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Food and Education Go Hand in Hand

13 Oct

School Nutrition Association has increased its lobbying efforts to turn back new nutritional standards. In 2010 new legislation was passed that limited sodium and increased fruits and vegetables in school lunches. These regulations were passed with bipartisan support, but have since come under attack by the SNA by creating “opt-out” options for school districts. Their “concern” being that the new regulations will raise the price of producing school lunches thus putting additional strain in the districts. Right here in Minnesota we have a great example of how to create healthier meals that taste great.

Bertrand Weber is the Director of Nutrition and Culinary Services for the Minneapolis Public Schools. After seeing how school food exacerbated his son’s type 1 diabetes, Weber transitioned from cooking at high end restaurants and hotels to managing culinary services for school districts. When he started his position at MPS, he signaled big things would be changing. Many schools now have salad bars and school kitchens are being renovated so food can be cooked on site again. Students like the changes. Participation in the school lunch program has risen from 58 to 66 percent in just 2 years. Weber’s success shows that schools can find creative ways to provide high quality food that meets the new standards.

Weber also shifted district food purchasing policy to buy more local fruits and vegetables.

This is part of a larger movement by anchor institutions to use their purchasing power to shift large markets. The Real Food Challenge is a national student led movement to shift 20% of the $5 billion higher education spends on food each year. The Real Food Challenge lobbies universities to commit at least 20% of their food purchasing power to community supported, sustainable, and justly produced food. This May, the California State University committed their entire system to 20% real food by 2020. With 447,000 students and a $100 million food budget, they are the largest signatory of the Real Food Challenge. The $20 million that will be shifted each year will support the local food economy, improve wages on tomato farms and coffee plantations, and improve the health of our ecosystems.

Minnesota educational institutions should sign the Real Food Challenge Commitment. The University of Minnesota has special commitments to agriculture through its status as a land grant university. It could support more just and sustainable food for its enrolled 69,000 students. MNSCU serves 430,000 students. Changing its food purchasing policy would have a similar impact as it has in California. The Minnesota public schools serve 845,177 students each year. A significant change in purchasing policy at public schools would have the largest impact of all.  Let’s make Real Food possible for all Minnesotans by having our public institutions lead the way.


This post was first published at MN2020

A Education Framework

12 Nov

Last post I introduced the emerging field of Food Systems. Since then I have continued to pore over numerous articles and university websites in search for common themes. These areas represent the broad brushstrokes of food systems research and practice happening across the country and the world. I have synthesized all of the practice, the research and the aspirations into 9 themes. Each theme covers many topics, each with its own particulars, but I have done the best I can to make cohesive themes.

Food Systems Graphic

The first category is Sustainable Agricultural Production. Sustainable food production is obviously necessary for a sustainable food system. There is a lot of work to be done to get there, however. Pesticide and herbicide use will need to be drastically reduced if our system is to be sustainable. To get there, monocropping of large areas will have to stop. In order to make that possible an enormous amount of work must be done to discover new cropping systems or scale-up smart ones that organic and indigenous farmers use.  In a similar way, animal production will have to be completely rethought because the current Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) can produce toxic manure on the magnitude of a small city. Methods like agroecology will be expanded to mesh natural and agricultural needs. Lastly urban farming needs to develop from a unsupported activity to a thought through actor in the food production system.

The second category is Ecology and Land Use. To create a truly sustainable food system the ecology of the entire landscape needs to be considered. This category addresses topics like watershed management, pesticide runoff that causes algae blooms in the Gulf, carbon sequestration, and GMOs. This category finds the environmental impacts of various farming methods and can inform Sustainable Agriculture Production. Also in this category is Land Use. There are many program in the country that subsidize different land uses for different lands. These interact with agriculture in many ways. These include urban population density, suburban sprawl, agricultural preservation land trusts, and environmental conservation payments. Changes in land use incentives set the scene for long term changes in production.

Personal and Public Health is the third category. A sustainable food system must sustain the people who eat the food. This research theme includes personal nutrition and investigations of the chemical load on farm workers that contaminate their children. The top 5 chronic diseases in the United States are caused by diet or the food system. A sustainable food system improves the health of the population so there are fewer medical bills for obesity and heart failure.

A sustainable food system needs a story. The fourth category of research is History and Culture. The modern U.S food culture is dominated by fast food companies like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut but also by frozen food companies like Lean Cuisine. Protecting food history and culture is an integral part of maintaining a sustainable food system. The goal is not to sustain just one food culture, but all food cultures of which people are a part. This includes histories of wild rice cultivation by Native Americans and traditional recipes passed down by a Pakistani grandmother. The history of U.S. agriculture has many lessons to teach. U.S. agricultural history includes African slavery; it teaches us that agricultural has long exploited peoples, including today. U.S agricultural history includes the stories of the dust bowl and the consequences of over-use of the land.

History can teach us many lessons, but other lessons can be learned by exploring the political systems that develop specific economies. The work to discover how particular systems develop particular economies and how particular economies develop particular systems is the work of Political Economy and Sociology. Political Economy asks questions like how and why is the capitalist economy globalizing, especially its agriculture? What would a globalized world look like? Is that a good thing? Political Economy can help answer questions like what role will agriculture play in order to reshape our economy to keep enough fossil fuels in the ground and develop a renewable economy? Sociology asks questions like how does the current social-economic system advantage some people and disadvantage others? Why are minorities more likely to have diet related health problems?

Once some of the questions asked by Political Economy and Sociology have been answered, there must be Policy and Education. Just like cities have transportation policies and housing policies, so too should cities have food policies. The Department of Agriculture performs some of these functions but not all. Since cities are not ready to take the leap and add a Department of Food, formal or informal food policy councils are starting. These local or regional policy groups work to form policy that encourage local food businesses or equitable distribution of food retail stores. Institutions of all kinds (governments, schools, universities, large companies) are starting to forge food purchasing  policies. This tool is used to enact specific changes in the food system. Policy can be done by policy wonks, but there must also be broad education about the food system.

Teaching about food is a great way to introduce and discuss so many topics: math, science, history, language, etc. One could teach an entire curriculum using food as a theme. Our food system as it is today is too much run by experts on whom we rely. Each of us should have more of a stake in the issue. More education is also needed on how to purchase, prepare, and preserve food. There is a lot of history in cooking and it would be a huge loss of culture if we stopped cooking. Knowing good cooking skills makes cooking high quality food less expensive and quick.

Just as we can re-imagine home economics for a sustainable food system, Agricultural Economics and International Trade must be re-imagined. The US farm bill has enormous impacts on both the domestic and international food markets. In domestic markets, subsidies support large industrial farms and overproduce commodity crops. These get turned into high fructose corn syrup and are fed to cattle. Banning HFCS will be challenging to do when there is so much financial incentive to sell it. After satiating the domestic market commmodity grains are shipped overseas and often dumped in developing countries. These cheap commodities, subsidized by the US, overwhelm small farmers in their country and force them to quit farming and move to the city. This causes huge dislocation and migration at a time when cities in developing countries are already bursting at the seams. These “free market” methods are causing havoc all over the world. Low US corn prices  dumped in Mexico have forced thousands of farmers off their land, in part precipitating the immigration of Mexican farm workers into the US. A sustainable food system needs to treat with dignity and respect all of the people of the world.

In order to connect better farming practices and eager urban buyers, lots of work must be done to reinvent the supply chain and processing industry. Small organic farmers can just make enough money by selling directly to customers at farmers’ markets and their CSAs. Commodity farms are doing fine with subsidies, but “Agriculture of the Middle” is getting squeezed out. This is an important scale in order to maintain a sustainable food system. These farmers need a food distribution and processing system that will work with them. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (based out of Minneapolis) recently released a report that processing, particularly freezing, is one good method to help local farmers make revenue through the winter. Changes at this scale can more quickly leverage big changes in the food system. 

The US population has urbanized over the last century or, more specifically since the advent of suburbia, unruralized. Thus, any conversation about building a sustainable food system must address both rural and urban development. The brain drain of rural America has been well documented by sociologists, demographers, and farmers. Market forces demanded a certain kind of efficiency of scale, forcing farms to “go big or get out”, as said by Earl Butz, former US Secretary of Agriculture under President Reagan. These bigger farms meant smaller towns. The development of our current food system was equally harsh on urban populations. The go big or get out mentality existed in supermarkets. They fled the constricting land use of cities to sprawling complexes in suburbs. These new suburbs in turn gobbled up more farm land near the edge of cities. It left struggling center cities with few places to buy food. Today many urban people are still without adequate access to affordable, quality food. This is why any food development question must be able to answer “Is this sustainable for both the city and the farm?”. These questions are not easy answer and will require lots of smart people working and thinking to make it work.

That brings me back to the start; an education framework. We need to train a new generation of thinkers and doers who can navigate the complicated issues of planning, building and sustaining a food system that works for everyone and the earth. To accomplish this, food studies needs to be taught in public education from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Colleges and universities have a duty to train this new generation and to do the research needed to inform the doers. Land grant universities are starting to rekindle their agricultural mission and  develop sustainable agriculture degrees. Some graduate programs already exist that have created a voice on food policy and nutrition. The programs are still few and far between.

My next blog will outline college and university programs that already exist and which of the above categories they teach. I will then assess some holes I have identified in Higher Education and the holes I hope to fill with the program I am building at Clark University.

New Direction. Food Systems Research

14 Sep

I have been on hiatus as I have moved back to college. This blog will now change focus to a broader perspective on food systems research. My thesis in Geography is to design a food systems curriculum and write an introductory course. To get there I will be reviewing much of the food systems research and education happening at universities across the country and world. Follow along as I explore some of the major themes of research. Much of the visioning of alternative food systems is being done by practitioners; people on the ground staring urban farms, building a food hub, ensuring a fair price for food in low income neighborhoods, and demanding fair wages for food system employees. The next step, one that is starting to emerge, is to discover best practices and to imagine new possibilities. Higher Ed can assist in both those tasks.

Before we begin, the question “what is a food system?” must be addressed. I recently found this definition and it couldn’t be stated better. A food system is:

“A dynamic structure consisting of the production, distribution, acquisition, consumption and disposal of food. The food system is manifested through a wide array of spatial, social and economic scales, and therefore implicates all sectors of society and a number of competing interests. Food systems are generally categorized as conventional or alternative.” (1)

Research in conventional food systems has existed for decades: economists have proposed free trade agreements, food scientists have invented High Fructose Corn Syrup, geneticists have created GMO plant strains…you get the idea. But there has been a shift.

Victims of our conventional food system from around the world have been loudly stating that the conventional food system doesn’t work for them or the planet. Scientists, researchers, and the general public are finally catching on. People are demanding more organic food than ever before, signalling a shift in public desires. Indian farmers are organizing against the push for more GMOs.  But in order to create a more equitable, sustainable system we need to know more about how the current system works and how to build a new one.

That large, very broad mission  will include the work of biologists, ecologists, agronomists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, etc. Food touches on almost every aspect of life. Building an alternative food system will take the expertise of all of these fields. As new research is happening, a new field is emerging, Food Systems.

Researchers look at the production, distribution, acquisitions, consumption, and disposal of food, but more importantly how these take place over various spatial and social scales. Spatial questions could include, if 20% of farms in Minnesota committed to an 80% reduction in fertilizers, by how much would the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico shrink? It takes the agronomists research in alternative fertility management and synthesizes it with river hydrologists and ocean ecologists. Social questions could include, to whom are the benefits of the organic foods movement going? Is race, class, and gender denying access to some people? A third question might be: since large distributors won’t work with small to medium producers, what distribution mechanism can be used to ensure sustainable, mid-sized farms don’t disappear, thus leading to further market consolidation?

To create an alternative food system, much work must be done. New theory must be developed to internalize the costs of pollution caused by the conventional food system. New research must happen in sustainable agriculture production, fair labor standards, and composting systems. New best practices in pest management and cooking must be discovered. Only with the development of new theory, research and practice will a sustainable food system emerge.

The next post will address the major themes of research in Food Systems. I am trying to organize all the research in food systems into framework that is clear and defined. In the mean time here is one example from the Real Food Challenge.

Food Wheel