Last week the headline That Awkward Moment When You Realize It Takes Almost Nothing to Fix Food In America popped up in my newsfeed. Curious, I clicked and found an easy-on-the-eyes infographic titled Plant the Plate that pieced together how we “fix food in America”. The logic made sense to someone.
“1) Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.” Nope. We don’t.
Even though I serve a vegetable at almost every lunch and dinner in this house, we aren’t eating the recommended amount. We do better when the garden is in full production mode. My only excuse . . . as a mom, I get tired of arguing over a bowl of steamed cauliflower. So, I just stop serving it. (But I have been known to fold a cup or two into mashed potatoes. Shhhhh . . . don’t tell the family.)
“2) American farmers could grow the additional fruits and vegetables we need.” I didn’t know we needed to grow more. According to #1 we just don’t eat enough of them.
How many acres are in fruit and vegetable production in the U.S.? According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (the 2012 census is currently being released bit by bit.), 5,301,229 million acres were planted to berries, tree nuts, tree fruits, citrus and non-citrus fruits.
Vegetables, potatoes, and melons are lumped together in the census and account for 4,682,588 acres.
I also found a press release from American Farmland Trust, dated 2010, that states we need to increase fruit and vegetable production by 13 million acres in order to supply everyone with their daily allotment of produce-sourced vitamins and minerals.
Briefly . . . switching from one crop to another is doable. But a farmer’s choice of what to plant depends on several things – soil, environment, climate, market access, infrastructure, labor and input costs. And no magic wand exists to turn 13 million acres of concrete parking lots back to productive, fertile acreage.
Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables because we just don’t. It isn’t because produce is lacking in grocery stores, restaurants or school cafeterias. I am fully aware of the issues of food deserts in rural America and big cities, but would contend that an improvement in infrastructure and attention to food waste would help tremendously. For the majority of us, however, we do have choices. Choosing to eat broccoli is not dependent on the supply of it.
“3) Increasing fruit and vegetable production could bring important benefits to local economies.” This line is followed by the insinuation that we’d see job creation and more people eating kale and kiwi if we only grew more.
My experience growing fruits and vegetables comes from the large two plot garden my mom tended and my current garden that grows by a row each year. I really like to garden. Planting seeds, coaxing seedlings from the ground, watering, weeding, harvesting . . . sitting garden-side with the kids enjoying a fresh-picked cantaloupe, that’s heaven for me. But, not everyone wants to spend afternoons collecting dirt under their nails in order to triumphantly exclaim, “I grew this!”
Further, implying that planting more fruits and vegetables would mean more jobs ignores the very hot topic of immigration reform and the folks who make up the labor pool working in produce fields every day. Unemployed American citizens could very well do that work, but have chosen not to for whatever reason. An extra field of green beans won’t spark a rise in American employment.
“4) For America to grow more fruits and vegetables, local food systems need increased public support.”
Now we’ve made it to the policy portion of the graphic, which is referring to support from federal dollars. Commodity crops, specifically corn and soybeans, usually draw the most ire from pundits, farmers and consumers when discussions focus on the farm bill. Historically, these crops have taken a larger slice of the farm bill pie. But keep in mind, food and nutrition programs continue to make up the majority of the bill’s expenditures; this year rolling in at 78 percent.
The newest farm bill has erased subsidies for commodity crops and offers assistance to growers in the form of crop insurance. Just like other insurance, farmers have to pay in, in order to receive any compensation in the event of . . . an event (i.e. drought, flood, never-ending winter – I include the latter in jest). Direct payments no longer exist.
We don’t grow corn and soybeans on our farm because the government pays us to do so. We grow corn and soybeans because our farm is located in north central Illinois. This is corn country. The soils, the climate, the infrastructure, the markets all lend themselves to success in commodity crops.
We wouldn’t convert to growing tomatoes even if a government program offered incentives. Why? We farm in north central Illinois. We’d need infrastructure, a change in soil type, climate, environment, and a larger labor pool. Certain crops are raised in certain places for reasons outside of any grand government conspiracy.
Which brings me back to my original thought and personal opinion . . . “fixing” food consumption in America is less about our current food chain and more about individual responsibility. Just because a farmer grows spinach, doesn’t mean the population will choose to eat it.