As the human population expands from more than 7 billion today to a projected 9 billion by 2050, there is serious concern about how to feed everyone. Industrialized farming was once viewed as the solution to world hunger by providing greater quantities of food at faster rates than ever before. But the result has been a growing disconnect between eaters and producers.
Around the world, people increasingly have access to countless varieties of packaged foods through local supermarkets or big-box stores. Government subsidies are largely responsible for the growth in inexpensive food items, enabling industrial farmers to dominate the market by selling their products at artificially low prices. With aisle upon aisle of cheap food, consumers can purchase anything from apples to Twinkies with little-to-no knowledge of where their food comes from or how it was produced. Many shoppers are fully detached from their farm suppliers, relying solely on the fluorescent-lit, standardized grocery store for all of their needs.
It is almost embarrassing how detached we have become. According to a recent survey by the British Nutrition Foundation, a whopping 14 percent of 8–11 year olds living in the United Kingdom think that bread comes from animals, and more than a quarter of 5–8 year olds and 22 percent of 8–11 year olds believe that cheese comes from plants.
This clear lack of food knowledge is a serious problem and has links to people’s overall health. The U.K. study also found that the majority of 11–16 year olds (52 percent) believe that carbohydrates provide more energy than fat or protein. This statistic alone is troubling, considering soaring obesity rates. In an interview with the Washington Post, Andrea Northup, founder of the D.C. Farm to School Network, said: “We are up against a multi-billion dollar advertising industry working to pack more calories of food into our nation’s kids just to make a profit. Unfortunately as a result, kids are less familiar with the very types of foods that are most healthy for them, like fruits and veggies.”
With this widespread lack of knowledge, it is not surprising to learn that many people are having trouble staying healthy and understanding which foods are nutritious. Today, an estimated 79 million people living in the United States—over 34 percent of the population—are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC considers obesity to be a serious health concern that has links to other life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
To address these rising challenges, people need to understand where their food comes from, how it is grown, and how it affects their health. Fortunately, efforts in many countries are seeking to fill this knowledge gap by reconnecting people with local farmers. In the U.S. state of New Jersey, the South Jersey Resource Conservation and Development Council hosts a “Tour des Farms” each September, which encourages residents to “know their farmer” by completing one of three bicycle tours through farms in the region. Tour stops include cranberry, vegetable, organic, and alpaca farms, as well as orchards, nurseries, and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Bikers can purchase local produce and chat with farmers while gaining a better understanding of healthy food choices.
In the U.K., farmers are taking advantage of social media to connect with their consumers. A 2013 survey by the non-profit LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) found that 8 in 10 farmers in the country are now active on social media, and three-quarters of farmers reported that the Internet has brought them closer to consumers. Using online media, farmers are able to communicate with consumers about farm visits, what food they produce, and how it is produced. Some have even created interactive farm maps or offer the opportunity to take a virtual farm walk.
Each summer, LEAF also hosts Open Farm Sunday where individuals and families are able to visit their local farms to better understand food production and the work that farmers do to manage the countryside. The event attracts thousands of participants annually.
In Villeneuve-d’Ascq, France, a group of activists known as the “Incredible Edibles” has launched a self-described political movement to “occupy the land” by taking back the streets and planting gardens. Among the group’s goals are providing widespread access to clean, in-season fruits and vegetables; creating links between neighborhoods; and strengthening common bonds among inhabitants through gardening and sharing.
In Australia, the Green party has developed an AUS$85 million plan to help farmers bypass major supermarkets and sell directly to consumers. The plan largely resembles the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program developed by the Obama administration in the United States. Both schemes aim to increase the number of local farmers’ markets and to create and support producer cooperatives. Such efforts could greatly increase people’s access to affordable healthy food and empower them to make informed choices and have greater confidence in where their food comes from.
With programs like these in place, local farmers have more opportunities to grow their businesses and compete with the industrialized food system. Reconnecting people with local farms can bring dramatic health benefits and encourage healthy habits for all involved.