The food system is complex and, for most consumers, a largely invisible concept. We see crops growing and food on grocery store shelves without much thought about the multiple processes that come in between. Taking a closer look, a food system encompasses the journey from farm to fork: growing, harvesting, processing, distributing, marketing, purchasing, and consuming. As these processes have grown increasingly industrialized, so too have disparities grown, creating the realities of food insecurity, diet-related illness, and nutrition illiteracy visible in Alamance County today.
Food access is, perhaps, a nonobvious aspect of social justice. Yet injustice is evident in the development of contradictory food systems: one that serves those who are willing and able to pay more for local, organic food, and another that is underserving those who can’t. Demand for locally and organically grown food is increasing, but for many, proximity and growing practices aren’t factors in their decision-making about food purchases.
Nearly 18% of Alamance County households are food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to sufficient nutritious food. While people struggling with food insecurity can receive assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously called food stamps, many live in food deserts. In these areas, grocery stores or farmers’ markets are few and far between, causing people to rely on unhealthy options from plentiful fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
Cheap processed food and disproportionately numerous fast-food options in Alamance County have created the perfect storm. Our environment makes the unhealthiest choices both easy and preferable, increasing both the real and perceived costs of healthful food. Regardless of our financial means, we make choices out of convenience, citing our busy lives as the reason we eat out rather than cook at home. But this cheap food is deceivingly expensive. Preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity threaten our health, increase absence from work, and affect children’s performance at school. Hunger persists, but malnourishment now takes the form of “hidden hunger” as children and adults lack proper nutrients without lacking calories.
Our food system needs intentional structure to benefit both farmers and consumers. Federal farm policies subsidize the production of commodity crops (e.g. corn and soy), primarily used for processed foods or to fatten livestock, while national food distributors stock grocery stores with produce from across the country. Small-scale farms face high start-up costs, which in Alamance County have constrained the racial and gender diversity of farmers. Without consumers who understand the value of local produce, farmers struggle to compete with mass operations. Insufficient distribution infrastructure further limits farmers’ capacity to sell to institutions looking to source locally.
Alamance County has a rich tradition of agriculture and can support a robust local food economy that balances care for consumers, producers, and the environment. Food is a basic human need, and as such, has a unique power to bring people together. As food activist Mark Winne elegantly observed, “Food competency percolates up from the grass roots to City Hall, the statehouse, and Capitol Hill.” We must inform our elected officials of the issues that impact our health and work in partnership to engage both policy and community-based solutions. But we must also educate ourselves, committing to behavior change that will protect the health, happiness, and viability of our community. Food and farms are necessities; we must make them priorities.
-Maggie Bailey, Healthy Alamance, Elon-Alamance Health Partner
The Alamance Food Collaborative is an initiative created by Healthy Alamance, in partnership with Impact Alamance, which supports infrastructure and policy changes to provide better access to healthy foods. Its mission is to create a sustainable local food system by supporting local farmers and businesses to improve access to healthy food options and education.
 Source: Feeding America (2013). Map the Meal Gap 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/our-research/map-the-mealgap/2013/NC_AllCounties_CDs_MMG_2013.pdf