Remember the tag line, “You Are What You Eat”? The relationship between good food and good health is a long-established one. But what if you live in an area where fresh, healthy food isn’t readily available? Making quality, wholesome food accessible to all was the recent topic at Marin Conversations–a popular monthly speaker series, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club and Marin Community Foundation. This discussion-style forum, held in Mill Valley on the first Wednesday of every month, features noted industry experts speaking on current events and social issues.
This month’s topic, Food For All, brought together two top leaders in the food community: Walter Robb, Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, and Craig McNamara, owner of Sierra Orchards and President of the California State Board of Food & Agriculture. Both men are ardent advocates for sustainable agriculture.
The problem of food scarcity is a stark reality that affects thousands of people in today’s world–and not just in far-reaching corners of the globe, but in our own backyard. Neighborhoods both large and small across the United States exist in “food deserts”— places where there are no grocery stores within a two-mile radius of the residents who live there. In these areas, convenience stores and mini-marts loaded with heavily processed foods have become the mainstays where underserved populations shop for groceries. In California, nearly one million people live in “food deserts” and of those, 45% are low-income.
How to solve this social inequity is the focus of an ongoing debate. Whole Foods is leading the charge and making a profound impact in the marketplace. “We are creating meaningful change,” says Robb pointing to his company’s Whole Cities Foundation, which works with like-minded partner organizations in underserved areas to increase access to healthy food. “We look at the broader sense of our place in the world, and we carefully examine our values as a company,” he continues. “Our reputation means people pay attention when we do something. We can move the needle and make a difference.”
And Robb has made a difference. On June 5, 2013 Whole Foods Market opened a store in the heart of Midtown Detroit. With 50% of that city’s population living at or below poverty level, Midtown is one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest cities in the country. But this disparity is exactly what attracted Whole Foods to launch a store there. “Communities like this one around our country are hungry to be served,” says Robb who feels a moral responsibility to champion this cause. Special pricing and educational outreach have been primary tenets of the new store which strives to be affordable to the community it serves.
The company has engaged residents by sponsoring classes on health and wellness, as well as “shopping on a budget”. This pilot store is the first of several planned in similar communities around the United States. “The percentage of dollars spent on food and the percentage of dollars spent on healthcare are at inverse proportion to each other,” notes Robb. “We need to teach people how to take personal responsibility for their diet, and make sure everyone has access to good food.”
Craig McNamara agrees. As an organic farmer himself, he’s been in the trenches and understands the challenges faced by the producer community. His advocacy work at the state level focuses on creating legislative policy that supports farmers, promotes social justice, and encourages best practices in agriculture to protect the land. As President of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, and founder of the non-profit Center for Land-Based Learning, McNamara is poised to facilitate change.
“It’s going to take all of us in agriculture to feed this growing populace,” he cautions, “and to do that we need a sustainable model for the future.” He notes that more and more people have become “informed eaters,” thanks to the mainstream influence of advocates like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters who have challenged consumers to connect with the origins of their food and the ethics behind its production.
McNamara also points to the egregious problem of food waste. “Forty percent of the food produced on farms in this country gets thrown away as garbage,” he says noting as much as six-hundred pounds of fresh produce is discarded daily by individual grocery stores. “These numbers are particularly staggering given that fifty percent of our nation’s population are food insecure–and half of those are children,” he continues. “It’s unconscionable that we have people in need who cannot get quality produce, and an over-abundance of fresh food being tossed into landfills every day.”
McNamara believes education is fundamental for future change. His innovative non-profit, The Center for Land-Based Learning, teaches high school students the importance of agriculture and natural resource conservation by connecting them with producers and businesses in California’s food system. Last year the organization received a prestigious national Partners In Conservation award from the Secretary of the Interior.
Both Robb and McNamara share a vision of the world where everyone, regardless of income, has access to healthy food. I’m lucky. I live in the North Bay–one of California’s richest agriculture communities. I am blessed to have plentiful fresh produce and meats at my fingertips year round, and I am mindful that not everyone is so fortunate. It is incumbent on all of us to make sure our precious food resources do not go to waste. To that end, we can do our part by conserving water during this time of drought, donating surplus garden produce to a local food bank or shelter, and supporting policies that benefit the farmers who produce what we eat. By working together, we can ensure a future where healthy food is available to everyone!