01/08/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

Why I Joined the Food Movement

I first set foot on an industrialized farm seven years ago. I had decided to use a high school biology assignment to visit the hog farms that surrounded my rural hometown. I was nervous; I had read animal rights activists' accounts of gestation crates and broken-legged pigs.

Those fears were unfounded. Yes, there were hundreds of animals, and yes, the floor was caked with feces--but the hogs seemed okay. The farmer was a weathered, small-town sort of man, and I believed him when he told me that he treated his animals well.

And then he took out his syringe of penicillin.

A high school wrestler had just died after contracting a drug-resistant staph infection, and this farmer was dosing any hog that looked "iffy" with antibiotics. It came as no surprise when, a few months ago, the Centers for Disease Control reported [PDF] that antibiotic use on farms contributes to the growing levels of antibiotic-resistant infection.

Still, I could see that my farmer was in a tight situation. If he chose not to carry the syringe, any disease could spread so quickly in the confined quarters that it might destroy his entire herd. He couldn't take the financial risk; he had already been forced to start a second business to help pay off his debt. And he had decided not to let his sons follow him into the business that had belonged to his family for generations. The farm life, he told me, was just no good anymore.

I wanted to help him. When I left small-town Pennsylvania for college, I enrolled as an economics major. I would become an agricultural economist, I told my professors, so I could show the world how distorted incentives forced farmers to maintain unsustainable practices.

But my goals shifted after work with the university's student-run farm pushed me to explore the city of St. Louis--a city with a deep-seated need for food system improvement. When I taught cooking lessons at a local school, I saw how lunches comprised of fries and frozen pizzas kept my students malnourished and unable to learn. For my honors thesis, I visited forty of the city's grocery and convenience stores. Healthy items, I learned, were almost completely absent in the in the city's low-income areas--and when produce was available, it was rotting.

And yet, everywhere I went, I began to see food offering solutions. St. Louis is a city rife with crime and racial tension, but its urban gardeners are helping to knit communities back together. Over the four market seasons I spent at a farmer's market in a food desert, I watched as young white farmers began to replace their arugula with collards and okra that they would sell to black grandmothers, who in turn shared their generation's disappearing recipes. And though the majority of my inner-city students had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, they were happy to concentrate when we began to build a school garden.

I joined the food movement because I have seen firsthand the extraordinary potential of food to strengthen communities and improve peoples' lives. By starting gardens and fighting for a better farm bill, we can feed our cities and help Pennsylvanian farmers pay down their debts. In 2014, let's focus our work in food on equity and justice. Together, we can begin to build urban and rural food systems that are healthier, more resilient, and more just.