Community food systems are redefining agriculture within the U.S. Thinking local instead of global is influencing the way we purchase and the way we eat. How far goods have traveled and the interaction between producers and consumers are becoming important values to shoppers. However, in order to gain momentum, more individuals must be educated.
The National Farm to School Network is an organization that aims to establish local food relations between children and the community. With programs sprouting in each of the 50 states, they hope to introduce local food into school lunch menus as well as the classroom. A food curriculum would be comprised of a school garden, farm tours and educational nights for parents. There would be an expansion of knowledge among youth populations if these programs were to take root in school districts across the country.
Martin Luther King Junior Middle School’s “edible schoolyard” in Berkeley, Ca., is an example of how these programs transform the lives of students. Concepts are reinforced because students are able to partake in the process. They plant, care for and harvest the vegetables. However, in this program, the students’ education does not stop with the picking of produce, the kitchen classroom becomes a hub that exposes the students to culture and history while they prepare meals with their crop.
Concepts taught in the classroom are reinforced because students are able to actively engage in the practices. Students also become conscious of the decisions they make and realize they have a choice when it comes to feeding their bodies. Healthy and sustainable living is becoming important to young people during their formative years. If we teach these practices to children, they will become ingrained in their lifestyle and dictate the food decisions they make during their lifetime.
In order to change our current food climate, we must do more than educate. Flashy words like food desert may seem gimmicky, but they are a real problem many communities within our country face. In Mark Winne’s book, Closing the Food Gap, he outlines what a food desert is along with the success and failures communities have had trying to transform these deserts into a food oasis. Food deserts exist in urban areas where there is not an easily accessible grocery store for residents to purchase healthy and affordable food. This forces individuals within these communities to turn to quicker alternatives that are cheaply priced. Fast food chains may thrive within these communities, but nourishment does not.
Some might think the easiest solution would be to plop a grocery store in these blighted areas. But it’s not that easy. Most grocery stores choose to locate away from urban settings. Building in suburban areas ensures businesses can secure a clientele with the financial means to afford their products.
The food insecurity symposium at the University of Missouri last spring restored my belief in revitalizing these central city communities. The Old North Grocery co-op in St. Louis is a prime model for change and success. Instead of a chain store, fast food joint, or 7-Eleven type “market,” the co-op model increases the activity and care of the community. It allows members from multiple communities to work together, forging friendships over this common bond. The co-op model also allows customers to have a voice, strengthening their connection with the food and the store.
A key element, arguably the most important element of the Old North Grocery co-op, is the emphasis on local food. The store focuses on healthy produce and promotes the health of the community by encouraging customers to choose these options. Customers might be overwhelmed by the abundance of fruits and vegetables they are unfamiliar with. However, the store eases their transition to healthy living by posting recipes that use the produce featured in the store. The partnership within the community and the promotion of healthy living go hand in hand when reviving these neighborhoods.
I was doubtful of the impact community-based initiatives could have on our society’s food gap. Although these solutions will not immediately change food policy on a national level, their impact on a local level is more valuable. By taking the time to educate individuals on this issue, people will become conscious of the problematic and unjust food system our society currently faces. But in order to make this an issue future generations care about, we must begin educating children. They deserve the opportunity to experience the pleasures of tasty, sustainable, and local food.