Natural Foods Merchandiser

Whats keeping our food system in flux?

What legislation is in place to keep our food safe? What do we know about consumer demand for local food? Who’s addressing the “food deserts” found in many urban areas where access to quality food is scarce? Before g etting to these questions in Friday’s “Food System in Flux” session, moderator and speaker Bob Scowcroft, executive director and cofounder of the Organic Farmin g Research Foundation, discussed the difficulty in pinpointing these issues. “Wh en a system is evolving so rapidly, it’s hard to cover everything—especially in one presentation. Just when you think you know the food system, you’re probably wrong.”

In the United States, only 200,000 are what are considered mega farms,” he said. Requiring everyone to adhere to the same fee structure in the name of safety and regulation may not be feasible for smaller producers. He encouraged seminar attendees to submit comments on top food concerns to the Food and Drug Administration through the organization’s food safety initiative’s docket 2010-n-0085, which will be used to determine future legislation.

“The headlines for recalls due to E. coli and salmonella outbreaks are very disconcerting for consumers, yet the structure to safeguard us has totally failed,” Sowcroft said. “Most recalls are voluntary because the agencies that govern this have very little power. This docket is your chance to do something about that.”

In addition to regulation turmoil, Brahm Ahmadi, cofounder and former executive director of People’s Grocery, a community-based nonprofit organization founded in 2003 with a mission to transform inner-city food systems, spoke of the lack of access to quality foods in many urban areas. Most low-income residents have two options: corner stores and convenience stores, Ahmadi said, and research shows these stores tend to be inadequate and more expensive. His organization is involved in educating and bringing quality produce to these communities.

Debra Tropp, chief researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farmers market and direct marketing branch, offered hope for the future. Tropp highlighted research that shows direct-to-consumer food sales have increased twice as fast as total agricultural sales between 1992 and 2007. “This is not direct to restaurant, this is not direct to retail, this is not direct to hospital so we’re only capturing a small percentage of what's happening,” she said. People are buying local and supporting local farms for reasons that extend beyond environmental concerns. “Freshness of flavor, trust in food suppliers and investing in their communities are increasingly becoming top concerns. This is not a trend.”

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