What will the American food supply look like as we emerge from the pandemic? This month I will present three very different scenarios of what could happen. This week I introduce the perspective of the New Food Movement. Next week, I envision a world dominated by crass commercialism with Big Food running wild. It is the Movement’s worst nightmare. The third scenario diverges from these two extremes. Which one is most likely? The arbiters will be the American public.
None of these scenarios will satisfy readers anticipating a return to a less scary world. Prepare for one that is more unpredictable and less certain than before the pandemic. I derive my vision from the ideas of Fareed Zakaria and Margaret Heffernan. Zakaria presents us with a stark choice between self-interest or global cooperation. Heffernan tells us that we must be prepared for a more complex world. She suggests that we prepare for the future by developing scenarios. Such efforts need a diverse set of participants to anticipate the future. When I was young, my family watched the Wonderful World of Disney on TV every Sunday evening. Some of the shows came to us from “Tomorrowland.” Here is one version of what “Tomorrowland” could look like!
One group that envisions a revolution in the way we eat and distribute food is the New Food Movement. Although not a monolith, it advances certain principles to replace the current food system. It emphasizes more organic production and local food distribution. Gone are the major food manufacturers, large supermarkets, and factory farms. Small, local factories, food cooperatives, and organic farms replace them. Inner city residents and rural communities have full access to fresh, whole food year-round. Let’s start with the consumer and work our way back to the farm.
The population develops healthier eating habits. When back to normal, families abandon the bad habits they picked up during the pandemic. They buy and eat more fresh, whole foods with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. They continue to eat some animal products but not as much as before or during the CoVID-19 era. Reliance on grains and processed foods diminish. Sales of ultra-processed foods plummet. These are products with more than five ingredients listed on the package. Ultra-processed foods are high in added sugar, fat, calories, and toxic food additives. Such foods are also low in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients needed for wellbeing. Like Brazil, the NOVA classification of foods serve as the basis of the new dietary guidelines. The more food prepared and eaten at home the better. Many fast-food restaurant chains fold. Surviving chains offer items lower in sugar, fat, salt and calories.
Governmental regulations seek to advance the Movement’s objectives. Traffic light labels appear on every packaged food. A green light represents food approved for good health. Yellow lights depict a product that is OK from time to time but should not be a part of a regular diet. Red lights warn of any item that poses a danger to health and is best left on the shelf. Menu items in restaurants sport red, yellow, of green dots next to their descriptions. Regulators levy taxes on any packaged food or menu item lacking nutritional benefits. Such items exceed specific limits for sugar, fat, salt or calories per serving. Families with incomes below certain levels receive enhanced SNAP (food stamps) benefits. SNAP limits benefits to fresh, whole foods or packaged products displaying a green light. State and local governments restrict sales of plastic packaging within their jurisdictions. Food manufacturers look to the federal government for standardization of regulations. Plastic packages begin to disappear.
Food distribution to former food deserts or swamps have become food oases. All families deserve an equitable share of available food. Tax breaks benefit produce companies that service underserved locations. Transporters that focus only on high-income neighborhoods incur tax penalties. A viable supermarket is key to eliminating food deserts. A poor supermarket, however, may be worse than no supermarket at all. Other forms of food distribution supplement supermarkets in poorer sections of cities and towns. Corner stores and other small establishments start stocking fresh, whole foods. Neighborhoods ignored in the old system now have greater access to healthy foods.
Local, state, and federal agencies fund programs to increase local distribution. Food delivery to shut-ins and residents without adequate transportation improve access to fresh foods. Distribution channels emphasize local production (within a 100-mile radius) and transport. Grower cooperatives can help ensure a steady, predictable level of food each week. Suppliers of goods and services to these neighborhoods must hire some local employees. Expect a rise in urban gardens, farmers markets, and vertical farms in big cities. Community efforts in neighborhoods emphasize healthy foods driving out the food swamps with fresh produce. High prices for these items in supermarkets are overcome. Donated land from the city and volunteer labor reduces costs. Farmers markets expand into the inner cities and are open at times that better accommodate the schedules of the working poor. Abandoned high-rise buildings provide an excellent way to reclaim space and grow nutritious items indoors.
Sustainability is key to a better food system. Such efforts start on the farm and work up into the supply chain. Organic farming predominates fruit, vegetable, and meat production. With this shift away from synthetic fertilizers nitrogen runoff from fields decreases. Less use of pesticides brings back populations of birds and bees. Grain crops make up a much smaller part of the food supply. Crop subsidies first diminish before ending altogether. Where possible, integrated practices operations improve sustainability. Distances between farms and markets decrease, particularly during peak growing seasons. Cross-country shipments of fruits and vegetables only happen in the winter months.
Large, factory feedlots (CAFOs) fade away, replaced by smaller, more efficient operations. Exploited farm workers receive forgivable loans to purchase land to grow their crops. Office workers move from the city to the country to grow heathier food. Large, impersonal slaughterhouses disband. In a throwback to simpler times, smaller, more humane facilities re-emerge.
Bottom line. The New Food Movement wishes to tear down the current food system. The Movement seeks to replace it with a more just, healthy alternative. The revolution starts by instilling more healthy eating habits. Nutrition education and nudges by governmental agencies help achieve this goal. The vision emphasizes more home cooking and less eating out. Fast-food places are not the only guilty parties. Other chains need to clean up their act with smaller portion sizes and leaner meals. Too many Americans live in food swamps that are devoid of access to fresh, whole foods. Expect major decreases in processing and transport of food crops.
Note that this version of “Tomorrowland” is not my concept of the best future of food in a post-pandemic world. I see some major flaws in the reasoning. It represents my interpretation of what I have read by members of the Movement. If I misrepresent any of the vision, I trust my readers to point out any errors I made. Stay tuned as I present a different vision of the future next week.
Next week: Scenario #2: Big Food dominates and ultra-processed foods thrive