It's hardly news to report that we are in the middle of a global health and environmental crisis, but the statistics are nonetheless sobering. In a world where the population has almost doubled since 1980 and the portion of the population considered to be starving is 33 percent, we are fortunate to wake up with food and water. However, nutrition is still a serious problem in the United States. One third of adult Americans lives in obesity, Even in New York, where city dwellers flock en masse to neighborhood farmers markets every weekend, 58 percent of adults -- or a total of 3,437,000 people -- are overweight or obese, contributing to the deaths of 5,800 city residents per year. Considering facts like those, it's hard to understand how McDonalds was ever allowed to serve food in American hospitals.
Big business and big agriculture are two major culprits in this nutrition crisis. Factory poultry farms have for years concealed the details of their farming and slaughtering practices and found ways to mislabel products and overuse resources. If you've ever seen Food, Inc. and come to understand some of the realities of harmful farming practices, I'm sure the ills of American agribusiness aren't news to you. There is no question that the environmental, health and cultural problems plaguing the global food system today are deeply rooted. As Dr. Jonathan Foley told the Scientific American, Feeding nine billion people in a truly sustainable way will be one of the greatest challenges our civilization has ever faced."
Fortunately, people are becoming increasingly conscious that antibiotics, GMOs and pesticides come with health and environmental repercussions, and consumers nationally and internationally are beginning to demand increased access to healthy and responsibly produced ingredients (last week in China, a group of increasingly health-conscious citizens demanded better quality and transparency from food chains). In cities across the country, consumers are switching from shopping at big-box grocery stores to picking up produce at neighborhood farmers markets and are more engaged in understanding where their food is coming from.
But small farms have a hard time competing with big factory farms regardless of the pains they take to ensure vegetables and meat are responsibly produced. Through my work on the wholesale side of the food industry at FarmersWeb -- an e-commerce platform connecting local farms to wholesale buyers like restaurants and schools -- I have seen firsthand a variety of issues affecting agribusiness, slow food and health when it comes to producing, sourcing, distributing, transporting and selling local food. From a small family farm being unable to afford the price tag of organic certification, to farmers lacking access to city markets, there is a long list of reasons why thousands of small-scale farms have difficulty bringing delicious, affordable and environmentally responsible goods to market.
While of course there is no single solution, the most important thing we can do as consumers, chefs and educators to make sure the farm continues to be delivered to our tables is to buy local and organic products. If we demand that our hospitals, schools and grocery stores provide us with healthy and sustainable options, our institutions will be forced to meet our demand with proper supply. Also, as more farms transition to organic or sustainable methods of production to meet our appetite for responsibly grown products, costs will inevitably drop (remember that food isn't cheap now anyway; the real cost of producing conventional food has been shifted from the register to the taxpayer, in the form of crop subsidies, and the environment, in the form of pollution). As citizens become increasingly educated about what they're eating and continue to demand healthier food, it's not a stretch to imagine American hospitals serving pasture-raised chicken with pesticide-free broccoli for lunch in place of a Happy Meal. In the meantime, cast your vote for "local," "organic," "pasture-raised" and "pesticide and antibiotic free" to have an impact on your regional food system.