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Linking Sustainability, Food, Health, and the Environment: A Summary

A written summary of each of the presentations made during the September 13th webinar follows, along with links for more detailed information (when available).

Anne Palmer, Johns Hopkins University Center for a Liveable Future

Palmer discussed several issues surrounding the development of food policy at the community level. In her work, Palmer broadly defines healthy food access to include anything that helps people to maintain a healthy diet. There are many different kinds of barriers that people encounter when they try to eat for good health, including physical, financial, social, and availability barriers. Around each of these barriers is a legislative action or regulatory issue that needs to be considered when one is thinking about addressing food policy at the local level.

Palmer emphasized the importance of understanding how state and federal policies can affect local food policy. She offered an example from her own state of Maryland, which had a state law dictating that first-year farmers markets could not offer SNAP benefits. This law posed a challenge to new markets that were trying to establish themselves in low-income neighborhoods. Working with state officials, Palmer’s colleagues were able to get that law changed.

Palmer also shared the results of a recent research project in which she and her collaborators surveyed a number of  food policy councils around the country to determine which local food policy topics they were engaged in. They found that increasing food access was the most pressing issue for these councils, but that they were working on a broad range of issues, including outreach to low-income audiences, institutional procurement, ordinances around animals, community gardens, and SNAP benefit use at farmers markets.

More information is available at the Center for a Liveable Future website.

Jennifer Wilkins, Cornell University

Wilkins studies how various components of the food system impact public health and the various mechanisms by which these impacts are levied. There are obvious mechanisms, like the quality and quantity of the food supply. But, Wilkins explained, there are less obvious mechanisms, too. For example, production practices like widespread antibiotic use is leading to antibiotic resistance in human illnesses. Concentration and centralization of crop production has been cited as a factor in the widespread nature of recent foodborne illness outbreaks. While smaller, regionalized food systems are not inherently immune to these types of problems, they do not allow for the widespread consequences that we see in national or global distribution systems.

Food access is another mechanism by which the food system can affect public health. Wilkinson emphasized that improving access to healthy food will require multiple approaches in multiple settings, and that focusing on the individual as the sole actor for improving health is insufficient. City zoning is an exciting area of change, and has improved food access through the development of community gardens and programs like New York City’s “Green Cart” initiative. Other mechanisms to improve healthy food purchasing include incentive programs, judicious marketing of healthy foods, and more comprehensive food labeling.

Carolyn Dimitri, New York University

Dimitri is an applied economist who studies food systems policy, particularly in urban settings. She explained that our national food policy comes through the farm bill, and tends to focus on farming in rural areas. In absence of a national-level policy regarding local and regional food systems, many local/regional councils are establishing their own food system plans. Nearly all of the 50 largest US cities have food policy councils or food system plans, and these plans share some common goals: increasing access to healthy foods, promoting expansion of farmers markets, and promoting urban farming.

Dimitri is participating in a research project that is looking at food access in three US cities – San Diego, Boston and New York City – and how incentive programs affect healthy food purchasing in those cities. She found that despite the incentives they were offered, people who are extremely vulnerable in a number of measures did not increase their healthy food consumption. However, Dmitri felt that for the groups who did resond positively, incentives were an easy mechanism to encourage an increase in their fruit and vegetable consumption.

Jurgen Schwarz, University of Maryland Eastern Shore

Schwarz directs the Center for Food Science and Technology, where he and his collaborators help Maryland entrepreneurs develop food businesses that utilize locally grown foods. He shared three such projects that are in various stages of development:

  • Aronia berries are a small fruit native to the Delmarva Peninsula. Rich in antioxidants, they are gaining popularity. Schwarz’s center is exploring processing options for the Aronia berry in order to help expand the market for this locally grown food.
  • Somerset Bay Foods is a local seafood business whose soups and marinades are quite popular among local residents. Schwarz’s center is working with the restaurateurs to scale up production for a broader market by assisting with recipe development and vendor identification. Center staff also collaborated with the restaurant staff on a state grant, and assisted with the installation of processing equipment.
  • Luke’s Heirloom Tomato Juice is a company that has grown out of hobby gardener Jim Hudson’s efforts to find a use for his imperfect tomatoes. He developed a tomato juice so popular among his peers that he sought out Schwarz’s help to develop it into a commercial product line. Schwarz’s center helped Hudson scale up production, obtain grants, and identify Maryland farmers who could grow the types of heirloom tomatoes used in his recipe. Hudson received so much support from Schwarz and others in Maryland that he relocated to Maryland permanently.

Louise Mitchell, Healthy Food in Healthcare

Mitchell described the Healthy Food in Healthcare program, which is part of an international coalition called Healthcare Without Harm that promotes environmental sustainability in healthcare. As the regional organizer, Mitchell works to engage hospitals in Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region in several healthy food initiatives developed by her organization. Driven by the idea that healthy food is not just nutritious, but also is produced in an environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially responsible food system, these initiatives include:

  • The Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge, which challenges hospitals to commit to gradually shifting their food purchasing towards more local and sustainable foods;
  • The Food Matters program, which educates clinicians about the food system and encourages them to advocate for a healthy food system where they work;
  • The Local and Sustainable Purchasing initiative, which engages hospitals to source more sustainably and locally grown foods; and
  • The Balanced Menus initiative, which challenges hospitals to purchase less meat and include less meat on their menus, and to use the resulting savings to purchase sustainably grown meat.

Mitchell’s group also hosts trainings, webinars, and an annual conference. They have worked with Maryland extension staff to produce a farm-to-hospital fact sheet (provide link) and to develop cost-saving strategies to help hospitals offset the expense of purchasing of local meat. Learn more about these initiatives at www.healthyfoodinhealthcare.org/.

Anu Rangarajan, Cornell University Small Farms Institute

At the Cornell Small Farms Institute, Rangarajan and her colleagues focus on the needs of small producers, who comprise 92% of agricultural producers in New York. Due to the diverse nature of this group, there has not been a unified strategy to support their development. The goal of the institute is to devise a strategy to support viability of small farms. To that end, they recently conducted a survey of small producers across the state, asking them to rank 16 strategic investment opportunities in order of importance to the goal of enhancing the viability of small farms. Rangarajan discussed in detail the top two opportunities that the 570 respondents identified as having the most importance.

The first priority identified is to develop food distribution strategies that will expand small farmers’ access to local and regional markets. This includes identifying bottlenecks in local and regional food processing and distribution systems, creating and evaluating strategies to increase connections, and supporting and educating new local and regional distributors.

The second priority identified is to document the economic impacts of small farms on their communities. Small farmers recognize that to be productive contributors to their local economies, their impact must be recognized.

Other priorities identified in the survey include developing new livestock processing facilities, identifying alternative financing strategies, and advocating for greater investment in small farm services (such as research and extension activities). The full report is available here (PDF).