Our Great Food Problem and Several Small Solutions: A Call to Sow

(More housekeeping. This was originally written in July, 2007 and included in a 5% Local e-newsletter. )

Great problems call for many small solutions

—Wendell Berry, American farmer, writer, and philosopher

Our Great Food Problem and Several Small Solutions: A Call to Sow

Our current food system is a great problem. Like nearly all Americans, we, in West Contra Costa County, subsist on products from a highly-industrialized food system. As a community, we currently do not have even a small capacity to sustain ourselves without the food from this industrialized system. Below are examples of specific problems with this food system, followed by a few ways we can work locally to develop small solutions to begin solving our great food problem.
Study after study documents the negative environmental, public health, and social effects of our current food system.
Environmental Effects: Pesticides in our water—A US Geological Survey study of more than 1,000 streams in 51 different watersheds across the country detected agricultural pesticides more than 90% of the time in urban, rural, and mixed-use areas. Sampling of more than 5,000 wells detected pesticides more than 50% of the time in rural, urban, and mixed-use areas[1]. Based on these nationwide samples, it is reasonable to assume there are pesticides in many of our streams and wells here in West Contra Costa County. Our current food system pollutes our water.
Public Health Effects: Obesity epidemic— Here in West Contra Costa County, 42% of 5th graders tested in 2002 were overweight or obese. A study by the Bloomberg School of Public Health found that if the rate of obesity and overweight continues to climb at its current pace, by 2015, 75 percent of American adults will be overweight or obese.[2] A California Department of Health Services study estimated that overweight and obesity among adults cost Californians more than $8 billion dollars annually due to medical costs, lost productivity, and worker’s compensation claims[3]. Our current food system contributes significantly to one of the greatest threats to our public health—the obesity epidemic.
Social Effects: Shaping impressionable minds A key component of our industrialized food system is a strong marketing campaign by food companies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that in 2000 food companies spent a total of $26 billion dollars in advertising, a 65% increase in just 10 years[4]. According to the Institute of Medicine, in 2002 food companies spent between $10 and $12 billion dollars on advertising aimed specifically at children[5]. What has been the result of all this investment? American children ages 8-12 on average see more than 50 hours a year of food advertisements (or 7,600 individual ads), nearly half of it for snacks, sweets, and fast food and virtually none of it for healthy produce[6]. In other words, American 8-12 year olds now spend, on average, more than 0.25% of their lives being programmed to consume unhealthy foods. Our current food system turns agricultural products into consumer products; food marketers then train our children to become voracious consumers of unhealthy products.
As these three examples illustrate, the American food system is indeed a “great problem” in need of reform. But what are we, in West Contra Costa County, to do about this situation? Recent Congressional developments suggest exactly what NOT to do—we should not look for big solutions to our great problem.
Do NOT Expect the Federal Government to Initiate Food System Reform: The federal government has been one of the primary architects of the current food system, shaping it with billions of dollars of federal spending. Over the past 10 years, for example, the USDA has encouraged farmers to produce enormous amounts of commodities like corn, wheat, rice, and cotton by paying out more than $100 billion in subsidies. These payments indirectly subsidize the agricultural chemical industry and unhealthy processed foods products like Coca-Cola, Doritos, and Big Macs. This year, Congress is outlining USDA priorities and spending through 2012 in the Farm Bill. At this point, it appears likely that the federal government will continue to invest tens of billions of dollars into a food and agriculture system that makes our children sick, degrades our environment, and erodes our self-reliance while pushing us towards thoughtless over-consumption. We have no reason to expect “great solutions” to our food system problem here, nor anywhere else in the country.
There are a great many small solutions for West Contra Costa County food system. The 5% Local Coalition has already started building a sustainable, healthy, and just food system by developing local food production. We need your help to turn our backyards, parks, schools, and other public open spaces into a local foodshed producing healthy fruits and vegetables.
Edible Landscaping Everywhere:
If we, as a community, value healthy, fresh, affordable, chemical-free produce for our children and all members of our community, there is something simple and radical we can do. We can grow it ourselves. We can surround ourselves with tantalizing fruits, berries, and nuts.
We already spend millions of dollars every year in West Contra Costa County building or rebuilding schools, parks, churches, community centers, libraries, and government offices. Each of these projects includes significant up-front expenditures for installing ornamental landscaping, as well as ongoing landscaping maintenance costs. For little or no additional cost, we could choose beautiful plants which also produce delicious, healthy foods—blueberries, raspberries, citrus, plum, and passionfruits could be planted instead of lindens, arbutus, and multiflora roses. A single mature fruit tree could provide hundreds of pounds of fruit a year to an office, school, or hospital. Once established, olive trees require little irrigation and are nearly indestructible, producing food for hundreds of years. Raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry bushes planted anywhere a child regularly passes by will be picked clean, providing children with valuable phytonutrients. Edible landscaping would bring healthy food choices closer to us and reconnect our communities and culture to the cycle of the seasons.
You can help embed the value of fresh produce in our community and physical environment by planting food-bearing trees, bushes, and vines at your home and at your workplace. You can also join the 5% Local Coalition on Saturday, August 11th at our second Berryland workday on the Richmond Greenway as we install more planters and fill them with raspberry bushes for youngsters to enjoy next summer. Edible landscaping is one of the many small solutions to our great food system problem.
A Farmer for Every School:
Twice in our nation’s history, during each of the World Wars, American schoolchildren have contributed significantly to the American food supply by tending food gardens at schools. This strategy is even more appropriate today. As a community, we can explore ways to establish a funding stream to support a farmer at every school. School farmers could engage students in growing food to improve our local food system. Not only would a school farmer program increase the amount of healthy, organic produce available in our community, but would most likely increase the amount of healthy produce our children actually eat. In 2000, a survey of California teens by the California Department of Health and Human Services revealed that teens who had grown food in a garden ate, on average, more than 20% more produce than those who had not[7]. The 5% Local Coalition is already developing two models by which school farmers can help children improve their own food supply:
•Student Farmers: A school farmer can mentor small groups of student farmers developing and tending their own garden beds. Working just three hours a week under the mentorship of a school farmer, student farmers could easily tend 150 square feet of garden bed space. In our climate, gardens easily yield between 1 and 2 pounds per square foot of bed space annually. This means each student farmer could realistically grow and take home 150 to 300 pounds of fresh, organic produce each year. This amount of produce represents between 46% and 93% of the total produce intake recommended by the World Health Organization. On average, California kids currently consume just 186 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year so many students could grow the equivalent of their entire intake of fruits and vegetables a year.
A pilot version of this program, the Lincoln Farm Project will start this fall with 20 Lincoln Elementary afterschool students who will build and tend approximately 50 garden beds along the Lincoln Greenway. Check future 5% Local Coalition newsletters for periodic updates on this pilot project and to look for ways you can contribute to it.
•School Produce Stand: Tending individual garden plots may not be the most effective strategy to engage students in food production in all situations. For some schools, it makes more sense to have communal garden space in which large numbers of students can work with a school farmer, teachers, and volunteers to produce healthy, nutritious food. These communal school mini-farms can improve the local food system by hosting regular produce sales after school at the school site.
In April of this year, the Verde Partnership Garden at Verde Elementary School in North Richmond began just such a program, launching the biweekly Verde Market. The Verde Market sells almost entirely produce grown onsite and is one of the only sources for fresh produce in North Richmond. In the past four months, the Verde Market has contributed hundreds of pounds of organic produce to the North Richmond food system. As the garden staff and students fine-tune their production methods and improve their soil, the Verde Market will eventually provide thousands of pounds of produce to North Richmond annually.
A recent study by the Associated Press revealed that of the 57 federal nutrition education programs (costing well over $1 billion dollars), only 4 successfully improved student nutrition. Exhorting schoolchildren to improve their nutrition, without addressing the underlying systemic factors for poor nutrition has proven largely ineffective. By filling our communal spaces with edible landscaping, we can take direct action to surround ourselves with healthy, delicious food. By establishing school mini-farms under the direction of school farmers, we could stop talking to our children about nutrition and instead empower our students to produce their own healthy food. As a community, we, in West Contra Costa County, do not have to wait for the federal government to improve the food system. Heeding the advice of Wendell Berry, we can work locally to find the many small solutions to our great food problem. Please join the 5% Local Coalition by registering online at http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/5percentlocal/. Or just go out and sow something healthy and delicious to eat.

[1] From Pesticides in the Nation’s Streams and Groundwater, 1992-2001. USGS Circular 1291, March 2006 at http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2005/1291/pdf/circ1291_chapter1.pdf
[2] From Obesity Rates Continue To Climb In The United States in Medical News Today, July 11, 2006 at http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/76484.php
[3] From The Economic Costs of Physical Inactivity, Overweight, and Obesity in California Adult:Health Care, Workers’ Compensation, and Lost Productivity. At http://www.dhs.ca.gov/cdic/cpns/press/downloads/CostofObesityToplineReport.pdf
[4] From Food Marketing Costs at a Glance by Howard Elltzak at
[5] Advertising, Marketing, and the Media Institute of Medicine Fact Sheet, September 2004 at http://www.iom.edu/Object.File/Master/22/609/fact%20sheet%20-%20marketing%20finaBitticks.pdf
[6] Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States by the Kaiser Family Foundation, March, 2007 at http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7618ES.pdf