A cruel paradox in our world today is that a disproportionate number of lower income people are obese. Of Mainers with under $25,000 annual household income, 25% are obese, compared with 15% of those with incomes of $50,000 or greater.1
One factor contributing to this discrepancy is the cost of healthful food. Several key ingredients in highly processed, unhealthful foods are the same commodities that receive the greatest subsidies through the farm bill every year. Michael Pollan uses the Twinkie to show how junk food got to be cheaper, calorie for calorie, than whole food:
Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat – three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades – indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning – U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.2
Other barriers to purchasing local, healthful food include seasonal (and overall) availability, transportation to and timing of markets and, generally, increased preparation time.
Several government programs start to address the challenge of getting more local, healthful food to those with the lowest incomes. The Maine Senior FarmShare program provides income-eligible seniors with $50 worth of produce to pick up from a local farm over a 10-week season. Demand for participation in this program is much greater than funding allows. The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program has a Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program that supplies WIC participants with coupons to spend specifically at farmers’ markets. Food stamp beneficiaries may also spend their benefits at farmers’ markets, but the transition to the electronic benefit system (EBT) in recent years has made it much more difficult for farmers to accept food stamps, since they must have a credit card machine to process the transaction.
In the face of global warming and a looming energy crisis, U.S. citizens are increasingly aware of the importance of local food. Localvores3 around the country are proving that you can eat local foods, and a few pioneers are quelling the myth that eating local foods is unaffordable. For example, Robert Waldrop, President of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, ate only local food for a week on a food stamp budget using six key methods:
- frugal supermarket shopping
- preparing meals from basic ingredients
- buying local foods
- food storage, and
- home preservation of food.4
Maine has some creative ways to help low income populations access more local, healthful food. Unity Barn Raisers (UBR),5 a nonprofit community organization in Waldo County, has piloted a Community Farm Share (CFS) program over the last two years. In this model, communities support both farms and food-insecure individuals. Designed to be a self-sustaining, replicable model of food security in communities, CFS calls upon local government to raise funds from taxes to pay farmers for shares of locally grown produce. The shares are for individuals the town identifies as most needy. Through grant funds, UBR provides part of the payment, decreasing that amount every year until the town pays 100% of the cost. In 2006, 40 shares provided 10 weeks of fresh, locally grown produce to about 65 individuals in two towns. In 2007, CFS is supplying 92 shares to some 150 individuals in six towns from eight local farms.
The mission of Cultivating Community,6 a Portland-based nonprofit, is to make local produce available to people in southern Maine regardless of income by making half of its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)7 shares available on a sliding scale with a $0 minimum. Funds from the other half of shares help supplement the reduced cost shares. All CSA members must volunteer eight hours of service at Cultivating Community, regardless of their ability to pay. Cultivating Community also runs an Elder Share program, which delivers a weekly bag of produce to seniors living in one of three low-income apartment complexes in Portland.
In Lincoln County, a coalition of CSA farms has a joint fund to help supplement the cost of shares for low-income families. The “Midcoast CSA Farm Holiday Harvest,” piloted last winter at several holiday fairs, offered folks an opportunity to buy part of a CSA share to be donated in a loved one’s name as an alternative to traditional gift giving. Participating farms split the funds received and used the money to offer subsidized shares to would-be shareholders.
Like low-income consumers, many small-scale CSA farmers understand not having a lot of up-front cash. After all, the CSA is, at least in part, a way for farmers to get operating capital when their farms are not generating income. They want people to be able to afford their products, and most offer options to break down barriers to affordability: work shares and work exchanges, payment plans and pay-as-you-go, sliding scale and subsidized shares. Another benefit to joining a CSA is that they often teach how to prepare whole foods. Many farms produce newsletters with recipes and other preparation, processing or storage information, but any farmer will be happy to tell a customer what to do with kohlrabi, for example.
Many battles are still being fought over the 2007 Farm Bill. Maybe this time it will support small-scale agriculture … maybe not. Meanwhile, other initiatives are proving the social and economic benefits of a strong, local food system. The more we can do in our own communities to create and support self-sustaining local food initiatives that serve all income levels, the better. What can you do to contribute?
1 Mills, Dona Anne, “Obesity in Maine: A Policy Approach,” 2004. Maine Policy Review, Vol. 13(1): 28-47.
2 Pollan, Michael, “You Are What You Grow,” The New York Times Magazine, April 22, 2007.
3 Localvores are people committed to eating and learning about foods grown close to home. Definitions vary, but a common one is food grown, harvested and processed in state or within 100 miles of home.
5 Unity Barn Raisers’ Community Farm Share Program, Chia Murdock, coordinator, (207) 948-9005, www.unitybarnraisers.org
6 Cultivating Community, Craig Lapine, executive director, (207) 761-4769, www.cultivatingcommunity.org
7 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a system in which consumers support a local farm by paying in advance for their products. This reduces the financial risks for the farmer, because consumers cover early season, preharvest costs. For more information, see Community Supported Agriculture in Maine, by Melissa White, Organic Marketing Coordinator, MOFGA, (207) 568-4142, [email protected], www.mofga.org.