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A Look Back on Food Day 2011

2011 November 16
by lorenzln

On October 24th, a coalition of food activists, chefs, farmers, and policy makers joined together with communities all over the U.S. to celebrate Food Day, a national grassroots celebration aimed at promoting 6 Food Day Priorities. Set to become an annual awareness day much like Earth Day, this inagural year was marked by over 2,300 events in all 50 states. Food Day was really my first taste of activism, as I organized a coalition of student groups and faculty departments to put on a week-long series of events promoting awareness of food issues, from documentaries to lecturers to petitions.

Below is a listing of the six priorities and their impact on the Valley and the nation. You may think the wide scope of these priorities is overly ambitious –  but the issues with our food are systemic and require a comprehensive  view from legal, social, economic, and moral perspectives. In coming blogs I will investigate these issues more fully, and encourage you to post your own thoughts and experiences in relation to these priorities. They have really provided a cohesive way for me to think about the various ways food issues have impacted myself, my community, my country, and my planet.


Priority 1: Reduce diet-related disease by promoting healthy food

You are what you eat. Don’t we hear that all the time? Yet it doesn’t always stop us from gorging on a dozen doughnuts or eating Big Macs for a month straight (just to win McDonalds Monopoly… right?). Having a treat once in a while isn’t anything to be ashamed of, but there’s no denying that a poor diet can set you up for some serious long-term health problems.

Two-thirds of adult Americans and one-third of children are overweight or obese. Growing scientific evidence links obesity to many of the most prevalent chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. These diseases are not only deadly, they are increasingly expensive. Americans spend over $30 billion a year on drugs to treat heart disease or high blood pressure, and another $25 billion on heart surgery.

By no means is human nutrition completely understood, but the detrimental role of high fat, high sugar, high salt, high calorie foods and drinks to health is no mystery.


Priority 2: Support sustainable farms & limit subsidies to big agribusiness

Some people (ok, maybe just me) call the Shenandoah Valley the breadbasket of Virginia. In fact, in the 2007 census Rockingham County was the number one agricultural producing county in the state, with 1,970 farms! But how long will that be the case?

Today’s farms get most of their income from a complicated web of government subsidies that encourage huge, consolidated farms of one crop (monoculture) that optimize yield instead of nutrition or flavor. Farmers overproduce their crops, flooding the market to the point that market price only covers a portion of the farming expenses. To make ends meet, farmers must apply for government subsidies, taken out of the taxpayer’s pocket. The result: artificially low food prices at the register that are actually being paid back in taxes, and hundreds of tons of unnecessary food in subsidized crops like corn, cotton, soybean, wheat, rice, that show up in unexpected foods or even in your car’s gasoline as processed additives. Meanwhile, new, small or alternative farmers are pushed out of the profession since subsidies only reward the large producers.

The “agribusiness” model that has evolved as a result of these policies is highly dependent on taxpayer dollars, cheap fossil fuels, and consumer demand for the additives made from surplus crops that make their way into high-calorie processed foods. It makes it more or less impossible for new or small farmers to succeed and discourages responsible, sustainable methods of agriculture like crop rotation, limited pesticides, and natural composted fertilizers.


Priority 3: Expand access to food and end hunger

Did you know the USDA considers Rockingham County a “food desert” with 31.7% of the population without access to affordable, healthy food? It is part of the 11 percent of Americans who are beyond walking distance to the nearest grocery store and do not have regular modes of transportation. Some of these areas are also “food swamps”, filled with fast-food restaurants, convenience and liquor stores, but little to no nutritionally nourishing food. These barren food wastelands are often coupled with areas of low socio-economic status and minimal awareness of the dangers of and alternatives to a junk food diet.

First Lady Michele Obama stated the ambitious goal of “eliminat[ing] food deserts in America completely in seven years”. However, a bill proposing loans and grants to grocery stores locating in food deserts never made it through Congress in 2010, and a similar program did not make the 2011 Congressional budget.


Priority 4: Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms

The source of the meat we eat is often the huge pink elephant in the room that no one talks about. In all honesty, the treatment of animals we raise for food is reprehensible, both for the animals, the environment, and the mental wellbeing of their handlers. The standard method of raising the 10 billion animals a year slaughtered for food in America is in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, nicknamed “factory farms” due to their speedy and dehumanizing process of animal slaughter, processing, and testing.

These huge, centralized operations eat up fossil fuels for animal transport in and product transport out, produce 3 trillion pounds of manure a year that is kept in on-site lakes that pollute nearby air and water, and confine the animals in unnatural and unsatisfactory ways that cause the animals to get sick more often and even go insane.

Here in the Valley, the idea of raising animals as food has undergone a revolution led in part by Joel Salatin, a farmer-activist in Swoope, who has spent his life developing a new method of animal raising that utilizes animal’s instinctive tendencies to create an efficient ecological loop while preserving their natural lifestyle. The independently owned butchery T&E Meats in Harrisonburg is a small operation dedicated to the skillful and respectful butchery of livestock animals. Together, they represent a new model for raising and butchering livestock animals in a safer, more responsible, and more health-conscious way, but government policy selects against these small, alternative methods with universal legislation that supports the dangerous CAFOs instead.


Priority 5: Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids

Child obesity is skyrocketing, with nearly one-third of American children classified as overweight or obese, and with it obesity-linked diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. This trend is fortified by sharp cuts in institutional exercise programs like gym classes and after-school sports, the prevalence of high-sugar, high-fat snack foods, and the endless assault of junk-food marketing during kids TV programming, in video games, and online.

First Lady Michelle Obama launched a nationwide campaign in 2010 titled Let’s Move!, dedicated to promoting a balanced lifestyle of diet and exercise in children. Let’s Move! targets schools, child care, and whole communities by providing support for chefs to move to school meal programs, give recommendations to child care programs to include health education, and set goals and give advice to communities  to start community gardens, promote fun and competitive sports, and start up local farmer’s markets. However, changes in the food system geared towards children is a behemoth undertaking, from a policy standpoint and a social standpoint, requiring a change in the cultural perceptions kids have of food.


Priority 6: Support fair conditions for food and farm workers 

Oftentimes, those who grow our food are forgotten or marginalized, much like the economic, environmental, and moral origin of the food itself.  But nearly 1.4 farmworkers and 500,000 meat processing workers handle our food in America. Despite a huge presence in our communities and the economy, they are among the poorest-paid sectors of the economy; the National Agricultural Workers Survey found that one-fourth of farmworkers have income below poverty line. Normal labor laws including minimum wage, health and safety regulations, and child labor laws are not enforced and in many cases, nonexistent for farmworkers. The same survey cited above reported that one-third of farmworkers are paid below federal minimum wage. Meanwhile, the deleterious health effects of pesticde use and runoff disproportionately affect the farmers who use them and rural residents, causing chronic and sometimes lethal diseases and poisoning.


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