by guest blogger Ellen Gustafson, sustainable food-system activist, author, innovator, and social entrepreneur
Our global food system is a pretty powerful thing. The system produces enough calories to feed every person on the planet more than each of us needs, and many of us have more diverse food options than our grandparents could have ever imagined. Still, despite the fact that many of us enjoy cheap coffee and bananas from faraway places and that Coca-Cola is available in more countries than are recognized by the UN, there are close to a billion people struggling with hunger, and more than 1.4 billion people globally are overweight or obese.
Our interconnected food system can do amazing things, but we have not figured out how to ensure that we the eaters are fed WELL in almost every corner of the globe.
On a more individual level, many American eaters and those around the world who eat most like us struggle every day to navigate a food system in which everything seems to make us fat and unhealthy. We try diets and cleanses, and even develop allergies to foods that have long been part of the human diet. We’re buying more and more foods that tell us they will help us weigh less and less. With the proliferation of nonfat, gluten-free, paleo, and fake sugar “food,” we the eaters have gotten fatter, are built less like our ancestors, and have more processed grain- and sugar-induced health problems.
To add to all of this, many of us don’t know this fundamental irony: In America, our farmers are some of the most overweight among us, and in the developing world, farmers tend to be among the hungriest.
Although it’s easy to say that the overweight and hungry around the world are just too lazy or are somehow else at fault for their food-related woes, it actually seems clear to me that what really needs to change is our food system itself. We need a system in which the most available and easiest food options are also the healthiest and farmers and farmworkers are paid fairly and have the fewest food-related health issues.
We need a system that doesn’t require us to fight against it. We the eaters need to change the system.
The answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems really are on our plates. As we the American eaters increase demand for fresh and organic fruits and vegetables, farmers increase production of those foods and they become easier for everyone to access. As we choose restaurants not just for how cheap or happy their meals are but also for how nutritious their food is and how fairly they pay their workers, we push the system toward the options that allow us—and our neighbors—to be healthier. As we understand better who grows our coffee and bananas and demand more fair trade and socially conscious sourcing, we help prevent hunger among farmers in the developing world thousands of miles away.
Of course, many of these changes mean that we need to change how we spend our money on food. Today, Americans spend the least on food (less than 9 percent of our household spending) compared to any other country, and yet we complain about skyrocketing healthcare costs. We buy two-for-one deals since they’re a good bargain, but more than half of all Americans say they are trying to lose weight and almost 70 percent of Americans are overweight. We want to save money by racing through the drive-thru, but then we spend more on weight-loss groups and gyms than ever before. We don’t want to admit that eating a homemade sandwich and taking a long walk at lunch would be both cheaper and healthier.
The summer is a great time to rethink how we the eaters shop for food. With an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available in every state in our nation and the chance to make the burgers at our next BBQ smaller and with higher-quality meat and whole grain buns, we can start the slow and necessary shifts in our habits that will lead to changes across the whole system.
Cooking and grilling more frequently at home with better-quality food and making homemade picnics of organic nut butter and local-jam sandwiches, pickled veggies, and patio-brewed sun tea is easier, cheaper, and healthier than you think.
If we limit our food purchases to things that we recognize as coming from a farm, foods that are fairly produced and are as local as possible, we will help nudge the system in the right direction, AND it might just be the weight-loss “diet” we’ve been looking for.
The solution to our health, our families’ health, and even big world issues is right under our noses—on our plates.
Ellen Gustafson is the author of We the Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the World published by Rodale Press in May 2014. She speaks around the world about changing the global food system and is the cofounder of both Food Tank and FEED. Learn more at www.ellengustafson.com, and follow Ellen @ellengustafson.