Nutrition Column – How Many Miles Has Your Food Traveled?

Tomatoes from Mexico, lettuce from California, apples from New Zealand and raspberries from Guatemala: today’s salad bar is well traveled. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Over the past century, the way food is produced, distributed and marketed has changed greatly. Farmers comprised about 40 percent of the labor force at the turn of the century; today, they account for less than 2 percent. Likewise, the number of farms has decreased from 6 million in 1900 to 2 million today, and a few of those that have survived have gotten larger. For example, four firms controlled 36 percent of the beef slaughter in 1980; today, four firms control 80 percent. The combination of these factors has led to a concentration of the food system, with relatively few large agribusinesses producing the bulk of our food supply.

While these changes have brought important benefits to consumers such as a wide variety and constant supply of fresh produce, they have not been without cost, said Jennifer Wilkins, who spoke recently at the L. F. Smith Conference for Nutrition Educators in Fort Collins. As the food system has become centralized, the distance between producers and consumers has greatly increased.

"Food miles is a term used to describe the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is purchased by consumers," explained Dr. Wilkins, who is from Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ithaca, New York. "Examples of environmental impacts associated with increased food miles include increased use of fossil fuels and more wear and tear on roadways. The most notable economic impact is felt locally since dollars that might have been used to buy locally produced goods don’t stay in the community."

Community food systems are those that emphasize local production, local economic development and social and cultural contributions. Components of community food systems include farmers’ markets,

roadside stands, pick-your-own farms, community supported agriculture farms and community kitchens. In New York, community food systems have been incorporated into the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program and the Commodity Foods program via the Farmers Market Nutrition Program and into the School Lunch Program through the Farm to School Initiative.

The Farmers Market Nutrition Program targets low-income women, children and older people who are eligible for WIC or commodity foods supplements and offers them $10 to $20 in coupons that are redeemable with participating growers at farmers markets. In addition to providing fresh fruits and vegetables, the program includes nutrition education that helps program participants learn how to use the produce in healthful recipes. Nationally, the program has been well received by WIC and elderly participants, and federal funding has continued to increase since the program’s inception in 1999. While Colorado is not yet one of the 35 states participating in the program, there has been much interest on the part of both growers and eligible participants.

The National School Lunch Program, begun in 1946, serves nutritious, low-cost meals to more than 27 million children in both public and nonprofit private schools each day. Statistics suggest that most school-aged children do not consume the recommended servings of fruit, vegetables or grains, and that they tend to replace milk products with soda or fruit drinks.

The Farm to School Initiative through the USDA hopes to increase both the economic health of small local farmers and the physical health of school children by encouraging the use of local foods in school lunch programs.

"This will not be an easy task since many schools now purchase frozen or ready-to-eat meals and may not have the equipment or the knowledge to cook meals ‘from scratch’ using fresh produce," Wilkins said. "However, even taking small steps like modifying menus to take advantage of locally grown produce when it’s in season and focusing on root vegetables during the winter and early spring can go a long way in helping to re-localize the food system and to promote community-based agriculture."