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November 1, 2004

New book examines changes to the U.S. food system

By Jennifer McNulty

As families gather this Thanksgiving to feast on free-range turkey and organic vegetables, sociologist Patricia Allen hopes they will give thanks to the people who have helped make such bounty available.

Patricia Allen's book celebrates changes made so far, but cautions that the "agrifood system" remains riddled with social inequities and contradictions. Photo: Jennifer McNulty

"People have been working for years to solve environmental and social problems in the food system, and consumers have many more choices as a result of those efforts," said Allen, author of the new book Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004). "From the fields to the table, our food production and delivery system is being transformed."

Those pushing to make the food system more ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just have a lot to boast about, said Allen, associate director for sustainable food systems at UCSC’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems. Among the highlights are:

• The growth of organic farming

• The popularity of farmers' markets

• The increase in community-supported agriculture, in which consumers invest in a farm for a share of its bounty

• The vitality of urban agriculture and community garden programs

• The proliferation of university research programs focused on sustainable food systems

• The introduction of farm-to-school programs that supply schools with fresh fruits and vegetables

As “alternative food movements” have gained momentum, they have helped transform institutions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the University of California. "Universities across the country have sustainable agriculture programs, and the USDA has programs that were unheard of 20 years ago," noted Allen, whose scholarship has challenged others to include human factors, as well as environmental conditions, in their definition of “sustainability.”

While Allen celebrates the changes so far, she cautions that the "agrifood system" remains riddled with social inequities and contradictions. Issues that still need to be addressed include:

• Working conditions for farmworkers and food processors

• Gender, racial, and ethnic imbalance in the ownership of land and resources

• Hunger and malnutrition caused by inequities in food distribution

"Now that the ideas of the alternative food movement are beginning to take hold, leaders can build on public interest to generate support for deeper changes," said Allen. "For example, would consumers support a 'socially just' label, like organic and fair-trade labels, that guaranteed things like health insurance and a living wage for farmworkers?”

Allen would also like to see university programs address socioeconomic issues, in addition to their current focus on farming practices. Similarly, K-12 programs could go beyond food delivery to teach children about the entire food system, including the processes of production and distribution, patterns of abundance and hunger, the role of advertising, how processed foods contribute to skyrocketing obesity rates, and, perhaps most importantly, the malleability of the food system.

"It's amazing how much the creative and committed people in the alternative agrifood movements have already accomplished," said Allen. "It’s time to take stock and decide how to tackle the rest of the agenda.”

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