Talking Sustainable Food with High School Students

I was recently approached by a Portsmouth High School student taking an honors ecology class to answer some questions about sustainable local food. The poor girl probably received far more than she bargained for, as I tend to digress, but I thought I would share the questions and answers with our blogosphere:

  1. How would you define the farm to table movement?
I think the most simple definition of this would be to say that it revolves around increasing the accessibility of and frequency with which local foods end up on family dinner tables (or breakfast, or lunch!), while also decreasing the intermediary steps in the supply chain between farmers and families, so that local farms retain more of the profit and develop direct-to-consumer relationships. Of course, there are many other smaller pieces orbiting around this central idea— certain ‘food trends’ and diet/lifestyle choices, economic trending around local purchasing and small scale economies and increased interest in growing foods at home.
2. What are the current trends that you notice?
Generally, see the last bit of my answer above. More specifically to farmers’ markets, CSA programs etc… there is an emerging anxiety that the ‘bubble is bursting’ around farmers’ market and CSA participation. There was a recent article about this through some local news outlets that has received a lot of attention and is worth reading. I think that whenever you have a ‘new trend’ or idea, as these things have been over the last decade, they experience a lot of growth, as there is nowhere to go but up. Eventually, numbers plateau because the ‘low hanging fruit’ — people in the population that were most likely or most predisposed to participate, have all been reached. I think the defining question moving forward will be ‘how can we continue to expand to new communities, populations and groups of people?’ If 10% of the population participates in these activities now, what will it take to engage 20% or 50%? This is a question that many, many people– including us– are very actively working on and the solutions will require innovation, collaboration and commitment to reach.
3. How do these trends relate to ecological sustainability?
Everyone accesses local foods differently. For some, there is a heritage piece– themselves or relatives of past generations were farmers. Others are interested in what they feel is the highest quality or most nutritious food. Others are committed to keeping their dollars as local as possible. Of course, there is an environmental aspect to this too, which is huge. Purchasing local foods reduces carbon emissions and packaging waste, among other things, because that food is less processed, less packaged and travels less far than foods at the grocery store. At the farm level, there are also important environmental considerations– in this area particularly, small farms are able to exist due to conservation easements that reduce property costs for farmers to have land, and ensure that that land is used responsibly for farming. Soil health also is increased by responsible farming practices, as it is central to growing good crop yields and quality products. Finally, and especially in the Great Bay watershed, there is an important interplay between responsible farming practices, good soil heath and water quality and management. With summers of drought, farmers must think more sustainably and more long term about using water resources as efficiently as possible and also ensuring that they adopt practices that decrease the opportunity for runoff of chemicals or waste into waterways. Each of these are very complex issues, but ones which have and continue to receive a lot of attention in our communities and have been the subject of longstanding and ongoing work and study.
4. Please share a few examples of your business’s connections to sustainable eating.
Why, it’s what we do! To paraphrase somewhat, the mission of our organization is to assist in connecting local farms to local residents, so that all people can eat locally all year long. We achieve this in a wide variety of ways— through an annual local foods directory (Seacoast Harvest), by managing a winter farmers’ market series, providing SNAP/EBT acceptance and incentive services, through our new mobile market program and also through a wide array of more informal tasks which could generally be described as working to be a strong community member that connects leaders of various sectors– healthcare, social services, farming, hospitality, small business, policy makers etc.
5. How do you think the farm to table movement will look in ten years?
I wish we could see the future! I think the answer to this question lies in what I mentioned before, in determining how we can continue to expand the percent of the population that is engaging with local foods. This is a very, very complex issue and the solutions, as I mentioned, will be multi-faceted. I think the first step is in understanding the barriers that exist for individuals who are not participating in this way.. but it’s a difficult thing to ask a community that you do not know, why they are not doing something. However, there is already a lot of work being done around this and we do understand a lot of the barriers— essentially: cost, convenience and, for the sake of alliteration, conceptual. By conceptual, I mean that I believe a lot of education is left to be done around why it is so vital to support our local farms for a wide variety of reasons and why it is possible for all people to do so. Convenience is fairly clear– it needs to be easy to purchase foods locally and, furthermore, to purchase all the foods that a family needs to feed itself. Farmers are very dedicated and innovative people and they are working on this! Cost, I believe, will become the defining issue of our time and it is something that I think about a lot. How can good, local food be affordable for all but also support living wages for farm owners and workers? This is a national and international issue, comprised of forces much larger than you and I. There is an inherent conflict in our larger food system, I believe, where we have been accustomed to inexpensive food at the cost of small farmers. To support local farms, we must be willing to pay more for our food as a nation (but also get more for that price in terms of quality, health/economic/environmental benefits) so that farmers may earn a dignified and living wage for hard and honorable work that they then reinvest in their communities (hiring staff, building infrastructure). The added difficultly here, in addition to our general reluctance to pay more, is that we cannot exclude our most vulnerable Americans – those who are low-income and/or food insecure and, arguably, have the most to gain from eating more locally (decreasing social isolation, increased health benefits for a population that is more at risk of diet related disease and illness). This is where our SNAP/EBT acceptance and incentives programs are so key, in that they assist low-income individuals and families in making local foods more affordable. These are rather simplified explanations, but I hope that the gist is clear. To bring this all back around– there is a lot of work to do for everyone– education to be done by organizations like ours, innovative solutions to be found by farmers and local food businesses and commitments to be made by average Americans to value and support local food systems for the incredible and far-reaching value that they provide.
 6. How did you come to choose to be a part of the farm to table movement?
Personally, it was a long, slow arch over several years. This was not something that my family valued during the time that I was growing up (or now, for that matter, despite my efforts). For myself, I was always interested in and often worked with various livestock (I started with horses as a sport, but also worked with goats and sheep later in life). I also enjoy and have often had a garden. To be somewhat succinct, I had a series of learnings, experiences and acquaintances over maybe a decade that brought me to this mentality, incrementally, as a way of life. Professionally, it was somewhat of a happy accident where I heard of my current position through a friend and was fortunate enough to be hired by the organization.
7. What ecologically conscious food products are you most proud to offer?
Seacoast Eat Local does not offer or grow food products that we produce. Our goal, or at least one primary goal that we have, is to support the farms and businesses that do produce these items. However, as we celebrate ten years of winter farmers’ markets, something that I am very proud of is the sheer array of foods available to consumers at all times of the year, as well as the numbers of farms in essentially year-round operation. This signifies the health of our local economy and food system, the market demand by local residents and the incredible commitment of our farmers who made many sacrifices and investments to be able to meet these demands.
8. In your opinion, what tools or resources are most successful for educating the community about sustainable eating?
I think it hinges on personal experiences and appealing to a variety of levels of engagement and points of interest. I mentioned earlier that there are many reasons and ways to approach eating locally and they appeal to different people with varying strength. That’s OK and they are all valid and worthy reasons. We have to learn about our audiences to know what the most motivating factors will be– environmental, health related, economic etc. Also, we have to accept a spectrum of engagement levels and think in building blocks rather than absolutist terms. Yes, we wish all people purchased 100% of their food from local sources, but we have to accept, encourage and support those who choose to shop at a farmers’ market once per year or choose to only purchase a local turkey for Thanksgiving or visit a pick your own farm once during blueberry season. There is a lot of absolutism in our world today and we can see how it divides us. We cannot allow the local food movement to devolve into these terms. I’m an educator by training and I believe that these are important entryways and learning opportunities for consumers. This brings me to personal experience– I hope that all people can have at least one positive experience with local food this year (consider a resolution!). Support a local farmer, even just once, and use it as an opportunity to learn. What does that farmers grow or raise and how? What do they believe? Consider your own experience– was the product good and high quality? How did it make you feel to purchase food from a local source? Take a moment to learn or to seek out information about the positive effects of purchasing food locally. I think that as local individuals can accrue these experiences, and we can support and educate them in that process, we can all grow our engagement in local foods together.
9. What is one simple thing everyone could do to lower our ecological footprint?
Purchase food locally, of course! As I said before, we cannot stake out our goals in strictly absolutist terms. So, I would ask everyone– what do you do currently to support local foods? What might be one sustainable step in increasing that support? It might be product focused– such as committing to purchasing meat only from local sources. It might be frequency related– if you only visit a farmers market once per summer, could you try to visit monthly? It could be to try a new method of engagement— if you have never tried a CSA before, maybe this year is the year. The one thing I can say with absolute certainty from the mouths of all of our farmers, is that every step counts no matter how insignificant you feel it is. You could very likely be the difference for a farmer between losing money and breaking even. Health data shows that even small changes have the potential to make a difference, local eggs for instance are higher in Omega 3s and purchasing eggs only locally could contribute to overall better health in this way.
 10. Tell me key point I should know understand about the relationship between the farm to table movement and sustainability.
As with many of my answers, the relationship here is multi-faceted and complex. Different organizations or players in this industry will have different answers and all of them are quite valid. For me and I think also for my organization, I have to come back to increasing that percentage of the population who is engaging with local foods. Local foods must be for all people and the percentage of the population engaging with it must continue to increase to having a sustaining effect for local food systems. This, I suppose, frames sustainability (a tricky word!) in terms of financial viability and longevity. However, as I think I have explained– all these kinds of sustainability are interconnected. If farms are financially viable, they continue to operate and to make choices and investments that have ripple effects. Consumers who purchase foods locally also create these ripple effects, so that financial sustainability of farms is attached to increasing local foods consumption and the related benefits. Overall, more open lands will be preserved and used responsibly, more dollars will remain in our local economy, individuals will experience better health outcomes and our communities will remain vibrant places.

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