Toward a Sustainable Food Economy

I went to a meeting last week — and I am not afraid to admit upfront that I do not normally like meetings — but this one intrigued me enough to draw me to the Arlington Central Library last Thursday morning. It was the first organizing meeting for a Northern Virginia Food Coalition, which would begin to identify food challenges and health problems in our area and advocate for solutions.

The meeting was well-attended by people who can make a difference, and we briefly discussed many issues facing anyone who buys or grows food in this area. However, I came away with one nagging concern for the future of this effort. There was much talk about making food more affordable, but for the kinds of food we should be eating, our food is very affordable and comes pretty close to representing the time, labor and expertise that goes into its production. It is the food we should not be eating that is subsidized to the extent that we are paying for contrived convenience rather than real food.

We need to educate people to buy more locally produced food at prices that represent the true cost of production. We need to change our eating habits and stop buying fast foods, convenience foods, sweetened foods and even in some cases fortified foods and just return to buying real food.

We also need to put food costs into perspective. We do not need to spend money on packaged snacks and bottled drinks, and if we could begin with cutting those out, we would see our grocery bills reduced considerably. This goes for all income groups — in fact, the poor spend more of their food dollar than the better-off on food that is not good for them. We can achieve this re-education through social-welfare programs, workplaces, schools, community organizations and even social media.

What I will not support is an effort to encourage small farmers to donate more food or discount their products for any particular group. I do support gleaning for food that may be left in a field or that cannot be sold the next day by a farmer at a farmers’ market. I would work to encourage more donations of healthy foods from grocery stores, at least while we work on more access to local produce and products. But establishing the value of improving our health by what we eat should be the goal.

If anything, we need to think about ways to better define the costs and benefits of real food with real flavors from real farmers and how those costs and benefits compare to those derived from highly processed food products.

Not surprisingly, I arrived at a contrarian position: If advocates for healthier foods are asking farmers to charge less or to give away their food, we are not on the right track. Maybe I am slowly learning a new perspective — working with farmers will do that to you, I guess! There is an answer out there, and I am happy to have the opportunity to work with folks who are capable of finding it and initiating programs. Many at the meeting are doing that already. I’ll keep you posted; you can count on that.

See you at the market!