It's time for dinner — what will you prepare? The factors in your decision may include any or all of the following: your appetite, your beliefs, budget, schedule, location ... or maybe just your mood. What you might not realize is that the very choices you end up making tonight will also influence what will or won't make it to the table tomorrow night.
Consumers are, in fact, co-producers of the food they buy. When they purchase ingredients from local, sustainable and ethical sources, it gives these suppliers more power and space on the market. While our individual purchase choices may seem insignificant when placed within the bigger picture, the fact is that all movements start with individual action, and grow with campaigns of education and awareness.
As the global conversation ramps up around topics such as unbalanced agricultural markets, the health and pollution problems within the food industry, and the adjustment of habits and lifestyles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens everywhere are thinking twice about their consumption habits. Slow Food's 2020-2021 Terra Madre virtual conference is at the center of that conversation, including a fascinating Dec. 1 panel on "Mapping Your Markets" bringing people together from around the world to change the way markets are organized to benefit sustainable producers and consumers.
Here are some of the themes driving the effort to help us consume better to produce better, and vice-versa:
A Fair Market
About 80% of the three billion people living below the poverty line reside in rural areas, and most of them are farmers. Many of them are smallholder farms — which account for almost 35% of the world's total food production — who often employ more traditional methods that are more sustainable than their corporate counterparts. Yet there are initiatives leveling the playing field, helping consumers buy sustainably and locally so food workers can nourish themselves, their communities and the environment:
• Seasonal fruits and vegetables, native legume varieties, locally caught fish: This is not a Michelin-starred restaurant, but rather what's on the menu for the children of Xacinto Amigo Lera, a small school in the rural municipality of Portomouro, in northwestern Spain — a shining example of a "Zero Food Miles" school canteen. Beyond the good health and good taste that come from local products, students also learn the importance of sustainable food ecosystems.
• In many countries, independent women farmers have a doubly difficult time making a living. In addition to the challenges of small-scale farming, the inherent sexism of many societies continues to create big obstacles. One NGO in Indonesia, Gita Pertiwi, is tackling this problem by not only providing sustainable farming and business training to women, but also creating an entire marketing network to reach local communities, providing these women with a more stable income while offering organic food to locals.
• How do we get to consume the foods that are good for us, good for the planet, and affordable? "It really does take a village," noted Jessica Fanzo, Professor of Food Policy & Ethics at Johns Hopkins University at her recent Terra Madre talk. "It involves governments, businesses and civil society." One key for Fanzo is reorienting subsidy policies to "ensure that healthy foods are affordable and unhealthy foods are less affordable."
Eating healthy isn't just about making sure you're getting enough nutritious ingredients, it means changing our entire relationship with food to create a healthier world. A truly balanced diet involves using climate-friendly products, as we end up inhaling the pollution caused by harmful farming practices. Here are two impactful projects that offer a more holistic approach to healthy food:
• In her recent book Sitopia, Carolyn Steel argues that "cheap food is an oxymoron," as they end up costing us dearly in pollution, poverty and health problems. According to Steel, an expert on food and urban development, the best way to change habits is with "guerrilla localism," both by buying from nearby sources and encouraging the planting of their own community gardens.
• The Slow Food Presidia is a project that not only identifies and protects Italian products, ecosystems and traditional farming methods that are at risk of extinction, but communicates the stories of these products to the general public through websites, newsletters, and markets that promote dialogue between producers and consumers. It allows for a better understanding of the origins and wider impacts of what's on your plate.
The ongoing coronavirus has brought in an era of deeper reflection on how our society operates — how we work, live, communicate, and especially how we eat. In the early days of the pandemic, concerns about wet markets, unsanitary practices and unethical food trade proliferated. Now, consumers in lockdown are rethinking everything from the sources of their ingredients to how their food can safely be delivered. Nevertheless, chefs and food suppliers are stepping up to the plate in innovative ways:
• Ukranian chef Larissa Tytykalo, understanding that today's customers are both stuck in lockdown and increasingly wary of the provenance of what they eat, publishes daily recipes based on local fare, accompanied by a delivery service for regional products. It is a model that supports both small farms at risk during the economic downturn as well as locals trying to keep their bodies and environment healthy.
• In China, too, groceries became greener with the pandemic as demand for crop sharing subscriptions increased by 300%. Also known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), crop sharing is a system where the consumer "subscribes" to a harvest, receiving a weekly box of whatever local producers have to offer. As the boxes are prepaid and much of their distribution takes place outdoors, the system offers a safer alternative to supermarkets where customers are more at risk of human contact.
Terra Madre is an event organized by Slow Food, Regione Piemonte and Città di Torino.
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