non-profits that champion their cause through research, advocacy, and public education. Or, as Kari Polanyi Levitt and Mario Seccareccia put it in their erudite commentary on the subject, these foundations foster the “proliferation of neoliberal think-tanks and other such lobby groups, often masquerading as research institutes that can hijack government policies at the local and national levels and end up almost as in camera advisors to elected representatives.”

This brings me back to our food system. Our predominate, commodity-based, food system has contributed to a dietary pattern disproportionately skewed toward a handful of artificially low-priced foods, namely wheat, corn, and processed meat products. Even within types of foods, variety has decreased. The varieties of cabbage grown, for instance, have decreased from 544 in 1903 to just 28 in 1983. In part, this has to do with innovation in seed production that provides farmers greater certainty in the quality of their product. But it is also the effect of a more highly consolidated food system that demands homogeneity in appearance and transport hardiness. All of this is associated with negative impacts on public health. While this system is arguably highly efficient in delivering calories, it is limited and fragile in its ability to provide workers with a living wage and ensure access to a diverse range of appropriate foods for large segments of the population. Further, its resilience over the long-term is questionable.

Resiliency in the food system consists of three key dimensions: (1) the diversity of the food system’s components, (2) the degree to which the components are connected, and (3) the degree of decision-making autonomy within the food system. Significant consolidation of the food system decreases the diversity of its components, including the varieties of foods grown, production methods, distribution channels, employment options for workers. Alternatively, community-based food systems support a wider base of farmers and value-added producers. These smaller, more diverse, networks increase farmer autonomy while building sustained relationships and shared responsibility for investing in the health and prosperity of the community. For example, the New South Produce Cooperative and Grassroots Farmer’s Cooperative in Arkansas connect members to distribution networks, provide technical assistance, and help small farmers raise capital as a collective. This wider base of producers also leads to more diversity in crop varieties, production methods, and employment options that are adapted to local conditions and cultures.

If degree of decision-making autonomy among a broad base of producers is a key component of a resilient food system, this brings us back to reflecting on the systematic erosion of public voice resulting from the extreme neoliberal agenda described in Dark Money. Because of the substantial wealth large food companies have accumulated in relation to workers and consumers, they now have a more influential political voice than the majority of citizens. Eroding the impact of citizens’ political voice creates a more controlled environment in which farmers and other food producers may find themselves with limited autonomy over their production and distribution decisions. With limited competition in the industry and few places to look for more favorable contracts, more and more decisions are instead dictated by corporate interests (whether or not it is beneficial for the farmer or local community). Operating under such conditions leaves the base of our food system vulnerable to shocks, disincentivizes innovation, and makes it difficult to adopt beneficial practices critical for adaptation.

When an industry becomes too concentrated and competition is diminished, politically powerful companies tend to rely on “special political privileges” rather than invest in the human, social and financial capital creation to build the adaptive capacity required for innovation, ultimately hindering their resiliency and ability to consistently provide stable levels of appropriate foods to the public. Farmers’ markets and locally-owned shops may not prove to be the most efficient way to produce and distribute food. But it can be an efficient way to produce and distribute a portion of our food if we re-define efficiency to account for alternative values like autonomy, civic participation, fairness, and long-term resiliency. So, at least for now, I’ve once again circled back to grocery shopping at farmers’ markets and local shops like my right to self-determination and democracy depend on it.

10 Ways to Connect your Worksite with Local and Regional Foods

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The Multiple Dimensions of Food

I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Wellness Conference 40th Anniversary Legacy & Vision Dinner, during which several pioneers of the Wellness movement discussed their involvement in shaping the dialogue and structures inherited by younger generations.  One particularly grounding message for me was a reminder by John Travis, MD, MPH, that above all, the currency of wellness is connection.  We understand that what we eat is important for maintaining our physical wellness, and foodies have long advocated that being connected to our food helps us make healthy food choices.  However, as many of us intuitively know, food is about more than just healthy or unhealthy choices.  Food is a medium through which we connect to multiple dimensions of wellness.
Social connection is crucial to our well-being.  Quality social connections can reduce mortality by 50% (1) and observations from Blue Zones indicate that social connection contributes to the long, healthy lives enjoyed by the centenarians living in these communities (2).  However, many Americans have developed the habit of eating alone- at our workstations, in restaurants, and in our cars.  Food is a natural facilitator of social bonding.  Everyone eats, and everyone can talk about food.  While food is not the only way to facilitate social bonds, sharing cake at a friend’s wedding, enjoying a tomato salad with colleagues, or tasting mango-chicken curry on a family night out builds shared experiences and enhances opportunity for meaningful social connection.

Our intellectual well-being, the degree of engagement in creative and stimulating activities to expand ones knowledge and share this knowledge with others, is an essential element in our lifelong journey toward wellness (3).  Intellectual wellness can positively impact resiliency in the face of mental health difficulties and the ability to cope with stressful situations (4).  The connection with food, by gardening, photography, cooking, and even genetic engineering, is a way through which to exercise our intellectual and creative nature.

Food and eating behaviors also serve as symbols through which individuals connect with their faith and spirituality.  Special foods are prepared to celebrate important religious events and donated as a way to show respect and selflessness.  Avoidance of certain foods and fasting are a means of obtaining spiritual purification and heightened awareness.  Even though more people are transitioning away from organized religion, food is often still a symbol of values and morality in their lives.  Avoiding harm to animals through a vegan diet or eating organic vegetables may enhance spiritual connections and a sense of oneness with the world.

Emotional wellness can be promoted through a balanced and positive approach to food.  Emotions and food influence each other bi-directionally in ways that can both support or diminish our emotional wellbeing.  Stress may cause us to reach for comfort foods, while the over consumption of unhealthy foods may be a risk factor for depression and low energy (6). Excessive worry about health is associated with a decline in quality of life as inner guilt and self-hate are not the seeds of self-care and wellness as (5).  A connection with food, absent of guilt and worry, can improve our emotional well-being.  We feel rewarded when we cook a delicious meal, or believe we improved our community by purchasing local foods.

More than 15 million people depend on food production, manufacturing or service in the United States (7).  Chefs, nutritionists, plant breeders, farmers and truck drivers connect with food through the pursuit of a meaningful livelihood.  However, many of the employment opportunities available in the food and agricultural industry still place workers in unhealthy and stressful situations that are not conducive to occupational or overall wellness. Unmanageable work-family interfaces increase the likelihood of choosing unwanted foods and eating behaviors as a coping mechanism (8). The rise in worksite wellness programs can help more individuals positively manage the work-family interface, enabling food choices they find acceptable, increasing job satisfaction and occupational wellness.

Given that food influences so many aspects of our well-being, let’s ensure, as wellness champions, that our advice and wellness programming consider the full spectrum of the human experience with food. Our promotion of healthy diets need not detract from overall wellness, but rather it should enhance balance and connection with food in all of its dimensions of wellness to support people in realizing their full potential for health and happiness.

References:

1. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316.
2. Buettner, D. (2012).The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Books.
3. Roscoe, L. J. (2009). Wellness: A review of theory and measurement for counselors.Journal of Counseling & Development, 87(2), 216-226. http://www.stuaff.niu.edu/stuaff/grad_resources/pdfs/Wellness%20Article_Counseling.pdf
4. Hammond*, C. (2004). Impacts of lifelong learning upon emotional resilience, psychological and mental health: fieldwork evidence. Oxford Review of Education, 30(4), 551-568.
5. Sanhueza, C., Ryan, L., & Foxcroft, D. R. (2013). Diet and the risk of unipolar depression in adults: systematic review of cohort studies. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 26(1), 56-70.
6. Rief, W., Glaesmer, H., Baehr, V., Broadbent, E., Brähler, E., & Petrie, K. J. (2012). The relationship of modern health worries to depression, symptom reporting and quality of life in a general population survey. Journal of psychosomatic research, 72(4), 318-320.
7. http://ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx
8. Allen, T. D., & Armstrong, J. (2006). Further examination of the link between work-family conflict and physical health the role of health-related behaviors.American Behavioral Scientist,49(9), 1204-1221.