Healthy vs. local

Kentucky farmer Jon Bednarski and his Belted Galloway cattle

Those of us who work on local food issues often seem like a homogeneous group. We all believe the current food system is broken, and we all put our faith in local food to fix it.

But on closer inspection, you’ll find we have different motivations. Real Food Challenge captures these multiple motivations in a graphic they use to organize college students.

Some people work on labor justice – fair wages and safe working conditions. Some people work on food justice – making sure even poor citizens have access to healthful food. Environmental activists act on the idea that local food systems will decrease carbon footprint and environmental abuse by corporate farmers.

Many health professionals believe the broken food system is responsible for America’s staggering health costs and its high rate of chronic diseases. Corn and soybean subsidies keep us awash in cheap food that’s bad for us (including cheap meat, soft drinks, and sweet and salty snacks). For many health advocates, “local food” means “local produce,” and they are eager for higher produce consumption to make Americans healthier.

In my own community of local food activists,there are people with all these interests and more. And when our local-food advocacy results in success, the goals of these factions often differentiate themselves more clearly. People who once agreed on a goal begin to split into camps.

This has happened recently. Our increasingly robust work at the University of Louisville has resulted in a steady supply of local, antibiotic-free beef in a couple of the dining venues. A very positive, energetic, supportive and knowledgeable health advocate on the local food committee recently expressed concern that the local food effort on campus is particularly meat-oriented, and suggested concentrating more on local fruits and vegetables.

Learning about local food groups all over the country, I know this healthy vs. local dichotomy often arises in the work, or is replaced by other common ones: local vs. ecological (organic vs. conventional), local farmers vs. local community development, farmer income vs. affordable food.

I think understanding that our fellow advocates may come from a different place may help group members sort out how and when we can work with each other, help us understand the differences in our goals, can cushion disappointment when goals diverge and help us be more successful in the long term. Different advocates — environmental, health, food justice, local farmers, community development – will occasionally and ultimately travel different paths, even if we’re all traveling the same road now.

I work with the farm economy in Kentucky. It’s an economy based on generations of tobacco farming, complemented by beef, row crops and hay. The tobacco economy is a third of what it was 15 years ago. Some elected officials and concerned citizens (including Wendell Berry) got together to investigate if growing food for consumption might be a good alternative to growing tobacco. They hired me to increase Kentucky farmers’ portion of food dollars spent in Louisville and through large-volume dining services around the state, like schools and universities.

In response to a health advocate’s perfectly valid assertion that we should concentrate more on bringing more produce and less meat into the university food service, I’d like to explain how and why my position differs from hers, even though we serve on the same committee with the same broadly written goal.

  • First, the typical tobacco farm in Kentucky usually includes a beef herd. When the Master Settlement was reached with 46 attorneys general in 1998, and the Governor’s Office of Ag Policy was established in Kentucky to use some of those settlement funds to help farmers, the most obvious action was to help farmers get more profit from crops they were already growing, namely beef. Getting a better profit from their beef, by improving genetics of the herds and the forage on which they graze, is a way to keep farmers on their farms now. Turning a beef farmer into an apple orchardist is like turning a truck driver into a respiratory therapist. It can be done, but its a steep learning curve requiring tremendous resources.
  • Second, livestock is more lucrative than produce farming, and often more suited to the topography of Kentucky. Rolling hillsides of Central and Eastern Kentucky are sometimes not suitable for plowing and planting crops. Using the “solar power” captured by pasture forage to feed animals can be an efficient use of these rolling fields to create food, can repair overused or eroded topsoil and reduce petrochemical use, and produce lucrative crops in relatively small spaces, benefiting small and medium size farms. This use of pasture to feed animals is consistent with the 50-Year Farm Bill proposed by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, which promotes the use of perennial crops to improve the ecology of farmland. In Kentucky, forage is our most prevalent perennial crop.
  • Third, the “local food” initiative, no matter which way you come at it, is a change that is more difficult than most people realize and making stable change in the system is slow. One of the barriers cited most often from those resistant to the change is “inconsistent supply,” which usually means that you can’t get local food year round. Most people think “local food” means “local produce” and, to be sure, local produce is not available all year. In Kentucky, local meat, some dairy and grains are available all year round. For many, meat, cheese or flour might be the “gateway” to local food purchases. It’s easier to add on seasonal produce later. Starting with seasonal produce often proves (to buyers) just how impossible buying local is. It actually sets the work back.
  • Fourth, the Centers for Disease Control has said that we are facing a health care “catastrophe” from antibiotic resistant bacteria and estimates plenty of health care costs and deaths related to the issue. It is estimated that more than 70% of antibiotics in this country are used to keep animals healthy in unconscionable conditions.`Currently, the most productive small meat processing plant in Kentucky (and the one with whom the University of Louisville, Sodexo and Jefferson County Public Schools are working), requires that all their animals be raised without antibiotics (which, conventionally, are typically added to feed for consistent, constant and prophylactic dosage). These Kentucky-raised animals are required to have constant exposure to forage and minimum space allotments, which maintain healthy growing conditions and reduce the need for medical antibiotics. Healthy food advocates and agriculture supporters can agree that responsibly-raised meat is a step toward a healthier diet.
  • Fifth, tobacco was a 6, 7 or 8-generation crop in Kentucky, with an infrastructure of expertise, education and marketing. As no one crop will replace tobacco, it will take many more generations for farmers to gain the same infrastructure with edible crops. In the meantime, consumers, particularly institutional consumers, will be doing a great disservice to Kentucky agriculture if they eliminate animal products from the “local food” discussion.

I don’t expect any health advocate to wholeheartedly agree with every position I take. But our goals do overlap. And I will welcome any help when the discussion turns to local, seasonal produce. Buying food seasonally is a particularly difficult change for virtually any food service to contemplate. It will require more resources and support from the advocacy community.

And make no mistake, I am delighted there are people who work on Americans’ access to and consumption of healthy produce. My college degree was in dietetics. I get it. But their work is not my work.

I think if we understand each other, we’ll make more effective allies. We can work together when our goals overlap, and back off our expectations when they don’t. It’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean one cause is less worthy. It means the causes are different.
I may not be able to rely on a health advocate to fight the fight for local beef. But if she fights the fight for local food, that will be a great deal of help.

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