Our food system is in the midst of transformation and renaissance. Efforts are improving food production, distribution and access in terms of health, sustainability and ethics across the United States, while also strengthening food economies, building resilient community food systems, and advancing food justice and sovereignty. Although not without challenges, here are seven food systems trends that inspire hope.
Deepening our understanding of the connection between food and health
The conversation about food and health is more nuanced and multifaceted than ever. Our understanding of the relationship between food, nutrition, chronic disease and risk factors is evolving; attention to root causes of food-related health inequities is deepening, and recognition of the social and cultural significance of food is growing. We understand that diet is a product of the food we have access to, food we have money for, and food that fits into our cultural contexts, among other factors. Increasingly, we examine food environments to understand who in our community has consistent access to enough nutritious food for a healthy life (i.e., food security) and who is struggling.
The concept of food insecurity builds on our understanding of hunger – an individual-level physiological condition – by recognizing how economic and social complexities influence access to adequate food at the household-level. Today, we better understand how financial, physical and social barriers impact food security, how food insecurity affects groups differently, and how food security links to behavior patterns and health outcomes. For example, new research suggests that nearly half of college students are food insecure. Meal skipping and loading up on cheap calories are common. Food insecurity prevents students from performing their best academically and may even keep some students from graduating. With an understanding of food security and other food-related issues that reflects the complexity of reality, we can more effectively design and implement strategies that will make a difference.
Formalizing food systems work
Formalizing food systems improvement work is a precursor to action. When we name food systems as priorities, and institutionalize and normalize food systems work, we send the signal that healthy food for all matters. There has been an explosion of interest in and adoption of new policies and processes, and creation of new kinds of institutions to shepherd food systems work, such as food policy groups (e.g., food policy councils, action teams, task forces). Food policy councils are organizational bodies devoted to issues of food and food policy that bring together diverse actors across a local food system to examine how the food system operates and advance efforts to improve it. Food policy councils have grown increasingly popular in recent years (with fewer than 20 active councils in North America prior to 2000 and well over 300 today according to Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s annual survey), and show promise in their ability to influence local policy and drive change.
Expanding food access in new creative ways
Increased understanding of the importance of food security and access issues, and growing advocacy and interest, has led to a food renaissance. In recent years there has been a surge of efforts to expand healthy food retail, by improving healthy food offerings among retailers (e.g., grocery and convenience stores), attracting new healthy food retailers (e.g., grocery and food businesses), and expanding access to farm stands, farmers markets and mobile produce markets. To overcome financial barriers to food access, actors are getting creative: finding market incentives and solutions, and building on food assistance programs through expansion of SNAP-authorized retailers (e.g., restaurants, college campus), school feeding programs, and SNAP eligibility. Along with place-based, program and policy change, efforts are helping to change attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge around healthy food through education and skill-building.
Leveraging systems to make improvements at scale
The food system comprises a large proportion of the U.S. economy, accounting for $18 trillion dollars annually (over 13% of GDP) and employing 20 million workers (about 1 in 6 workers). Likewise, the challenges facing our food system are vast: intensive agriculture practices damage and deplete environmental resources and put people’s health at risk; climate change threatens community food supplies; and injustices drive inequality among workers across the food system. Taking a systems view enables us to see opportunities to make improvements that promote equity at scale. For example, organizations and institutions leveraging purchasing power to advance equity, justice and sustainability. Major institutions like school districts, prisons, hospitals, and corporate behemoths like McDonalds and Walmart are helping drive improvements with big results.
Putting people at the center of food system work
Workers across the food system are standing up for justice. From farm to food service, workers and advocates are taking action – demanding a livable wage, fair employment practices and safe working conditions. Low pay, long hours, seasonal, and shift employment has long characterized work in many segments of the food system. Farm workers, for example, are often exploited by the agricultural sector which relies on cheap labor – notoriously taking advantage of undocumented workers – and failing to meet occupational health and safety standards. The farm worker justice movement has grown in strength and prominence in recent years – bringing issues of equity into the public sphere and building political alliances. Likewise, injustices and abuse in restaurant work are well documented, and restaurant workers are taking a stand. Food sovereignty – the concept that people must reclaim their power in the food system – puts the needs of the people who produce, distribute, serve and consume food at the heart of food systems and policy. Employee-owned cooperatives have gained traction in recent years, with innovative companies moving to employee-ownership models and examples of food cooperatives emerging locally.
Challenging paradigms through localism, sustainability
Over the past decade plus, the local food movement has challenged industrialized food production practices in the United States by advocating for local production that is more environmentally and socially sustainable. The rise of corporate, industrialized food production in the Twentieth Century ushered in a period of environmentally intensive practices that pollute and deplete natural resources, subvert biodiversity with crop monocultures, and create staggering amounts of food waste. Localism thwarts these negative trends by emphasizing production and consumption of local food. A focus on local food systems: benefits the local economy by supporting farms and farmers and growing food entrepreneurship; improves environmental quality by reducing the carbon footprint of food and promoting crop diversity; and builds resilience in the local food supply and food economy. Localism also builds community- connecting people to their growers, communities, and regions.
Connecting to culture, and each other through food
Food unites us: we all need it. But food is more than just fuel for our bodies. Food is fuel for our souls – bringing people, families, communities together, and connecting us to each other, our culture, and our world. Coming together over food and sharing meals with friends and family is an important way that we connect, get social support, and build and maintain social relationships that are good for our mental health and sense of belonging. We express family and cultural traditions through food, and often food is how we first experience the cultures of others. Given the cultural context of food, it is encouraging to see increasing emphasis and efforts to preserve culture through food, promote access to culturally-appropriate foods, and build on food traditions to advance health. For example, seed saving efforts are helping to preserve crop species for future generations and efforts to expand traditional foods in school lunches offers help children stay connected to their cultures.
There is hope in the soil and around our tables in America.
Our friends at Broadstreet offer a Community Food Assessment report that you can create for your own area. Check out this Washington D.C. Food Assessment to see an example.
Sara Ivey, MPH, MURP. Sara is an urban planner and public health practitioner based in Portland, Oregon. She is a project manager for IP3 and contributing writer for Community Commons.