by Expat Chef
What if we all woke up tomorrow and said, “Today is the day I will eat right.” Oh, and we actually did it. The first thing we’d figure out is that there is a massive food shortage for a healthy diet even in a country where two-thirds of us are overweight.
Food shortage in the land of milk and honey? You betcha, for real food at least — 1.2 servings of milk per person per day less than recommended. Two servings per day of whole grains per person are not available, and about one serving a day of both non-starchy vegetables and fruits are absent as well. Additionally, most fruits and vegetables have to be imported.
Second, for what food supply there is, many Americans would simply not be able to afford that healthy diet. The price of fruits and vegetables have increased 118 percent from 1985 to the new millennium. Fats and oils have only increased 35 percent in that same time span, meaning, the cheapest foods are the least nutritious and most calorie dense. They are also the majority of the food supply due to farm policy.
How Legislation Can Make Us Fat
Farm policy rewards farmers for growing commodity crops, basically only eight types of crops; corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton, barley, oats and sorghum. Growing “speciality” crops like fruits and vegetables – foods that Michael Pollan insists should be the majority of our diets — makes a farmer ineligible for a subsidy, even if he only grows a small amount of fruits and vegetables on his land. Even the name “speciality” implies that these crops are a rarity, and they are according to U.S. food policy. As a result, only four percent of U.S. crop land was dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables in 2004.
The dependency of farmers on subsidies does not help the situation. While the large-scale industrial farms reap unnecessary extra profit in the form of subsidy “handouts,” small farms are squeezed heavily by a system that only pays them about nineteen cents for every food dollar spent. The vast majority of the profits do not go to the farmer, but to the food industry that processes, packages, advertises and transports the finished “product.” In fact, some 77,000 processed food products, many of which contain primarily cheap inputs like refined flour and sugars like high-fructose corn syrup with flavors and colors and added “nutrients.”
These convenient and less expensive foods have increased the number of calories per individual, per day available in our food system to 3,800. Normal caloric intake per average adult should be closer to 2350. Yet, for the additional portion size and caloric density, there is far less nutrition than unprocessed, “real” foods.
It is a broken system, and the victims of it are the small farms and the lower income families that cannot afford better foods. Quite often, the inability to afford (or have access to) better food choices, can lead to obesity and health-related issues — again for those who can least afford health care and medical bills. An estimated $75 billion a year is spent treating obesity-related diseases, half of these costs are borne by publicly-funded programs like Medicaid. As a result, we taxpayers bear much of the brunt of the true costs associated with the short-term profits of cheap and subsidized foods even as the food industry yields more profits.
Additionally, many of Americans who can afford better food, choose not to, preferring these processed versions of real food, or preferring to spend less of their budget and time on buying and preparing food. The table below shows what consumers actually buy from the choices available at the store. The current rise in food prices with the increase in fuel costs and use of commodity crops for ethanol, will not only increase processed food prices, but will do little to help the situation of making healthier choices more affordable.
The situation does not have to exist. Here are some things we, as consumers, can do to change things for the better:
- Write your Congressmen and women and tell them you want a farm bill that makes sense and supports both “specialty crop” farmers and healthy food programs that will offer low-income families access to better food.
- Join a CSA or shop at your farmers market, giving hard-working farmers 100 percent of your food dollar. LocalHarvest.org has a great search tool to help you find local food sources near you.
- Purchase ethically- and naturally-raised meat direct from a family farm. Most use a USDA-certified, but small, local butcher, offering healthier and safer meats for consumers and the environment. Learn more about the perils of industrial farms and meat production so you can be aware as a consumer.
- Items like eggs, milk and cheese can be found locally from small farms. Look for these items in addition to fruit, vegetables and meats. Sustainable Table has a good search tool if you want to find sources near you for specific products.
- Support urban agriculture efforts in your area by donating time or money to gardens that supply healthy food for low-income families. Start a community garden project in your neighborhood or school, to share in the growing of your own healthy food and community.
- Cook more at home. It is possible to have real food without being a slave to your oven, and you will also reap the social rewards that come from a real family meal. Shared time with family members in preparing meals is a great time to talk and be involved in one another’s lives.
- Value food. Take the time to enjoy and share a meal, understand that what your put into yourself and your family is the fuel for a healthy life. Choose wisely and enjoy well.
Source material for this document can be found in “Agriculture Policy is Health Policy,” by Richard J Jackson MD MPH, Ray Minjares MPH, Kyra S Naumoff PhD, Bina Patel BA, University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health Berkeley, California 94720-7360. Developed with the Support of The Kellogg Foundation September 16, 2007.