Reconnecting with Our Food
Do Americans feel connected to farmers and food? With the increasing industrialization and consolidation of agriculture in the U.S. and globally, American consumers are getting further and further away from their food — physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Efforts like the farm to table movement, farmers markets, community gardens and foodie culture are moving in the right direction to create more understanding for consumers and connect them to the source of their food, but there’s always room for improvement, especially in a time when the ingrained norms of our food system are working to keep us disconnected.
What do we know about where our food comes from?
An online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy last year found a frighteningly low level of “agricultural literacy” among Americans: 16 million people thought that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, 40% of California 4th, 5th and 6th graders didn't know that hamburgers come from cows, orange juice was the nation's most popular "fruit," and french fries and potato chips were the nation's most popular "vegetables.”
The 2017 Michigan State University Food Literacy Poll also exposed an overwhelming disconnect between Americans and their food. The question, “How often do you seek information about where your food was grown and how it was produced?” exposed that 35% of the people surveyed rarely look into where their food comes from, and 13% never do.
In 2011, two national surveys by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s (USFRA) Food Dialogues project collected data on opinions, attitudes and questions consumers and farmers and ranchers have about the current and future state of how food is grown and raised in the U.S.; the results revealed that “lack of access to information, as well as no interest or passion for the topic, have divided consumer opinion on the direction of agriculture.” But interestingly, while 72% of consumers identified as knowing “nothing or very little about farming or ranching,” 69% of them think about food production "at least “somewhat often.” So even where there is interest in knowing where food comes from, there still seem to be barriers preventing consumers from finding out.
When asked about their impressions of consumers, 86% of farmers and ranchers responded that “the average consumer has little to no knowledge about modern farming and ranching,” and 58% felt that “consumers have a completely inaccurate perception of farming and ranching.” Their top priorities for what they want consumers to better understand are: 1) the effect of pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics on food, 2) where food comes from in general, 3) proper care of livestock and poultry, 4) the effect of government regulations on farming and ranching, and 5) the economic value of agriculture.
Additionally, what few Americans know about farmers is that “working two jobs is almost a requirement to farm” and that while “the average farmer usually owns land and other assets, most of which are necessary for production,” she also “requires non-farming income to make the farming operation work successfully.”
Where are the missing connections?
It’s clear that many Americans don’t know about what or who is involved in the production of their food. But why is that? One obvious explanation is that only 2% of the country works in farming, so that leaves 98% of the country to find information about it out of their own volition Since the rise of processed food and agricultural industrialization, each American farmer has had to feed so many more people, now that there are less farmers.
The amount of processing and travel that our food goes through before it gets to us also explains why we feel detached from it: it somehow just shows up in our grocery stores after flying sometimes thousands of miles from an unnamed farm across the country or the world.
Why should we know or care where our food comes from anyway? And why does it matter who’s growing our food? From a health-centric perspective, it’s always important to know what we’re putting in our bodies. But from a broader perspective of social and environmental justice, knowing who grows our food and where it comes from allows us to better understand the consequences of our food purchases — on farmers, animals, and the environment. If we understand the process of producing something, we can understand its impacts and therefore our own impacts as consumers of it. Take beef for example: if we understand the inputs and environmental impact of raising beef, and even the different practices of various producers, that might influence which brand of beef we buy or whether we buy it at all. And for seasonal produce, learning about its production will allow us to make more informed decisions about when we buy them.
On top of all that, having more of an understanding of food production and farmers lives allows us to feel more connected to farmers, making farm policy feel more relevant and better enabling and encouraging us to be advocates in the realm of farm policy.
But making these new connections will require some ideological shifts… The crux of connecting with food is breaking through the impasses we’ve constructed with dichotomies: farmer vs. non farmer and urban vs. rural. We view these as total opposites, which creates a sense of “other” and acts as a barrier to understanding and connecting with each other and our food.
The farmer vs. non-farmer disconnect is exhibited by the low levels of food and agricultural literacy of the average American consumer. Even the concept of farmer and non-farmer responsibility to each other (the theme of this blog page) assumes a dichotomy, but the goal of this page is to help connect non-farmers to farmers rather than continue keeping them separate like the current industrial system does, with food production so far away from consumers on levels of both physicality and understanding.
Urban and rural landscapes, cultures, and communities are largely seen as opposites, with suburbs as a middle ground. Possibly due to their lack of interaction, there is a disconnect between their beliefs about each other. According to a Pew study, the majority of people in each type of community don’t believe that other communities understand their problems, but they think they understand the problems of other communities…
What communities believe about other communities:
What communities believe about themselves:
The study also revealed that rural and urban communities feel that the other doesn’t understand their values. This perceived lack of understanding between urban and rural communities is problematic because in reality they are connected and interdependent on many levels including food production and consumption as well as economics and politics. But the dichotomization and ideological separation of urban and rural limit their exposure to one another with an “out of sight, out of reach” mindset and perpetuate the perception that they have nothing in common and no effect on each other. The belief on behalf of rural communities that urban communities don’t understand them has the potential to make rural communities feel isolated and alienated, and this lack of understanding and connection might be a major barrier to urban involvement in farm policy and mainstream incorporation of rural politics.
In order to break the dichotomy between urban and rural, we need to explore the need for a new ethos development: an ethos that sees urban and rural as connected communities and focuses on their common goals about the future of agriculture and the American relationship to food and its production. Already, there are are well-meaning urban initiatives, but they could go one step further in establishing a broader ethos. They are connecting people to food but not necessarily to farmers.
Where do we already connect with food and farmers?
Farm to table
The farm to table movement brands itself on locally sourced ingredients, often organic, in response to the “processed food empire.” More and more restaurants are joining the trend, sometimes identifying as “farm-to-fork.” The principles behind it are mainly food security, proximity of food production to consumption, self reliance, and sustainability. The movement, along with the increasing demand for locally sourced groceries and farmers markets, came at the same time as the most recent American environmental and climate awakening, which makes sense since eating local avoids some of the environmental impacts that come along with buying into the industrialized, globalized food industry. (Learn more about the history of the farm to table movement here.)
Farmers markets are on the rise, bringing us closer to the source of our food: we interact with farmers and take out the grocery middleman, we experience buying food in its more natural form rather than the processed and perfect state we find it in at the grocery store, we feel a more direct effect on farmers with our purchases, we get to ask questions about foods from the most expert sources, and we enjoy the environmental benefits of shopping locally and seasonally.
But on the other hand, this romantic Sunday morning glimpse of farmers and their products leaves out some of the realities of rural life. We must think critically about how farmers markets are creating both intended and unintended effects. Are farmers markets truly an appreciation for and integration of rural life, or are they an appropriation of it? Are customers really understanding new things about their food and paying attention to where it came from or simply going from stand to stand treating it like nothing more than an outdoor grocery store?
For example, at the Dupont Market in Washington, D.C. (where I shop weekly), farmers drive from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to set up their stands, but it often appears that market-goers float from stand to stand without acknowledging which state they’re shopping from. Vendors at the market are eager to answer questions about their products, and this weekly social fusion is the perfect setting for non-farmers to learn more about where the food they’re buying is coming from and who’s growing it. Farmers markets are an essential component in making new connections between farmer and non-farmer and between urban and rural, and it certainly shows progress in consumer attitudes that farmers markets are becoming more popular, but we should make sure we’re building meaningful relations with local farmers when we go.
Urban community gardens are a great way to engage with agriculture and food education, develop a sense of self-sufficiency and fulfillment, attain food security, build community, and increase green space in cities. No matter what their reason, everyone can get something out of working in a community garden.
One way to look at community gardens in cities is creating a connection with farmers through incorporating food cultivation and land stewardship into our own urban lives and gaining a better understanding of agricultural processes.
But is there a chance that rather than (or in addition to) connecting with farmers, community gardens are replacing them? Gardening for personal use or for hobby doesn’t help us understand the economic struggles of production contracts and pressure for high output that many professional farmers experience. While becoming self sufficient through community gardens, we become less dependent on farmers and further distance ourselves, maybe even feeling even more separate from rural and farmer communities and their relevant policy…
Of course, community gardens are an important component for food security in vulnerable urban populations and useful for urban food and agricultural literacy in general. But we have to make sure we’re using our gardening experience and urban garden development to connect with farmers and rural communities as a way of breaking the urban-rural dichotomy, rather than perpetuating it.
“Foodies” and food bloggers are a trendy new group of people who care about good food, emphasizing the importance of sustainable, organic and local food rather than mass produced commodities. Foodie culture consists of posting food experiences on social media, whether it be at a restaurant, food truck, or home-cooked meal. Food Instagram accounts and blogs portray beautiful and model quality photos of food, making something as simple as an ice cream cone or french fries look like a delicacy. Restaurants also play a role in foodie culture, as many of the trendy farm to table and sustainable restaurants provide an experience of food that aligns with foodie values.
In terms of the American consumer’s connection to food, foodies might be considered in good shape since they’re in touch with what they’re eating and appreciate ingredients. But the movement also carries a sense of elitism. It can appropriate where ingredients come from by turning quality food into an elitist trend and portraying food appreciation as an exclusive and expensive hobby. Foodies can afford to pay for the fancy, fresh, specialty ingredients they’re recommending on their posts, but not all their social media followers can. They also may be considered elitist because of the way they portray an essence of knowing more than their followers: they know “everything related to food, whether it be where the good restaurants are, which places have the best lunch deals, which chefs are leaving which restaurants and which chefs are opening a new restaurant, and so on.”
Foodie culture is a rapidly rising trend in the U.S., and foodies love specialty foods, especially chocolate, oils, cheese, and yogurt and kefir. According to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NAFST), Package Facts and the 2012 Culinary Visions Panel Survey, “76% of U.S. adults enjoy talking about new or interesting foods, 53% of U.S. adults regularly watch a cooking show, and 68% of adults purchase specialty foods for everyday home meals.” Foodies’ obsession with speciality foods symbolizes that they can afford these kinds of expensive luxuries, contributing to the elitist nature of the trend.
If foodies adjust the movement to connect to food in a more affordable and accessible way, it might become an avenue for the rest of American consumers to connect to food as well. It may also consider tying more of an explicit connection to farmers into its rhetoric. Many foodies already promote shopping local and supporting farmers markets, and because of the ability to impact culture that the movement has exhibited so far, it may be able to spread political awareness of issues around food production and farmers. So with the potential for more intentional incorporation of farmer-non-farmer connections, foodie culture is an important avenue of change to keep an eye on.
Where do we go from here?
This new ethos American consumers need in order to better relate to farmers and where our food comes from is connected to a new social contract between farmer and non-farmer that will enable non-farmers and urban communities to increase our understanding of farming and rural life and break down the dichotomies between farmer and non-farmer and urban and rural, make the existing initiatives as productive and effective as possible in spreading a message of connection, and apply our new set of values to use our political support and food shopping choices to better serve farmers.