What’s Food Got To Do With It?

What does access to healthy food have to do with clean water? Bear with me for a minute, but hopefully you’ll agree that there’s a link.

Earlier this week at Wingspread we hosted a briefing entitled “Beyond Food Deserts” where guest speakers Dr. Samina Raja of the University of Buffalo – SUNY and Young Kim of the Fondy Food Center in Milwaukee told us why we need to get beyond the concept of a “food desert” and start thinking about our food system wholistically.  You don’t have to dig too far into U.S. statistics on obesity and diabetes to know that our food system problems are not limited to the urban poor. The system’s problems affect us all.

Samina and Young laid out the challenges with our current system, as well as a hopeful route forward.  Farmers markets are on the rebound, young people are taking an interest in gardening, farming, and cooking healthy foods, some cities are creating their own publicly controlled food processing and distribution centers, and being a ‘foodie’ is in vogue. (Ok, they didn’t say that last thing, but it’s true).  We were inspired by the stories of the Growing Green project in Buffalo NY and Fondy Food Center’s proactive efforts to secure farmland for small farmers, and to teach young people (who frequently are doing their own meal preparation) how to cook fresh foods as opposed to microwaving a frozen pizza.

But what does this have to do with clean water?

As the evening was wrapping up, I mentioned to Samina my frustration at how hard it is to find data that link particular farming practices with quantitative impacts on water quality.  It’s natural to make the assumption that farms that practice organic growing methods, and small farms that have more diverse cropping patterns and less intensive cultivation probably have higher quality water in the streams that run through them than farms that have large-scale monocrops with high inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  But you’d be amazed at how hard it is to find data that address this question – to verify it or refute it.

Samina had an answer:  “Here’s what you need to read: ‘Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century'”.  Boy did I feel smug – I have it on my desk, and have actually read portions of it.  It weighs in at about the equivalent of a bag of sugar, so it’s a bit intimidating.  But, I told her, even this enormous, heavily researched and documented study has very little large-scale data that addresses my question. … Sigh … But the data that I have been able to find in there do indicate that sustainable farming practices tend to lead to better soil health, fewer nutrients leaching into the water, fewer chemical inputs running off into streams, etc. And because the small farmers that provide local produce tend toward sustainable farming practices, they tend to contribute to better water quality. So healthy food is good for our bodies, good for our local economy, good for water quality, which in turn is good for our communities.  Good food, clean water, healthy people, thriving communities – they all go together.  And if we take care of them all together, perhaps the only thing to suffer will be the sales of diabetes medications.

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