by Anna Lappé and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
In her latest column for The Washington Post, “The surprising truth about the ‘food movement‘,” Tamar Haspel argues that the number of people who really care about where their food comes from, how it is grown and its impact on our health and the environment is surprisingly small.
We think she’s wrong. As two people who talk to consumers, farmers and retailers every day about food buying choices, we can tell you that the level of awareness and concern for the food we are eating is higher than it has ever been — and shows in changing attitudes and in changing habits, too.
But don’t take our word for it. Listen to food industry analysts like Scott Mushkin, who said last year: “To me, the biggest change is what’s going on with eating trends in the U.S. It’s stunning how much food patterns have changed.” His firm’s research found that the No. 1 one message of women surveyed was that they want to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Or look at indicators from the marketplace: Flagging profits at Walmart are a sign of the public’s changing attitudes toward food. The company was seen as a mortal threat to traditional food retailers when it entered the market, more than 15 years ago. Today, Walmart finds itself competing poorly with smaller stores offering fresh, local produce and even with other big-box stores, such as Costco, now the nation’s largest seller of organic food.
Meanwhile, sales of regular soda in the United States have declined a jaw-dropping 25 percent in the past two decades. This, despite Coca-Cola’s spending $3.5 billion on advertising in 2014 alone and dispensing millions in charitable donations to woo the public and deflect concern about its most profitable — and least healthful — products.
Those consumption trends are a reflection that Americans increasingly care about where their food comes from, how it is grown and the health and environmental implications of what they feed their families. Let’s be clear: These changes didn’t just happen. The shifts we are talking about are occurring as a result of the concerted work of dedicated advocates, activists and community-based organizations that are changing the marketplace and the food system. They are doing it not just through purchasing decisions but also by holding their elected officials accountable and demanding better food policy at local, state and national levels — all against the backdrop of billions in marketing by the processed-food and fast-food industries.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a food movement to us.
Yes, conventionally grown food still makes up the vast majority of what Americans buy on a daily basis. But that doesn’t reflect a lack of demand for organic food; it reflects a lack of supply. We’ve heard personally from the people who run large food companies that one of their biggest challenges is meeting the demand for organic fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat. And this brings up a very important point: The staggering gap between supply and demand reflects the regulations, policies, infrastructure — and even financial markets — that greatly favor conventional agriculture through billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies, generous insurance coverage, extensive research, technical help and even marketing assistance that make it difficult for farmers to transition to organic. The reality is the demand for organic is growing by leaps and bounds, limited only by the ability for supply to match it.
The demand for fresh, local and organic is seen clearly in the popularity of the nation’s farmers markets. Haspel argues that this popularity is waning, citing figures of plateauing sales. But other evidence points to a different story. Data from the USDA’s farmers market manager survey conducted last year found a bump in business: Among the more than 8,400 markets nationwide, 61 percent of those surveyed reported increased traffic; more than half reported increases in year-on-year sales. Because the USDA survey she looked at is done only once every five years, Haspel’s data was from 2007 to 2012, which, as you might remember, coincided with the country’s crippling recession, when the number of Americans struggling with hunger shot up by 12.8 million and consumers stopped spending. Sales of lots of things — homes, cars, refrigerators, even food — felt the effects of the economic downturn.
The change in the kind of food we buy isn’t happening just at grocery stores and farmers markets. Between 2006 and 2012, for example, there was a 430 percent increase in farm-to-school programs, reaching more than 4,000 school districts across the country with locally sourced food in school meals. The number of regional food hubs that connect farmers with wholesale, retail, institutional and individual buyers also grew by almost 300 percent during that time. That kind of growth doesn’t just happen. It takes organized, committed parents, teachers, food-service directors and administrators. It takes city planners, business, farmers, restaurateurs and retailers coming together.
These changing attitudes toward food are reflected in public opinion. A poll conducted last fall by bipartisan team Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Strategies for the Plate of the Union campaign found that voters are overwhelmingly concerned that not all Americans have access to healthful, affordable food and want to see policymakers take bold action to remedy it.
The food movement we are part of is a movement made up of farmers and farmworkers, of teachers and public health officials, of policymakers and chefs, and of everyday Americans from all walks of life. Despite what opinion writers such as Haspel say, they care about labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs), farmworker rights and the effects of chemicals used to grow their food.
Big change never comes easily, and it never happens quickly. Along the way there will always be those who doubt it’s happening at all. But we can see it happening across the country — in grocery stores, in school cafeterias, on family farms. And even in the halls of Congress.
Chellie Pingree is an organic farmer and a member of the House of Representatives (D) from Maine. Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and director of Real Food Media.
Originally published in The Washington Post
Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post