Coalition Report

by Kathleen Logan Smith
Director of Environmental Policy Coalition For The Environment

Eating: A Delicious Political Act

In his essay, “The Pleasures of Eating,” Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry declares that “eating is an agricultural act.”

He skewers the industrialized food system for the severed connections between eaters and their food, their food and the land. He makes an impassioned case for how and why everyone who eats has a stake in agriculture:
“Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”

He underscores the connection between healthy land, healthy food, and healthy people. The fact that many food consumers would not instinctively understand the vital connection between the soil and the dinner plate underscores how deep the chasm is between us and our food system; how alienated we are from the knowledge of what we are eating, how it was grown, where it was grown, how the animals were treated, how workers fared, and how nutritious it may be (or not). Berry laments how passive we have become in our food consumption, how dependent on an industrialized system that is most concerned about volume and price rather than health, nutrition, community, fairness, ecology, or safety.

He explains: “The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical — in short, a victim. When food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.”

In order to help remedy our collective cultural amnesia, as Berry describes it, MCE has completed the Saint Louis Regional Food Study. The Study examines the area within 100 miles of Saint Louis – 59 counties, in two states – and we call it our Foodshed. The Study looks at food-related health indicators, agricultural employment, farm land acres, number of farms, the food we grow, import, and eat, the animals we raise, the money we spend, and the challenges of accessing healthy food.

Our findings show that we eat too few fruits and vegetables, too much meat, too much sugar, and too few whole grains. Our soft drink consumption rate is startling and downright frightening to any conscientious nutritionist: we drink more than 60 gallons of soft drinks per person per year in our area – that contributes undoubtedly to our high rate of diabetes (9.5%) and obesity in adults (30.4%).

Interestingly, the vast majority of our farmland is producing crops for the processed food system. Of the 9.8 million crop acres in our Foodshed, 9.2 million are planted with crops destined for livestock feed and processed foods. Less than 0.1% is growing fruits and vegetables. Instead, we import fruits and vegetables from all over the globe year-round, with little awareness of the chemicals used on them, the nutrients lost in shipping, the people who grew them, or the food safety risks implicit with such scale and handling.
Loaded with examples of local food innovators, enticing questions about keeping the billions of dollars we spend on food in our region, and startling health and consumption data that helps make the case for systemic change, the Saint Louis Regional Food System Study is meant to be a tool for individuals and organizations working for better food, food access, and farmers.

It is our hope that the Study helps people understand the food system we have and that it spurs more questions, more research, and more answers. By examining the food system we have, we ask: Is this the kind of food system we want?

Visit www.moenviron.org to learn more.
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