This post is the first of a series on Food and Philanthropy. Scroll down to find out what’s next.

Why do we live in a world where it’s cheaper to buy Froot Loops than it is real fruit?

This is one of my favorite questions posed by Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA. For those of you who haven’t heard of Slow Food USA by now, it’s a network of volunteers, members and supporters working to make food and farming good, clean and fair. I tuned in to Viertel and others this week on a Council on Foundations webinar called Eat, Drink and Be Sustainable, which shared ideas for how philanthropy can support the farm-to-table movement. Guest speakers included Kathleen de Chadendes of the s’Cool Food Initiative, Orfalea Foundations, and Cat Gund, Producer/Director of the documentary “What’s On Your Plate?”

As a writer and a certified natural foods chef, I’m fascinated by food and its ability to bring people together. Food creates commonality. It connects us to each other and our environment. When we gather in a kitchen or around a table, we share food, stories, traditions. This isn’t something that happens in the drive-thru or down the cereal aisle.

I don’t consider myself at the moment as someone with a lot of disposable income, and yet, I buy my groceries at Whole Foods and other natural foods markets, and my fruits and vegetables at a local farmer’s market (which happens to be right across the street from my house, every Sunday year-round – love California). I try to choose food that reflects my values, and I’m willing to pay top dollar for it.  I realize that not everyone can or chooses to do this, but shouldn’t they at least have the option?

Our current food system says no, as access to real food is a real issue. Viertel cited that only 8 percent of African Americans live in a community where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables. I wonder: what’s on the plates of the remaining 92 percent? Something tells me it looks a whole lot like processed salt, fat and sugar.

According to Viertel, good food—meaning good for the people who grow it, for the people who eat it, and for the planet—should be a right, not a privilege.

As the documentary Food, Inc. pointed out, it’s cheaper to feed a family of four at Burger King, than it is to buy and cook fresh food from scratch. The result? Most people eat really bad, and then pay for it later in healthcare costs. Or their kids pay for it. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that one of every three babies born in the year 2000 will develop Type II diabetes. Among children of color, that number is one in two.

If trends in food and eating continue this way, children born today will have a shorter life span than their parents. How is that possible?

The good news is, there are more people out there on a local level who want to do something about our food system, and the movement is building. Like all good movements, this one needs funding–and a little funding in the right place could make all the difference. So far, funders have been more willing to support small projects directly (such as planting a school garden) than to supporting the movement as a whole. According to Viertel, what needs to happen now is big structural change to our food system on the federal level.  “We’ve got to push for policy that serves citizens and farmers first,” he said. It’s going to take a movement–and money–to make this happen.

We need more than willing funders to make this change. Each of us, as parents, teachers, shoppers and just plain eaters, have a role to play in changing our food system–in creating more demand for real food, and also in demanding that everyone has equal access to it. It requires us to take responsibility for what’s on our plate, and realize that we do cast a vote with every food item we buy….be it apples or Apple Jacks, fruit or Froot. What’s your vote?

What can we do to change our food future? Send me your comments here–any ideas or resources will help. I look forward to continuing our conversation.

This is Part I of a series on food and philanthropy. Next: Find out which foundations are working to bring real food to the plates of many. Click “Subscribe to this Blog” to stay tuned!

Showing 4 comments
  • Rick Jones

    Good post.

    I read somewhere once that 1,000 calories of junk food cost something like $2.00, while 1,000 calories of nutritionally balanced food cost something like $15.00. I don’t think those are the actual figures, but they were in that ballpark.

    I also saw an article once about how — in rural areas — almost the only food (or should I say “calorie”) sources are convenience stores. And you know what kind of calories they sell.

    Is it any wonder that we have an obesity and diabetes crisis in this country?

    “Crisis,” you say?

    I also read that one of the former Surgeons General (or someone of equivalent stature) said that — if left unchecked — obesity and diabetes will eventually eat up the entire health care budget of the United States.

  • Auburn Meadow Farm

    Somehow I missed this webinar – thanks for the great post.

    I think about this all the time. Currently, among the obvious obstacles from corporations and lobbyists, I fear the cultural shift required for at risk families to value paying higher food prices for less quantity may be a little daunting.

    Do I want them to have such food more than they want to have it? I was just wondering about a related issue – the gentrification of meat – on my blog. Is the rise in crafts like charcuterie and “peasant” foods driving the prices of well raised traditionally inexpensive cuts of meat out of reach for low income folks? And, if so, is it a good thing?

    Good for the farmers (at least the ones who understand sales and marketing), but another quality food solution removed for low income eaters? It’s so simple, yet so complex……

  • Sharrie Williams

    As always Elaine, you hit the nail on the head as far as having a timely topic written well and makes you think. Of course I agree with you and wish that American children could be raised the way they were 50 years ago. The situation will be the decline of our country.

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