Scenario #1: The New Food Movement triumphs in revolutionizing the food system

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.

squash, onions, greens and turnips
Fresh vegetables form the centerpiece of a healthy diet

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

4 thoughts on “Scenario #1: The New Food Movement triumphs in revolutionizing the food system

  1. What a delightful woman. Thank you for the introduction. I’d never heard of Margaret Heffernan before, so I went out searching and was able to pull down a 12 minute excerpt from a Ted talk. Dynamic, outspoken, funny, and IMO insightful. “Embrace conflict as a collaborative tool. You learn more from exploring a difference of opinion than you do from listening to someone who is afraid to disagree with you.”

    So in the spirit of embracing conflict, here’s a comment on ultra-processed food. Thanks to Michael Pollan and some other notable food activists, ultra-processed has been reduced to a simplistic word count. This is unfortunate because degree of processing is complex and an issue that is worth serious attention. Unfortunately most good research on highly processed foods is happening outside of the United States.

    It’s accurate to say that ultra-processed foods are high in added sugar, fat, and salt. And here’s my explanation as to why. Whole food that is grown from seed breed for flavor, harvested or picked when ripe, and traditionally processed brings lots of flavor to the plate. Many if not all ultra-processed foods are not made with whole food ingredients. All processing takes a toll on taste and aroma. So when the manufacturer has finished re-engineering a food made from bits and pieces of who knows what, it literally has no flavor. So of course the manufacturer needs to add something. Salt, sugar, and fat are culinary tools good cooks have always used to enhance flavor. So of course manufacturers will add these ingredients. And today’s toolbox now includes flavors and colors and all other manner of “cosmetic” additives needed to make the plate enticing and palatable. Why wouldn’t a manufacturer use every tool in the box?

    Whole food already has flavor so whole foods require less help to taste and smell delicious.

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    1. Glad I was able to introduce you to Margaret Heffernan. I highly recommend reading “Uncharted.”

      Imagine the two of us engaged in conflict! Who knew? Once again, I remind you that ultra-processed is NOT about processing. It is about ingredients, whether those ingredients are put together in a processing plant or in the home. Cooking is processing, baking is processing, cutting and chopping are processing steps, and mixing of ingredients as part of a formulation or recipe is processing. As far as “good” research on highly processed food only happening outside the United States, “good” is a relative term as defined by the person evaluating that research. It is easy to label something “good” when it agrees with our preconceived opinions and “bad” when it disagrees with them. Such labels seem to be part of our culture these days.

      Yes, some ultra-processed foods are high in added sugar, fat, and/or salt, but not all of them are. This is the classic bait-and-switch tactic opponents of ultra-processed foods use to discredit them. High-fiber cereals and breads are ultra-processed. Diet foods and beverages are not high in added sugar. Once again, critics say items with high added sugars are bad, but those with artificial sweeteners are worse! The data do not support this conclusion. Plant-based and cultured meat products are ultra-processed. Technology that could greatly reduce the number of sentient beings being farmed and slaughtered is challenged because such products exceed the number of ingredients imposed by an arbitrary rule.

      The two main arguments I read about processed foods and flavor in general is that they are too bland and that they are too enticing so we overeat them. The apparent contradiction is explained away by claiming that hyperpalatable foods are addictive. DSM-5, the authoritative source on addiction, does not agree. Finally, many whole food recipes derive their flavor from spices. Spices are food additives when added in a processing plant but culinary ingredients when added at home. So is sugar. Seems like we have a double standard here. Flavor is the combination of taste and aromatic components. A skilled cook or product developer can successfully combine those components to satisfy their target audience. The home cook generally has an advantage as the target audience is smaller and frequently provides immediate feedback to permit customization to meet its flavor preferences.

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