You write about the need to get good food to poor people. Where is the gap in New Mexico where, for example, we have farmers markets all over the state, yet so many people who don’t eat well?
We know that New Mexico is currently the second or third hungriest state in the country based on the [United States Department of Agriculture] figures, and that ties in very closely to poverty. New Mexico is in the basement of just about every social and economic indicator that exists. In terms of obesity, we’re sort of in the middle. We have about 40 farmers markets in the state at the last count, and most of them are quite different from the Santa Fe Farmers Market, which does tend to be a very high-end, elite kind of market, catering to a demanding and discerning foodie crowd. I think they make a reasonable attempt to reach out to others.
The thing that I stress in the book is, what has happened over the last 10 years is really an amazing phenomenon, it’s an incredible trend launching into the stratosphere as far as food goes, and people being very conscious about what they’re eating and how food is produced and where it’s coming from, from organic to local high-quality. It goes far beyond anything we ever thought about in terms of gourmet food…But people moved ahead so quickly with that, they unintentionally, I think, left a whole class of our society behind. That, to me, is what was sort of problematic and what I had to write about, because my work had been in low-income communities, working in a whole variety of food programs.
Talk a little more about those programs.
[The Hartford Food System] started the first farmers market in Connecticut in 1978, and today there’s over 90. Nationwide at that time there were probably 200 or 300 farmers markets—today there’s 4,500. We started community gardens in low-income neighborhoods, worked with neighborhood people to start markets, were very much in the vanguard of the local food movement in the sense that we saw a way to help people who needed food, because the supermarkets had just abandoned the cities. [Other groups] got this motivation as well; they were getting into this whole connection around local food—whether you’re growing your own or bringing it in through a farmers market enterprise as a way to help farmers and to help low-income communities at the same time. And that was a lot of the driving force. I think we lost a lot of that spirit along the way, particularly in the last 10 years.
And we now see a lot of indicators about how poorly some people are eating.
Twelve percent of our population is food insecure. The whole obesity thing is really just incredible, 60 to 65 percent. Just the other day there was a national study that showed that diabetes went up about 2 percent in the last year, and it’s already at record levels. This is a national epidemic that definitely affects the poor more than it affects others. It affects people of color more than it affects others. We as a society have to pay attention to what’s going on.
It’s not just about organic and local food, that isn’t the whole story—it’s about good food. And in urban and rural areas, you don’t have good supermarkets. You have crappy supermarkets or you have little convenience stores or, in rural New Mexico, it’s the wide spot in the road where they pump gas and sell Dinty Moore beef stew and if you’re lucky they might have a brown banana or two lying around. That’s the kind of food desert that so many lower-income people come from.
Which is more important: eating organic or eating local?
If I had to make a choice, I’d say local, absolutely. The food miles is part of it, carbon footprint and all that, but it’s also keeping money in your own economy. The closer the farmer is, the more likely you’re going to know what his or her farming practices are. If you know they’re a chemical junkie and they’re aerial-spraying everything to death, you don’t want to eat that stuff. But if they occasionally use some chemicals—and a good farmer wants to minimize their use of chemicals because it costs them money—and they’ve refined their practices now so they can be more discreet and use just the right amount at just the right time…so, on that basis alone, local is better. The idea that somebody would ship in an organic apple from Washington state to New Mexico, as opposed to a New Mexican apple that might have had some minimal spraying—to me, there’s no argument.
Here’s an example. My wife and I buy half a cow from a local rancher.
You must have a big freezer.
Yeah, it’s a big freezer. But it’s also a small cow. But we’ve done this calculation: Our cow is raised in Corona, New Mexico. It’s slaughtered at a very small facility in Fort Sumner—I don’t mean to ruin your appetite.
No, I’m a big cow-eater, it’s all right.
…And then I go down and pick it up. Our meat has traveled a total of 300 miles and was raised completely on New Mexico grass its entire life. Now, a cow that was raised as a calf on a New Mexico ranch typically gets sent to a feedlot in Texas, then it goes to a processing facility in Kansas, then it goes to a chain distribution center in Denver, then gets shipped to, say, an Albertsons in Santa Fe. It’s gone 3,000 miles. And I pay a little more, but I think that’s worth it.
What about places that don’t have a large variety, or a large quantity, of local food? How do you eat local when it’s not possible?
You can’t. If you don’t have the natural resources to be able to produce food, you’re going to have to import it. That’s the answer. But the subtext of that question is: Have we done everything you can to make sure that you have the ability and the resources to produce food, locally and regionally? We’ve seen our capacity to produce food erode since World War II. We used to have a small-scale wheat industry [in New Mexico]—we actually produced 200 varieties of wheat, we had small-scale flour mills all over the state…That whole infrastructure has been virtually eliminated.
You see this time and time again to the point that, in the farm bill that just passed, they put in—not a lot—maybe a few million dollars to rebuild infrastructure in regions where there’s still agricultural capacity, where people are interested in marketing locally, but they don’t have the infrastructure to do it—and by that I mean refrigerators, warehouses, packing and mills, slaughterhouses, things like that. Right now there’s a shortage of slaughter facilities in New Mexico. It’s harder for small ranchers—or any ranchers—to sell locally. In order to sell locally, you’re going to have to slaughter your meat either in New Mexico or southern Colorado. There are a lot of pieces of this food system that need to be considered.
Can the push for local food be attributed to the issues that have come out of recent food-safety scares?
I think that’s a small part of it but, frankly, the local food movement has been going strong for quite a while and continues to grow. You see spurts for whatever the latest food scare is. I’ve seen so many food scares over my career, they come and they go, and they always concern me, but they’re indicative not of where food is grown, but how it’s grown… A big part of the local food movement is a reaction to industrial food production. People were really turned off by everything they saw and heard about the industrial food system—the whole idea of an industrial food system was new to people, they didn’t understand what that meant. The industry is putting food into the same sort of production model that they use to make automobiles. People realize that the local producer is less likely to be caught up in that kind of production system.
Saying that, I’ll also say that I’ve seen bad farming practices on the part of local farmers. We almost lost the apple cider industry in Connecticut about 10 years ago when there was an E.coli outbreak traced back to a small cider producer. The guy had 10 acres of apples, and he was using all the drops in the field to make the cider. He also had all these deer grazing in his field. The shit hit the fan, and they almost lost the entire industry as a result.
Is that coming from greed? Desperation?
It was a combination of ignorance and not having the resources to invest in the latest technology.
With the number of farmers in the US decreasing and the food industry shifting
[to other countries], what is the impact on the US food market?
That’s kind of a long treatise and I’m not sure I’m in the mood [laughs]. We’ve had this incredible push on local foods, but we’re losing our capacity to produce not only good local food that we eat, but we’re losing the capacity to produce corn for high-fructose corn syrup or cattle feed or ethanol. And with the high price of energy, while farmers
are making record amounts, they’re also spending record amounts.
Concerning low-income families, you see high food prices. They’re a result of changes in both the American food-and farm economy as well as the global food-and-farm economy. The fact that the Chinese want to eat more meat means that more of our grain is exported, more of our cattle are exported, and that global demand drives up prices. So a person in the US who is spending about 20 percent of their annual income on food—which is typical for low-income families, the rest of us spend about 10 percent—means that they’re going to have to start spending more on simple things. Forget organic, forget local; they’re going to be spending more for their Wonderbread or their industrially produced milk. Then, factor into this that one of the best growth stocks is McDonald’s, because where do people go when food prices go up? They go to the cheap place. They get McDonald’s.
You see more people buying food from companies where the food is unhealthy.
McDonald’s is a big part of the problem in the American food system. A lot of our health problems go back to the fast food industry and how we’ve been propagandized and forced, economically, into going there. It’s the same thing with Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart doesn’t pay their employees well, so they end up going to food banks and getting food stamps because they don’t earn enough, or they end up in the ER because they don’t have any health insurance, and then the taxpayer picks that up. Food is only one part of a much more complicated picture. It’s a good way to understand how a lot of these things connect because we all buy it, we all need it and we see so many differences in class and culture in the way that we buy and think about food. It’s a good way to understand our economy and society.
Is there hope that this food awareness explosion will eventually trickle down into more impoverished communities?
I just testified…at a hearing of the governor’s Poverty Reduction Task Force. He appointed this poverty task force about a month ago, about 20 or 30 people who will come back with recommendations on how to reduce poverty in New Mexico.
I was asked to testify, and I was the only food-issues person there. I made the point that there are a lot of ways that you can use food and agriculture to reduce poverty. If you improve people’s health you’re going to reduce their costs and reduce taxpayers’ costs, but the food economy is underdeveloped in New Mexico. Yeah, your industrial-scale farming is highly developed, but that’s extracting more cost to society than it is providing in terms of benefit. I think there’s a potential to make a significant impact on the local economy if we start to think about eating locally…If everyone in New Mexico ate 15 percent of their diet from New Mexico producers, it would contribute almost $400 million more per year in local income. We’d keep $400 million. That’s just 15 percent. That figure is less than 5 percent now. That’s an indication of the potential for agriculture to be a much more vital force in the economy.
I’d been wanting to ask the final question of ‘What should everybody do?’ but you just answered it.
That’s one answer. Eat local, pay attention to where your food’s coming from, support your local farmer, grow your own, all that. There’s a million reasons why that’s good. The other part of it is, you can be a good food consumer, but you should also be a good food citizen. The citizen part of it is the public policy aspect. The marketplace is not going to correct itself so that everybody is going to be able to eat well. It’s just not going to work.
The public sector needs to intervene to make sure that everyone has access to healthy and affordable food. But we also need to get to the root cause of all these things, which is poverty. We have to drill down a lot deeper and think beyond food banks and beyond food stamps. We need to talk about the causes of hunger and food insecurity, we need to talk about a living wage, health insurance, job training, and economic development strategies. Not ones that don’t provide people with enough wages to even feed themselves.