Panel Questions from the Real Food Dinner

Last night I sat on a panel on “sustainable food access” at the Real Food Challenge’s (UCI chapter) 4th Real Food Dinner. Real Food Dinners are free to the community, catered by UCI Dining, and feature seasonal produce (the realest food possible). So here are the questions, with my responses following.

In your opinion, how accessible is real food to the local community (Irvine, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach)?

[Define real food if no one else has.]

These four cities paint a fascinating portrait of the staggering inequality our society. Unsurprisingly, wealth is super-concentrated in Irvine and Newport. Last year the Orange County Register reported Newport Beach to be the richest city in the entire country. The richest! Its hubby neighbor Irvine, apart from being eerily safe, has the 7th highest median income among U.S. cities with more than 65,000 residents (Census 2008).

Define food insecurity. According to the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, food insecurity here increased from 24.5% in 2001 to 33.1% in 2003.
In order to purchase real food, you need plenty of money, knowledge of what’s good to eat, and time to cook the food you buy. Evidence suggests that poor people seldom have the luxury of all three factors.

(Also, poor people are pressed to find affordable shelter. To afford the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment ($1,249) in the OC, a minimum wage earner ($8/hour) must work 120 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Housing is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30% of the family income.)
There are no farmers’ markets in Santa Ana.

What about food banks?

[Talk briefly about the OC Food Bank’s impact]
What are the social and economic barriers that limit one’s access to sustainable foods?

First I want to mention that the term “sustainable” is used frequently these days, but it’s often used inappropriately. The foods that we’re eating tonight, and even the ones we can get at our farmers’ market, are not sustainable. They’re usually the most eco-friendly, humane, and local foods. I wouldn’t say they’re the fairest, per se. I would instead rephrase it as “access to realish foods?”

Crime. Stress. Pollution. Money. Transportation. Lack of local food infrastructure. Knowledge. Dispassion by wealthy people. All of these things work together to limit, and often prevent, underprivileged folks’ access to healthful foods.

Pricing system.

The cycle of poverty. In Santa Ana, one in five people is impoverished.

Dispassion of the privileged. Wealthy people often write off poor people as not working hard enough. If only those wealthy folk knew that to afford the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment ($1,249) in the OC, a minimum wage earner ($8/hour) must work 120 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Housing is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30% of the family income. If only wealthy folk knew how few resources and how many inherited problems poor people face that limit their upward social mobility.

If UCI community members and wealthy people in this County were aware of the intense poverty concentrated in the northern half of the OC, would be more momentum to reduce it? It’s unlikely, I think. Another issue is that we students, staff, and faculty come to this campus and, more often than not, learn about everything but the history and socioeconomic problems of the County in which we study. What if, to be a student, staff or faculty member here, we were required to take an induction course on social justice in the OC?

How can a system that oppresses equal access to sustainable foods be changed?

Overhaul the farm bill. The central policy that governs agriculture in this country is the Farm Bill. It happens to be highly problematic, and here’s why. Currently, the bill provides ___ dollars in subsidies for just ___ crops. What this does is make those crops really cheap, which the food industry then turns HFCS, soybean oil, and other harmful ingredients found in dirt-cheap foods.

I like what Michael Pollan says about the issue: “[The] whole bill needs to be viewed through the lens of improving public health and, perhaps specifically, supporting the first lady’s Let’s Move initiative,” he said. “In the same way bills in congress get “scored” by [the Congressional Budget Office] for their impact on the deficit, the [Farm Bill] should be scored on its various provisions likelihood of improving or damaging public health.”

In this way, the Farm Bill writes off our health. A recent article in the leading journal Science argues that “U.S. farms have provided growing supplies of food and other products, they have also been major contributors to global greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, natural resource degradation, and public health problems” (Reganold et al, 2011).

So, I propose three broad changes to improve the bill:

ONE: remove monocrop subsidies. If you eliminate subsidies for just a handful of crops – corn, wheat, and soybeans – to redirect federal money to crop diversification and local food systems, then you can stimulate the growth of local, sustainable food systems. By making good food more plentiful, you can make it cheaper.

TWO: fund local food infrastructure such as community gardens and food cooperatives.

THREE: fund agroecological farming. What we need to do is incentivize small- and mid-sized farmers to practice organic agriculture that regenerates the soil rather than kills it, and that incorporates traditional knowledge.

Invert the pricing scheme to make real food cheap, and cheap / fake /adulterated foods expensive. You can do this first by changing the Farm Bill, and second by increasing taxes on refined sugar and industrial seed oils, two of the biggest contributors to chronic diseases.

Incorporate food literacy into school curricula, preferably at all levels. To me, food literacy means 2 things: first, understanding the story of our food, from farm to table and back to the soil; second, it refers to how well a person. Through food literacy education, we can accelerate the culture change we need to end inequality, end waste, and achieve sustainability.

Sustain and grow grassroots organizing. This is critical. Those of us with knowledge, especially us youngsters, are obligated to share what we know, build our movement for quality food and health, pioneer food systems research, and talk with local politicians. We have to persuade people in power that local, sustainable food systems aren’t just another priority their notepads; they are instead a compelling, proven way to reduce poverty, heal communities, heal ourselves, and heal the planet.



Community Action Partnership for Orange County

Poverty figures:

More on the Farm Bill 2012:
+ National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
+ Civil Eats coverage
+ Huffington Post coverage
+ IATP Agriculture Observatory


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