What if we made local food as accessible as fast food? As in available 24/7. Imagine a future in which our edible landscape is dotted with farm stands, teeming with fresh produce and products all day long and well into the night. Can you taste it?
For some the taste is lacking. An over-simplified recipe has been beaten into our taste buds: Fast food is cheap, abundantly available, and incredibly accessible (take a moment to count the number of McDonalds, Burger Kings, or Wendy’s in your town). Local food is expensive, seasonal (if you want strawberries in January, you’re out of luck), and hard to reach. It’s impossible. Or, so the chain restaurants, supermarkets, and Big Box stores would have you believe.
Yet, in a tiny pocket of Northern Vermont, one small farm stand, the result of equal parts sense and serendipity, is turning that paradigm on its head. What the farmers at the Darby Farm, a 200-year-old family farm in Alburgh, Vt., have discovered is that the road to food access is actually a farm stand on a country back road. Heather Darby, a farmer and agronomist at the University of Vermont, supplies customers with freshly-picked peppers, corn, beans, lettuce, carrots, and potatoes. People pay using the honor system.
And, guess what? It works. Community members appreciate the access to fresh, local foods; returning tourists look forward to the Darby Farm Stand as much as they do the warm Vermont sun, verdant hills, and other storied symbols of the season. The Darby Farm is itself a symbol of what’s possible when we think differently. And, you know you’re onto a good thing when the biggest game in town goes down the local route, as McDonalds’ is attempting with its new local product line.
But, this is more than a fairy tale – and McDonalds’ fast, albeit local, food, is still fast food, every deep-fried bite of it.
Studies have shown that improved access to healthy local foods corresponds to healthier eating and lower rates of obesity and diabetes. One study found that African Americans living in a census tract with a supermarket are more likely to meet federal guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption. Another found that rural Mississippians living in counties without supermarkets were 23 percent less likely to meet guidelines for daily fruit and vegetable consumption than those in counties with supermarkets. New Yorkers and Californians living in areas with more fresh food retailers, along with fewer convenience stores and fast food restaurants, have lower rates of obesity. In Indianapolis, researchers found that adding a new grocery store to a neighborhood resulted in an average weight loss of three pounds for adults.
That’s science, not fiction.
In Vermont, we have much to be proud of. Local foods are accessible throughout our K-12 system with $2-3 million spent by public schools on purchases from local food businesses in 2010. Our state’s largest institutions – the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care – have created innovative models for local foods purchasing and consumption.
There are challenges ahead. Income and cost remain an issue. Health concerns abound. While Vermonters tend to eat healthier than most Americans (38% of adult Vermonters eat fruit two or more times a day and 30% eat vegetables three or more times a day), we still suffer from obesity: 58.2% of Vermont adults were considered overweight or obese in 2009. That means higher risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Twelve percent of Vermonters are food insecure.
Consumer education is a critical aspect of changing the numbers, but it is not enough. We need innovative models for accessibility. We need more Darby Farm Stands – and we need to invest in their growth and success. Partnerships with grocery stores and supermarket chains, restaurants, schools, and businesses, are just as key.
Senator Sanders recently secured a $120,000 federal grant for the Friends of Burlington Gardens and the Vermont Community Garden Network to create a statewide, school-based summer gardening initiative for children. Let’s put more federal, state, and foundation grants to good use by developing sustainable and resilient programs and organizations that support access of local foods for all of Vermont’s families.
Let’s build the future we want to eat.
Alexandra Tursi is senior communications specialist at the University of Vermont Continuing Education where she supports the Food Systems Spire of Excellence. She is also a candidate in UVM’s Masters in Public Administration program, where her studies focus on the intersections of public policy, public health and food systems. Her favorite place to study (and eat!) is Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex, Vt.
Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. 2011. Vermont Farm to Plate Strategic Plan: A 10-Year Strategic Plan for Vermont’s Food System.
PolicyLink. 2010. Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Promising Strategies to Improve Access to Fresh, Healthy Food and Transform Communities.