The wealth of socially conscious food in Ithaca
By Andrew Casler
After five consecutive months of record-high food prices, new breath has revived debate about the importance of local food infrastructure.
With implications of food access embroiled in mainstream political rhetoric, it is important to first acknowledge slant on either side of the issue. The right is warning against Obama’s push for “food socialism” because of expanding FDA regulations on the food industry; the left is concerned with the possibility of a food system collapse because of climate change and overly consolidated ownership.
Even in Ithaca, it doesn’t take many questions about the food industry to hear nutritionists, farmers and organic grocery store managers discuss their worries of systemic collapse.
One embodiment of Ithaca’s progressive food culture is West Haven Farm. Since its inception in 1992, this certified organic farm has offered sliding-scale prices on Community Supported Agriculture shares based on a shareholder’s income. CSA shareholders get regular deliveries of fresh local food at the farms from which they buy shares.
Todd McLean, manager of West Haven Farm, speaks from experience when discussing the problem of access to nutritious food. Raised in a fairly poor neighborhood of Kendall Park, N.J., he grew up on food stamps and didn’t like vegetables as a kid.
“I thought vegetables [only] came in a can or a bag that you boiled in some water,” he said.
McLean is now working to break the stigma that healthy food is always bland and unsatisfying. He is a college-level farming instructor during summers who donates West Haven’s excess crops to local food pantries and is involved with Groundswell and Healthy Food For All, two organizations that work to make nutritious food accessible for more people.
Ithaca’s co-op grocery store, GreenStar, is also working to make its food accessible to more people. Two months ago, the store instituted a 15-percent discount for low-income households, and it provides a free one-year membership to the co-op.
Another player in the local landscape of food access is the American Red Cross, whose Tompkins County food pantry serves an average of 150 families per month.
Homeless Services Director John Ward says that although the Red Cross is currently working to expand its food distribution operations through partnerships with Ithaca College and Cornell University, there isn’t very much non-canned, non-preserved food at the pantry.
“We serve primarily non-perishable foods out of our food pantry, but from time to time, we will have some fresh produce,” Ward said. “The problem with fresh food is its short shelf life, and most pantries are only open one day a week. … A lot of the pantries do not have the storage facilities for fresh produce, and so it has to come in and out the door within a day or two.”
According to Ithaca College nutrition professor Julia Lapp, aside from getting less nutrition on a per-calorie basis with processed foods, modern artificial sugars and preservatives are a major contributor to obesity. High-fructose corn syrup, a staple in virtually all processed food, has been proven to cause more weight gain than normal table sugar because fructose does not satisfy hunger effectively.
Despite the problems of processed foods, Lapp says that eating fresh isn’t a panacea solution.
“It’s not necessary to eat fresh foods, to be honest. But nutritionally, with fresh foods, you do get more vitamins that would get destroyed” by canning, freezing or simply exposure to air during shipment, Lapp said.
Joe Romano, the marketing manager of GreenStar co-op, says he thinks propagation of local food is the most effective way to make food more accessible, stabilize the world food system and provide consumers with nutritious food.
One thing that McLean, Romano and Lapp all have in common is that while discussing the benefits of organic foods, they mention the stigma associated with “organic.” The word is an informal synonym for “un-tasty, yuppie food.” They all agree that breaking through that stigma is one of the biggest hurdles to getting more people interested in nutritious food.
Romano made his case against the organic stigma by comparing organic practices to those of the fast-food industry. He describes a mainstream food system that is hijacked from reasonable practices—where food’s nutritional value is only as good as the marketing behind it, profit margins are the main ethics, and quality of life for livestock is seen only as a diminishing return.
“Food has been industrialized,” Romano said. “You can get a chicken that was ground into slurry, which is so disease-filled that it has to be soaked in an ammonia bath, dyed so that it isn’t pink and then formed into some kind of patties or nuggets and sold to you as chicken.”
With a highly consolidated food system relying on stomach-turning practices for higher output, the world food system is increasingly susceptible to failure—such as disease outbreaks or large-scale corporate bankruptcy. In contrast, local foods are diverse enough to minimize the food security problems that surface from over-consolidation, and the organic ethos is a baseline guide for producing nutritious food that is more beneficial to consumer health.
Andrew Casler is a senior journalism major who won’t be eating chicken nuggets any time soon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.