The Food Ties That Bind

Food should bring people together

Maybe the pieces are coming together. Maybe people are finally starting to get it. It feels a little strange to be writing this just five months after Newsweek’s cover story, “How Our Foodie Obsession Is Driving Americans Apart,” but perhaps we are witnessing some very important pieces of the food puzzle actually coming together instead.

Writer Lisa Miller’s Newsweek piece is sobering: despite the ever-growing availability and variety of locally grown, organic food, more and more Americans are eating poorly, or don’t have enough food to eat, period. This reality was reinforced earlier this year with a report that mainstream grocers in America, perhaps the most taken-for-granted business sector in the country, are taking a terrible financial beating as food prices have risen and stubborn unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor make it increasingly difficult for folks to afford food. The best-selling products right now are store brands, those products with the less fancy labels and easier-to-stomach prices. For now, most grocers are eating the loss, and that’s likely the difference between a customer walking in the door or heading straight to the food pantry. But that can’t last.

That’s why we think the news that Walmart is making a commitment to healthier foods, that First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity campaign is growing serious legs, that support is building already for significant changes in the Farm Bill all portend a growing national consensus on a good, clean and fair food system. It’s the convergence that is so important.

Communities, especially ours, are doing a great job of understanding the importance of local foods, the role of farmers’ markets and the value of family farms to sustainable economies. Community centers, food pantries and others have recognized the need to tie health outcomes (and costs) to diet and are asking for help, and community gardeners are stepping up—as usual. Now we need to make these connections tighter and provide the resources to make them work. We are not unsympathetic to those who claim Walmart’s labor policies do as much harm to food security as their new healthy food goals are designed to enhance. But compared to the globally destructive practices of many American food and seed corporate giants, increased access to lower-priced, healthier food at a store millions of people of very limited means depend on for their daily staples strikes us as a major step forward. They deserve the benefit of the doubt while the food movement continues to pursue policies and social changes that will make local and organic food more accessible to all segments of society. That work has always been done at the micro-local level first, and that is where it continues to find its greatest success. We are seeing more community-based enterprises integrating local food—and the support for farmers that assures—into community kitchens and pantries, including preparation and service roles to be filled by neighborhood residents at the centers.

“Divided We Eat,” as the Newsweek piece was titled, is real and is the result of a variety of policies, business and politics that encouraged disparate food environ-ments—deserts and resorts—that have in fact played a role in driving Americans apart, from each other and from the rest of the world. But corporate policies that respond to progressive leadership and consumer demand, and the hyper local, farm- to-pantry food chain, together can begin to bridge the gap that spans the distance from the neighborhood convenience or fast-food store to the co-op and Whole Foods. Food can—and should—bring people together.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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