Eat Local: Tackling the Injustice of Food Insecurity

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April 13, 2012

By Jonathan Hughes

When we see pictures of starving children, we often assume they are from developing nations.  Rarely does it occur to us that these same conditions may exist just across the railroad tracks or in the next town. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):

Food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life: 1) The ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, 2) Assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies).

However, for millions in the U.S., food security is compromised by current federal policies. Federal agricultural subsidies are awarded to large businesses, which usually operate under a farming model that promotes consolidation and centralized corporate ownership. This centralized corporate model (food production in the hands of a few) puts millions of Americans at risk because it fails to promote food security.

Centralized, industrialized agriculture compromises food security in part because it reduces biodiversity; according to Andrew Kimbrell in his book The Fatal Harvest, from 1903 to 1983, we have lost significant levels of variety in agricultural species, e.g. 93 percent of lettuce species and 94 percent of corn.  This erosion in biodiversity makes us vulnerable to catastrophic events, such as an outbreak of plant diseases. Genetically Engineered Food (GEF), a dominant factor in our current food supply, can further compromise our food security. Over 90 percent of soybeans produced in the U.S., 86 percent of corn, and 95 percent of sugar beets are GEF.  Dr. Don Huber, a well-known plant pathologist, has observed that extensive use of herbicides in Roundup Ready Food (GEF crops resistant to herbicides) can cause increased vulnerability to over 40 plant diseases and is associated with significant decreases in yields.

Under a centralized food production model, the price of food is closely tied to the cost of petroleum, which is used in production, transportation, storage and refrigeration of crops, posing another threat to food security. Large agricultural corporations depend on a centralized supply chain process.  Most supermarkets stock a three to four day supply of food; an interruption in the availability of petroleum or a natural disaster could severely limit the availability of food across the country.  Centralized food production may also affect the nutrition value of the food we eat.  According to the Organic Food Directory, vitamins C, B and E are not even present in vegetables and fruits picked unripe enough to survive the 7 to 14-day travel time from the farm to table.

Centralized food production and distribution has also caused an additional injustice: Many urban locations suffer the daily lack of food because of “food deserts,” locations from which it is more than a mile to the nearest supermarket. According to the USDA, 23.5 million people live in food deserts, almost half of which live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold and are 2.5 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who have a ready supply of healthy food. 

Some citizens in urban environments have recognized the failure of the centralized corporate system to provide food security and addressed the deficiency using grassroots solutions to mitigate policy inadequacies. The alternatives include home gardening, cooperative urban farming and support of local farms through farmer’s markets. This approach provides nutritious food at a lower cost, supports bio-diversity, is inherently more sustainable. 

For example, Preston’s Paradise, a cooperative of backyard gardens in Philadelphia, sells excess food to the community and is leading an effort to identify all of the community gardens in what they call Edible Belmont.  By mapping out every community garden project, they create a shared garden resource within every block and provide a local supply of affordable and nutritious food. 

There are countless urban settings where this decentralized approach is flourishing.

Current federal regulatory policy in conjunction with subsidies to big agricultural firms promotes our flawed industrialized model and is unlikely to change in the absence of a triggering event. However, a collaborative undertaking by citizens promoting small, local approaches can produce significant impact on current injustices and future policy.

—Jonathan Hughes is graduate intern at the Center for Public Justice and is currently studying Nonprofit Management at School of Leadership and Development at Eastern University.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.