America’s Food: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
Better investment in and support of southern New England’s local food system would mean healthier economy, environment and people
April 20, 2015
The McDonald’s Corp. went public in 1965, and 15 years later it became one of the 30 companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In the 50 years since fast food first rang the Wall Street bell, the economics of the U.S. food system have changed dramatically, largely for the betterment of multinational behemoths and to the detriment of public health, the environment and local economies.
Millions of U.S. farms, many of them family run for generations, have folded, as government policy encourages supersized agricultural practices. Nearly two-thirds of the food produced in the United States now comes from Florida and drought-stricken California. In North Carolina, there are nine times more chickens on factory farms than there are people in the state.
The largest pork producer and processor in the United States, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, is owned by a Chinese company. Nearly 17 percent of the hogs slaughtered in the United States are confined in cages by Smithfield Foods.
A handful of global corporations — processors of meat and dairy, producers of seeds, manufacturers of fertilizers and pesticides, distributors and grocery retailers — dominate the world’s food system, giving the likes of Cargill, Dow, Monsanto, Nestle, Sysco and Walmart immense power to influence markets and pricing.
“During World War II 50 percent of the U.S workforce worked doing something that involved the farm industry,” Julian Forgue said during a recent conversation over cups of coffee at his restaurant, Julians, on Providence’s West Side. “Today that number is less than 2 percent. Our food was taken away from us after World War II, and we’ve broken down.”
A five-decade shift to a centralized food system has enabled powerful corporations to guide agricultural policies that place a premium on profits, often at the expense of the environment, workers and public health. Government subsidizes have helped transform the largest of these corporations into virtual monopolies. Shareholders now control the U.S. food system from farm to fork.
This shift has dramatically reshaped southern New England’s food economy and the region’s landscape. Highly processed food manufactured with subsidized high-fructose corn syrup, gassed with 1-methylcyclopropene, filled with emulsifiers, preserved with butylated hydroxyltoluene, prettied up with artificial colors and made tasty by artificial flavoring replaced locally sourced food.
Fast-food joints — SONIC Drive-In recently announced agreements for franchise development in Rhode Island — chain restaurants and parking lots replaced farms, farm stands and orchards. Buying fresh fish and shellfish on the docks directly from those who actually caught it became a lost experience.
This 21st-century food system leaves much of the country, including southern New England, considerably less food secure. Rhode Island, for example, has one to three days’ worth of food should a disaster sever access to the centralized supply chain, according to Leo Pollock, network coordinator for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council.
“For decades, food and food systems weren’t seen as a legitimate economic sector,” Pollock said. “You’re starting to see a shift to a more regional and local system.”
Land of the lost
Between 1982 and 2007, more than 23 million acres — an area the size of Indiana — of U.S. agricultural land was lost to development, according to the American Farmland Trust’s National Resources Inventory. Not a single state in the continental United States was left untouched.
In fact, according to the American Farmland Trust, the most fertile land was developed at a disproportionately high rate. Thirty-eight percent of the agricultural land developed nationwide was prime — land that is best suited to grow food.
During those 25 years, Rhode Island developed 22 percent of its farmland and development increased at a pace that was nine times faster than the state’s population growth, according to Scott Millar, administrator of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Sustainable Watersheds Office.
It’s no surprise then that Rhode Island leads the nation in farmland lost to development, and both Connecticut and Massachusetts also have seen much of their farmland replaced by subdivisions and strip malls.
Farmland preservation is the key to building a sustainable local/regional food system, according to Jesse Rye, co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island. “If there are no local farms, there’s no local food,” he said. “Rhode Island farmers have been good stewards of the land for a long time.”
Some progress on the farmland preservation front in southern New England is being made. Earlier this month, for example, Lial Acres in Warren, a family-run farm for more than a century, became the 100th Rhode Island farm to be permanently protected by the R.I. Agricultural Land Preservation Commission (ALPC) for agricultural use.
Lial Acres has been in production for 125 years and is currently used for diversified vegetable production, along with some hay and grazing land. It’s owned by Bertha Lial, widow of Manuel Lial, who ran the farm as a dairy operation for decades, after his father and grandfather before him.
“By recognizing Lial Acres, we are demonstrating the importance of supporting families who have dedicated their lives to farming and to preserving a culture of farming for future generations to experience and enjoy,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said during an April 16 ceremony to celebrate the preservation of the 40.5-acre farm, 60 percent of which consists of prime agricultural soils.
The purchase price for the development rights to Lial Acres was $385,000, which was funded with $192,500 from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, $75,000 from The Nature Conservancy and The Champlin Foundations, and $117,500 from ALPC.
Rye and others ecoRI News spoke with for this series, such as Stephanie Reusch of the Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network, however, don’t believe southern New England as a whole is doing enough to help local farms be viable.
Rhode Island, for instance, has the highest cost of land in the nation, at $13,600 per acre — three times the average cost in the Northeast and six times higher than the national average. This high cost of land is making it nearly impossible to have financially viable farm businesses in the state.
The high cost of dwindling land in southern New England also makes it difficult to protect farmland from development. The southeastern Massachusetts counties of Bristol, Norfolk and Plymouth, for example, have a number of “hot spots,” where there are high percentages of prime agricultural soils unprotected, according to a 2014 study prepared for the Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network.
The protection of these lands is critical to supporting the local food system and increasing food production and food security in the region, according to the 126-page report.
The University of Rhode Island — once known as the State Agricultural School — didn’t think so, when, in 2012, it decided to rip up some 15 acres of prime farmland in Kingston to make room for more parking.
“It’s a hard job, and the global food economy makes it even more challenging,” Rye said. “If we don’t promote and support local food, it puts green space at risk and farms go away.”
Increasing the amount of land/space used in the region to farm, however, is just one part of growing the local food economy.
“A vibrant agricultural community in Massachusetts is essential to building healthy communities and a stronger economy,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at a recent Statehouse event celebrating the importance of local food.
The governor proclaimed March 31 as Massachusetts Agricultural Day, and presented the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation with a citation recognizing its century of service.
But growing the region’s local food economy will require much more than marginally funded Buy Local campaigns and their companion websites (Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island), holding annual Agricultural Days, handing out citations, and making Boston cream Massachusetts’ official pie and doughnut.
It requires more than naming North Providence-based Yacht Club Soda Rhode Island’s official state soda in 2004 and then spending the next decade contracting with corporate giants to supply the Statehouse with pop and bottled water.
Increasing southern New England’s food production to build healthier communities and stronger economies will take more than pats on the back and a few “attaboys.” It will require us to radically change the way we think about food.
About 90 percent of the food consumed in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut comes from outside New England, and most food-related jobs in the region are tied to the lower-paying service industry.
In Rhode Island, for instance, less than 5 percent of the food consumed within its borders is grown or raised locally. If the state could produce and/or process another 9 percent, some 4,000 new jobs could be created, according to Christopher Ausura, food systems coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH).
“Food has an immense impact on the state,” he said. “No one will argue against the subjective benefits of local food, but few are investing in the system. Traditional lenders typically don’t make those kind of loans.”
In an October 2014 letter to the supervising planner of the Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program, the R.I. Food Policy Council’s Pollock made the case for the state to better invest in farming and local food production. He noted that agriculture provides numerous economic benefits: farms not only produce food, but they also ensure access to open space and protect natural resources.
“With more than 1,200 farms comprising 70,000 acres in total, and with a 42 percent increase in the number of farms since 2002, Rhode Island’s agricultural sector has consistently been undervalued as an economically significant sector,” Pollock wrote.
In fact, since the financial crisis of 2007-08, southern New England’s food industry has actually prospered — one of the very few sectors in the region that can claim growth. Lawmakers, bureaucrats and foodies frequently point to this success.
The State Economic Development Plan for Rhode Island even notes that “plant-based and agriculture businesses in Rhode Island have a total impact of $1.78 billion per year and 12,372 jobs,” and that “Rhode Island ranks among the states with the highest percentage of food sales direct to the public, amounting to more than $6 million in sales in 2007 and the highest sales at farmer’s markets.”
Yet, there seems to be no real coordinated effort regionally, or even within the individual states, to seize upon the popularity of locally sourced food, according to, well, just about everyone ecoRI News spoke with, from government officials to farmers to local food advocates.
Consumers, thanks to the local food movement, are increasingly reflecting on the origin, environmental impacts and health consequences of what they eat and drink — the popularity of locally crafted beer and handcrafted wines are growing alongside locally sourced food. There also are growing concerns about pollution, deforestation, greenhouse-gas emissions, and energy and water demands associated with industrial food and beverage manufacturing.
“Sustainable, local farming is good for the earth,” Farm Fresh’s Rye said. “But, if we follow the links along the local food system chain, are we making the most out of its resources?”
Forgue, the owner of Julians, said southern New England needs to put people to work growing food, to strengthen the local economy and improve public health. Forgue said he gets much of his restaurant’s food from local vendors, and he defined local as being within 300 miles.
Rhode Island lawmakers created the Inter-Agency Food & Nutrition Policy Advisory Council three years ago to examine the barriers that are keeping the state from developing a strong, sustainable food economy. Lots of meetings have since been held and notes taken.
Efforts to beef up southern New England’s food system would preserve farmland, encourage sustainable agricultural practices and benefit public health. But, more importantly, at least when it comes to grabbing the attention of lawmakers, providing the local food economy with more support would help strengthen a still-sagging economy.
Feeding people makes money; if it didn’t, Monsanto wouldn’t be doing business with some 70 food and beverage companies. But investment in food production and processing takes a backseat to high tech and real estate — not surprising, considering high-tech investors typically see a 12 percent to 15 percent return.
Investing instead in, say, a farm, an investor would be lucky to see a 3 percent return. That percentage discrepancy is a real obstacle. Investors, legislators and policymakers need to be shown why investing in the local food system makes sense and cents.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here for local food,” said the DOH’s Ausura, referring to Rhode Island specifically and southern New England in general. “There’s multiple players involved in the food system, so how do we move the needle in that direction in a meaningful way?”
The region’s burgeoning food economy needs to be pushed forward by financial support and business assistance. Farmers need greenhouses to help them extend the growing season. Farm equipment is expensive.
“There are few targeted loans for this industry, and there’s little start-up support,” Pollock said. “That’s not unique to food, but if we want to make this sector a priority, we need to support the local food system with money and assistance. We need investors who are willing to accept lower returns to support society and the environment. We’re seeing a tiny shift in that direction.”
Demand for local fare encourages local food producers, increases the production and distribution of local food, and supports cooperative food-buying programs. Meeting the needs of this increasing demand means more money earned and spent here.
Southern New England’s three states are starting to better understand the connection between food and the economy, according to Pollock. “States are beginning to organize ways to strengthen their local food systems,” he said. “The coordination and funding of this movement is in its infancy.”
Local food advocates maintain that if Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were to better support policies and programs that encourage residents to grow, sell, buy and eat more locally sourced food, it would strengthen neighborhoods and communities. They say increased support would create local jobs and build local careers. It is, after all, difficult to outsource local food production.
Pollock noted that growing more food locally also means additional jobs are needed for processing and distribution. He said workers would be needed to flash freeze and can fruits and vegetables for sale year-round. Facilities and infrastructure would require construction, plumbing and heating, and maintenance. Local delivery trucks would need drivers and repair.
“The economic impact would be significant. These aren’t insignificant businesses,” he said. “But at what scale does this make sense? A significant amount of infrastructure would be needed. The price point will ultimately make that decision.”
According to a study by Michigan State University, food hubs, on average, work with 80 producers, most of which are small or mid-sized. These businesses, on average, employ 19 paid staff and have annual sales exceeding $3.5 million.
In addition to the support food hubs provide to local and regional farmers, they also have the power to spur job creation and stimulate local economic activity, according to the Michigan State study.
The report suggests that even a small percentage shift in local food production has the potential to create thousands of new jobs. When food hubs buy services and goods from local and regional farmers, money re-circulates through the local economy, creating a multiplier effect, where every $1 of demand for food hub products generates an additional $0.63 in related industrial sectors, according to the study.
Big Ag doesn’t strengthen the local, regional or even the national economy. For example, U.S. factory farms — four companies own 84 percent of the beef market and four companies control 66 percent of the hog industry — hire as few workers as possible, and typically buy equipment, supplies and feed from the same agricultural conglomerates that buy their products. There’s no trickle-down effect, just unprotected lagoons of seeping animal waste.
Besides the obvious benefit to public health and the environment, a comprehensive sustainability plan for a local/regional food system would significantly boost southern New England’s economy, according to a smorgasbord of studies and reports.
Even when the hidden costs of factory farming are ignored, industrial agriculture is often less efficient at producing food than smaller, sustainable farms, according to GRACE Communications Foundation, a New York-based organization focused on increasing awareness of the environmental and public-health issues created by the country’s current food, water and energy systems.
Sustainable farms support local economies by providing jobs for members of the community and buying supplies from local businesses, and diversified farms produce more food per acre than large-scale, monoculture farms, according to GRACE.
A strong local food system supports small farms and independent grocery stores, creating jobs and driving economic growth, as money and capital stay in the community, according to the National League of Cities. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, which represents 19,000 municipalities in 49 states, also notes that small, decentralized food systems are less vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain or lapses in quality control, and communities that are more self-sufficient have more food security.
To better position the regional food economy won’t cost southern New England a dime — at least to start. The first steps require policy and regulation changes that support a local food system. While all three states have taken baby steps to create programs and adopt policies that encourage local food production, Pollock noted these two areas are the missing links in southern New England’s food chain.
“To what degree we support a local food economy comes down to policies and programs,” he said. “We haven’t gotten there yet.”
Among the most effective policy changes the three states could make would be to rework purchasing guidelines to better include local vendors. Government spending — money already being spent on food — has the potential to enhance southern New England’s economy, because of the impact state and federal contracts have on the food system.
The state of Rhode Island alone spends about $10 million annually on food, according to the Department of Administration (DOA). Another $340 million or so in federal money annually passes through Rhode Island to be spent on food.
These state and federal tax dollars are largely spent on commercially processed products manufactured by conglomerates. Relying on local food to meet the needs of hospitals, universities and state agencies would help strengthen the region’s economy.
The Inter-Agency Food & Nutrition Policy Advisory Council and the R.I. Food Policy Council are working with agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, to better incorporate local food into state purchasing. Both councils also are working with school districts to build stronger farm-to-school programs.
“Spending more public dollars on locally-grown food to serve in state agencies such as prisons, hospitals, and child care centers would deliver a boon to the state economy and would encourage more Rhode Island farmers to start or expand their farming operations in the state,” according to a November 2014 report commissioned by the R.I. Food Policy Council.
The council identified institutional food procurement as a priority area and asked the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic in 2013 to develop recommendations. Its 27-page report noted three key points:
Increasing the amount of locally grown food served in state agencies would likely improve the nutritional quality of the meals, since many local products are fresher and less processed than food that has been shipped long distances.
Local food procurement by public institutions would expand economic opportunities for farmers, food businesses and other workers in Rhode Island.
The transportation of food across long distances is a energy intensive, and Rhode Island can reduce its carbon footprint from transportation by switching to foods not transported over hundreds or thousands of miles.
Strengthening the regional and local food economies, however, will require more than just rewriting procurement policy and streamlining regulations. It also will require some significant financial investment, both public and private. Better marketing and branding of local food, for example, could attract more tourists/foodies to the region and help small-scale farmers better access federal money and foundation grants.
The region also lacks the infrastructure needed to support greater local food production. More processing facilities — Rhode Island, for instance, only has one U.S. Department of Agriculture-regulated slaughterhouse for poultry — would encourage farmers and producers to expand operations. Infrastructure upgrades would likely make more local food more affordable to more people.
The recently created Southeastern Massachusetts Livestock Association has secured two parcels of land in Westport, Mass., in hopes of building a slaughterhouse to keep South Coast farmers from having to travel to the western part of the state for the service. The proposed plant would serve as a meat shop, smokehouse and dry-aging facility. The estimated cost is nearly $4 million.
“We don’t need more jobs for highly qualified people. We have plenty of those jobs,” Ausura said. “We need to create jobs for skilled labor. Local food does that. You can easily train a person who worked at a button factory to flash freeze vegetables.”
Supporters of building a diverse local food economy believe a bolstered regional food industry would support plenty of jobs, some of which, according to projections, could pay up to $50,000 a year.
Back to the future
While growing the local food economy will take infrastructure investment, farm and farmland conservation, and policy support, it also will require changing five decades of eating habits and addressing the issue of accessibility. Neither one is an easy task.
The global food system that feeds us manufactures cheap sustenance, and we’ve developed a taste for it. America’s collective culinary contributions are served in buckets and bags by a colonel, a clown, a king and a jack in the box.
“There’s a lot of behaviors associated with food that are entrenched,” Rye said. “The buying habits of individuals and institutions are entrenched.”
While locally sourced food has become easier to find and more affordable in the past two decades, accessibility is still a substantial obstacle, especially during the southern New England winter.
“We’ve made good progress, but we have to make is easier,” Rye said. “We need to make local food better accessible and not just to farmers market shoppers. Buying locally is like voting with your knife and fork. Eating with the seasons is not always convenient but you will better understand the ramifications of the global food system.”
Recruiting voters, however, will take patience, education and assigning more value to the things we eat. It also will mean telling stories.
“We have no connection to our food. We don’t know the producers, the farmers,” said Reusch, the part-time coordinator for the Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network. “We haven’t valued food in general for a while. We don’t know the full story behind our food.”
To hear those stories, talk to a local farmer or chef, or visit a local farm or community garden. People like to talk about food, especially those growing it, preparing it and cooking it.
“There’s a story that goes with the carrots you bought at a farmers market,” Rye said. “There’s no connection if those carrots were sent to a huge distributor and handled by a bunch of people.”
So what might a strengthened local/regional food system look like? A patchwork of small farms on derelict city lots in Providence, Woonsocket, New Bedford, Fall River, Hartford and Bridgeport, to name just a few places. The rebirth of farm stands. The continued growth of community-supported agriculture and farmers markets, and better-supported seafood and dairy collaboratives.
The average age of southern New England’s farmers would be closer to middle-aged than retirement — the average age of New England farmers is 57.6, up from 56.5 in 2007, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture.
Many of the region’s old mills would be reborn as packaging, processing and distribution centers. Food scrap, both residential and commercial, would be composted, to help keep people employed and to keep the region’s soil fertile.
New technologies and innovative minds would continue to advance aquaponic systems and rooftop gardening techniques. A growing collection of greenhouses, high tunnels and hoop houses would keep farmers growing year-round.
Join the DiscussionView Comments
Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.
Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.