Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA’s NIFA is awarding $900,000 to the Wallace Center at Winrock International in Little Rock Arkansas to run the Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development (HUFED) center (medicalnewstoday.com). This program is a development of the USDA’s ‘Know your Farmer, know your food’, a program designed to “develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity” (USDA Release No. 0440.09). HUFED provides healthy, affordable food choices to underserved communities including locally produced agricultural products.

The HUFED center is “designed to respond to the need to redevelop a food enterprise structure in the United States to make more healthy, affordable food available in low-income areas; to improve access for small and mid-sized agricultural producers” (medicalnewstoday.com). This center could provide solutions to fundamental problems that exist in the food system today, including the concentration of power in a small number of food corporations and the amount of purchasing choices that low income families have for food.

In the chain that links the food we consume from the field to our plate, power is concentrated in very few hands. An analogy that illustrates this power distribution is the shape of an hourglass; the widened ends represent the farmer and the consumer, respectively, while the thinner segment connecting the two represents the small number of corporate buyers and sellers that control the system of distribution. "When the number of companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, this gives them market power both over the people who grow the food and the people who eat it." (Patel pg. 12).

If the HUFED Center were to succeed, the connection between farmer and consumer would be renewed and unabated, leading to greater economic opportunities for farmers. These opportunities could allow the farmer to make greater profit by providing crops directly to consumers instead of corporate buyers. This increased income would also boost the farmer’s power as he or she would be less reliant on the whims of large corporate buyers to make money. In addition, the farmer could become more independent, growing multiple crops that consumers demand instead of growing large lots of a single crop, such as corn or soybeans, that corporate buyers demand for resale and further processing.

Consumers would also benefit from this shift. For instance, low income families would have a greater range of healthier foods to choose from. Currently, these families are limited by price when shopping for food. Healthy foods, including vegetables and fruits, cost more than a meal at a fast food restaurant. As such, poorer families are often driven to purchase these fast food products, which are high in calories and low in nutrient value, because they cannot afford the alternative healthy foods. “A perversity of the way our food comes to us is that it's now possible for people who can't afford enough to eat to be obese." (Patel pg. 4). With increased consumption of cheap food like fast food or highly processed food, people’s health can start to deteriorate either through contracting diabetes or becoming obese. Obesity and diabetes have become more prevalent further down the lower end of the socioeconomic scale because “the industrial food chain has made energy-dense foods the cheapest in the market, when measured in terms of cost per calorie. …it makes good economic sense that people with limited money to spend on food would spend it on the cheapest calories they can find, especially when the cheapest can find-fats and sugars-are precisely the ones offering the biggest neurobiological reward.” (Pollan pg. 107-108).

The HUFED center offers an alternative food choice to the cheap caloric food containing large amount of fats and sugars. This alternative choice of healthy produce is a viable option for low income families because these foods are offered at a more affordable price. Consuming these fruits and vegetables will allow families to lead healthier lifestyles because the new, healthier foods will contain significantly lower levels of sugars, fats and calories then in fast food meals and cheap processed foods.

With the opening of the HUFED center, the farmer will be more connected with the consumer, giving the farmer more economic and decision making power. The center will also help low income families have more opportunities to eat a healthier, more balanced diet with fewer sugars, empty calories, and fats. By consuming these nutrient-rich foods, these families can decrease the chances of contracting diabetes or becoming obese- or reverse these trends already in progress and lose some of the weight that they have accumulated.

Sources:
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel

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