BY LEE WARREN
It’s no news that we have a health and hunger crisis in this country, and this area is right in the thick of it. According to the N.C. Justice Center, our state has the 10th highest rate of food insecurity in the nation, with more than 500,000 households struggling. And in the 16 western counties that MANNA FoodBank serves, the organization reports, more than 100,000 people experience hunger every year, and one in four children face uncertainty about their next meal. High housing costs, a lack of public transportation and job centralization have left many local families living with ongoing food insecurity.
We’re not doing much better with regard to health outcomes. In terms of overall health, North Carolina was 33rd among the 50 states last year, according to the United Health Foundation’s annual ranking. We also know that Western North Carolina includes many “transitional” or “at-risk” counties, defined as those below the national average on at least three economic indicators: three-year average unemployment, per capita market income and poverty rate. Not surprisingly, the nonprofit North Carolina Health News reports that 29 WNC counties have a 16% higher infant mortality rate than the national average, and residents of Appalachia as a whole have 2.4 years lower life expectancy. Our rural region also struggles with higher rates of drug and alcohol use, suicide, lost years of productive life, injury, teen births, uninsured patients and preventable hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, even as these health and hunger issues have gotten worse, the food budget of most U.S. households has shrunk. Cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrient foods have crept deeper and deeper into our lives, taking over more and more grocery store shelves. American agriculture is geared heavily toward producing commodity crops cuch as corn and soy, which are turned into an endless stream of cheap, sugar-laden, heavily processed products: cereals, snack foods, soda, gum, juice, breads and chips.
Cheap calories like these can lead to chronic illness. Diet-related diseases account for four of the top 10 killers in the U.S.: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. The good news is that these diseases are preventable; the bad news is that, nonetheless, the statistics keep getting worse. And ironically, besides causing health problems, an excessive reliance on cheap calories can also result in people who are both morbidly overweight and malnourished. It’s an all-too-common paradox of our times that obesity and food-related health issues often come together in one package. If you find that confusing, you’re not alone.
Turning back the clock
Food insecurity has to do with poverty, purchasing power, distribution of wealth and a move away from the self-sufficiency that characterized our ancestors. In fact, the statistics concerning food-production skills are just as drastic and devastating as the numbers tracking health and malnutrition. About 150 years ago, 90% of the population farmed: They were fully self-reliant, producing their own food, fuel, clothing, lighting and transportation. A century ago, 50% of the population possessed these land-based skills, and 50 years ago, 30% did.
But as mechanized systems moved in, more and more people moved first to cities and then to suburbs. We went from a nation of people who were literate about growing, cooking and self-reliance to a population having little or no relationship with the systems that keep us alive. Today less than 2% of Americans still farm. On top of that, the average age of the American farmer is 58: dangerously close to retirement.
Relocalization is happening, but not nearly quickly enough. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are now 8,720 farmers markets in the U.S., a 7% increase since 2013. They generate an estimated $1 billion in total annual sales — a drop in the bucket compared with the $1.71 trillion we spend annually on food.
In WNC, both the number of farms and the revenue from direct sales to consumers are on the rise. We know this anecdotally from working with hundreds of farmers in our region and from studies. While local products still account for less than 2% of regional food spending, many residents seem to understand the importance of eating local, both for their own health and for the region’s economic well-being, and the numbers are trending up. A 2007 report by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project found that of the region’s $2.2 billion in total food expenditures, only about $14.5 million — less than 1% — were for local food.
That’s a far cry from the world prior generations once knew. “The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946,” food activist, farmer and author Joel Salatin wrote in Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. “That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.”
At the Organic Growers School, we believe the region’s farmers are the solution to both of these crises. Sourcing more of our food locally would simultaneously boost the region’s economic stability, food security and health. We would also be building community as more residents shared land and food and visited both urban and rural farms.
Local food movements connect producers to consumers and eliminate the need for energy-intensive processing, extended travel times and complex distribution systems. And when growers and eaters work together in this way, it also promotes farmers’ economic viability. That, in turn, provides many ecological and social benefits while ensuring that more money stays in the local community. This is the most sustainable alternative to Big Agriculture’s mechanization and monocropping.
The current intertwined malnutrition and health crises are markers of distress that demand our immediate and ongoing attention. Food is the baseline for both of these issues: With high percentages of local production and consumption, we could turn these dire situations around. With the collaboration of local governments, educational systems, nonprofits and, most of all, consumers, our region is primed to achieve this.
A key step in that direction is helping farmers build their skills and improve their prospects for success. Farm Beginnings, the Organic Growers School’s comprehensive, yearlong training program, begins Sunday, Oct. 13 (see info box above). Combining farmer-led classroom sessions, on-site tours and an extensive network, it can help farmers clarify their goals and strengths, establish a strong enterprise plan and build a profitable, sustainable operation. I encourage all beginning farmers to take advantage of this valuable opportunity.
Lee Warren is executive director of the Organic Growers School, which assists farmers year-round through education, support, mentoring and networking programs.