Take Action! Be a Food Citizen:12 Actions for Food System Change

Jenifer Wilkins PhD., RD., Director of the Cornell Farm to School Program, Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, describes practical ways to support community food security

many customers

By Jennifer Wilkins
August 14, 2008

12 Actions to:
build vibrant, community-based food systems
support food and agriculture policies based on health and sustainability, and
enhance the pleasures of eating.

  1. Think globally, eat locally. Most regions are capable of producing a wide range of foods, but specific foods will vary from one area to another. Buying food produced by local farmers helps build vibrant communities and strengthens the local economy. Every dollar spent on local foods helps ensure more money going to farmers who are part of your community, and that agriculture will remain part of your local landscape. Eating locally also helps reduce your total intake of “food miles” thus significantly reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to transport food great distances. This not only helps conserve a limited and increasingly scarce resource, it also cuts down on CO2 pollution, and the wear and tear on transport vehicles, highways and by-ways that ultimately means using more natural resources to remedy.
  2. Celebrate the seasons at the table. Eating locally means that your diet changes from one season to the next. In spring, delight in the arrival of a succulent greens, asparagus, new potatoes and garlic scapes. In summer, glory in the bounty of the season’s cornucopia of tree fruits, berries and every color of vegetable. This is the time to focus on fresh! In fall, savor cool weather crops and delight in the abundance of the final harvest. In winter, take stock of the many hearty roots, apples and pears stored from local harvest, and fruits of summer preserved for mid-winter sustenance.
  3. Get involved in the politics of food. These days there is a multitude of ways to help shape local, state and even federal food and agriculture policy. Under the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004, every school district is required to develop and implement school nutrition policies which will have an impact on what’s served in the cafeteria, what nutrition and food education is taught in the classroom and other ways that kids are exposed to food at school. Since school districts must form wellness committees that include members of the public, this is a way to get involved in food policy. Food policy councils provide a way to get involved in policies that impact the food system at a community level. If you are a farmer, anti-hunger advocate, farm labor representative, member of the faith community, food processor, food wholesaler or distributor, food retailer or grocer, chef or restaurant owner, official from farm organization, community gardener, academic or just someone who eats and cares about food, you can be part of a food policy council. Cities and states do not have departments of food, but food policy councils are forming to fill the void in local and state government for a comprehensive approach to food system problems. At the national level, you can provide input through state or local food and farming organizations about the Farm Bill. This huge piece of legislation, with equally huge implications for health and the food system, is revised every five years and needs more citizen input!
  4. Grow something you eat. Eat something you grew. Growing some of your own food is one of the best (and nutritious!) ways to connect with nature. And it doesnt have to be as ambitious as growing a full-fledged vegetable garden. Growing fresh herbs or sungold tomatoes in a pot on your deck, apartment balcony or window sill, or sprouting seeds on your kitchen counter are simple ways to produce some of your own food. By home canning, freezing and drying what you grow, your efforts will be rewarded all winter long!
  5. Get to know a farmer. During your local growing season, buy directly from farmers. By visiting and spending some of your food dollars at a local farmers market, farm stand or at a pick-your-own operation, you will learn where your food comes from and how it is grown or raised. By getting to know who grew some of your food, you can build strong relationships based on trust, increase understanding of food production and support growing methods that are better for our health, our communities and the environment. Farmers need to know consumers care about efforts to reduce the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and or genetically modified seeds in their operations.
  6. Be a curious customer. At a grocery store, restaurant, cafeteria or catered event, ask questions about the food in the aisles, on the menu or banquet table. Where was this grown or raised? Do you know if any of these items were produced organically? Is the chicken free-range? Is the fish wild caught? Is the beef pasture-raised and without sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics? Questions such as these send a message to the grocer, restaurant chef, caterer or cafeteria manager that these issues are important to their customers and will start sending these market signals up the supply chain.
  7. Eat lower on the food chain. Foods of plant origin–fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds–are not only highly nutritious and healthful, they tend to be less resource depleting than animal products. This is especially true when animals were raised on grain in concentrated feeding operations. In general, the amount of nutrition you get from vegetables per resources used to produce them is higher than meat and other animal products.
  8. When you eat meat, choose pastured, free-range and grass-fed products. Research shows that these production practices are better for the environment, farm animals’ quality of life, the farm animals quality of life, community and public health and result in healthier products. With heightened demand for pasture-raised, free-range or grass-fed animal products, the supply will increase and the price will come down. Remember the price of meat and animal products are artificially low because some of our taxes are being used to subsidize commodities that are used for animal feed. This is an issue that is routinely debated in each Farm Bill.
  9. Eat whole foods, support nutrient-retaining processing. Much of the shelf space in today’s supermarkets is occupied with highly processed food products. Unfortunately, fat (often unhealthy trans fats), sugar (most commonly high-fructose corn syrup) and salt are often added to highly processed food products. Processing often extracts nutrients and essential fiber from foods. By focusing on whole, minimally processed foods, you will help decrease demand in the marketplace for such processing and the food and agriculture policies that support it.
  10. Add variety to your plate to promote biodiversity in the field. The cornerstone of nutrition advice is variety in the diet. It turns out that this is good not only for our health but is good for local agriculture and the ecosystem. According to a study of seed stock availability conducted by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, by 1983 we had lost nearly 93% of lettuce varieties, over 96% of sweet corn, about 96% of field corn, more than 95% of tomato, and almost 98% of asparagus varieties that were available in 1903. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to encourage a return of diversity in the food system. Farmers who are growing for a local and direct market will choose varieties of fruits and vegetables that are bred for taste and freshness rather than for shipping durability and shelf life. They will choose those varieties that are best suited for their particular regions (or their specific acres!). By growing a greater number of varieties of any given crop, farmers increase the genetic diversity and, therefore, ecosystem health and stability on their farms. How this will delight your palate!
  11. Support grocery stores, cafeterias, restaurants and diners that provide local foods. Through local procurement for grocery stores, emerging chef-farmer relationships and farm-to-cafeteria programs in schools, colleges, hospitals and corporations, a growing number of places we buy and eat food are providing local options. These efforts need to be rewarded. Send a positive vote by spending some of your food dollars at these locations, and be sure to tell the management that you appreciate it. If you don’t find local food where you buy or eat food, encourage these establishments to purchase more of their products from local farmers.
  12. Get cooking! In 1980, Colin Tudge wrote, “The 21st century, so close at hand, could be the most pleasurable and the safest time that the world has yet experienced, for all humanity and for our fellow creatures; or- so present events often suggest- it could bring all kinds of disaster. Which outcome prevails, he suggests, will not depend on technology but upon the simple day-to-day acts of individuals “the most important of which is cooking.” As anyone who has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share and has brought a parsnip or rutabaga home for the first time knows, it is essential to gain some cooking skills in order to eat happily from the local harvest. New techniques and new recipes are often called for. This is not only true for the individuals. The food skills and kitchen facilities at places with cafeterias also need to be developed. Through cooking a food system revolution can start one kitchen at a time.