Healthy Food for All

06/16/2015 12:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Food is essential to life. Failure to distribute it justly causes hunger, sickness, and misery. Destructive production degrades soils, poisons the environment, and contributes to accelerating climate change.

In their book, entitled Food Justice, Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi define food justice as "ensuring that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly."

Much of our global food system is, in fact, unjust and destructive. We mine water, abuse chemicals and medications, and send vast quantities of topsoil and nutrients to the seas, creating marine dead zones, and with all that hundreds of millions of people lack access to nutritious healthy food. As climate change creates more difficult conditions for agriculture, poor farmers -- with least access to technology -- suffer first.

But visit your local food store, and you soon see that much of the organic food is more expensive. Is there a tradeoff: we can have food that is affordable, or food that is healthy for people and the planet, not both? I sometimes hear advocates for sustainable food criticized as elitists who don't care about the poor. I simply do not buy the argument that we should eat unhealthy food, pollute our streams, and degrade our soils because there are costs involved in not doing so. It is a false choice, and doesn't serve the poor, but rather protects the practices and profits of Big Ag.

What we need to do is make healthy food accessible and affordable by expanding markets, improving technology, and creating new models that sustain both natural systems and communities. That's what many are working to accomplish through empowering alternatives such as community gardens and farmers markets. Both keep popping up around the country. More than 8,000 farmers markets are registered in the USA Farmers Market Directory.

Farmers markets are not just places for the affluent to shop. People with limited resources have a right to fresh, healthy food. The Farmers Market Coalition website contains interesting data: The number of farmers markets and direct marketing farmers authorized to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments increased over five years by 360 percent, with 3,214 authorized in 2012 to accept SNAP. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service estimated that in 2011 more than $38 million was spent at farmers markets through SNAP and Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition vouchers.

Far better to work to create healthier, more just options -- local, regional, and global. All people need, deserve, and I believe want good, healthy food and access to it. How can we achieve that? I'll cite an excellent Buckminster Fuller quote used in another book on the topic, Oran B. Hesterman's Fair Food: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things, build another model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Young farmers and immigrant farmers are driving change. Latino farmers represent this country's fastest growing group of farmers. The face of farming is changing and will continue to change over the next few decades. Again, these changes present economic and social justice issues. Along with demographics, distribution and markets are changing, with distribution increasingly through farmers markets directly located in the communities they serve.

Experimenting with new models is also what we're trying to accomplish, in our own small way, on the Hampshire campus. We're changing the way food is produced, delivered, and consumed, from the purposely provocative 100% Local Food Challenge to our Sustainable Food Purchasing Guide. We're working to produce more of our own food on the college farm, build a supportive network with and for local organic farmers, and make just choices about what we grow and serve.

I'm very proud of what we are accomplishing on an operational level, but as an educational institution it's even more important for the future that our students are developing thoughtful, ethical frameworks for examining, challenging, and changing food systems and access.

We teach theory using an approach that relies heavily on experience; "ideas into action" is the heart of Hampshire. Our students and graduates seek to develop real solutions across the sectors of policy, health, and social entrepreneurship. A number of alumni have chosen agriculture and food systems, in one form or another, for their careers. Just as we are doing institutionally, they are working to put into place different models for how food can be grown, transported, and consumed.

To give just one local example: Two Hampshire alums who became farmers created the Tuesday Market, a farmers market in nearby Northampton. Dedicated to increasing access to fresh, healthy food for people of all incomes and backgrounds, Tuesday Market was set up so that SNAP payments could be doubled, in effect doubling families' food purchasing power at that farmers market each Tuesday.

Collaboration with communities involved in food justice greatly benefits our students. Through the years students have worked with Nuestras Raices, an urban agricultural organization working to see food justice flourish in the nearby city of Holyoke. Equitable partnerships teach our students -- and teach those of us who are staff and faculty -- about justice, and help build connectivity with communities close by.

If you haven't already read Hesterman, Gottlieb and Joshi, and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, those three books can provide a good starting point and context for thinking more deeply about food and food justice.