Making Nutritious Food Available to All
By Alayna DeMartini
Sometimes they call themselves the Preacher and the Professor.
Though Brian Snyder is not a preacher, he has a graduate degree in theology and was on a path to becoming a minister. That was long before he led one of the largest sustainable agriculture organizations in the country.
The professor is Casey Hoy. Though an entomologist, he now spends less time talking about insects and more time talking about food, producing it, processing it and delivering it. His and Snyder’s ambition is to ensure more people in Ohio and beyond can eat nutritious meals on a regular basis – not skipping meals or eating mostly starchy and highly processed food because they can’t easily get healthier options.
It might seem like a significant shift for Hoy from studying pests attracted to vegetables to helping lead an effort to change the region’s food supply, but here’s how it happened. Years ago, when Hoy and his Ohio State colleagues gathered to discuss their research, they realized something was missing. They could talk and theorize about the effect of a changing climate on growing food, about the challenge of distributing it to meet the needs of an ever-expanding population, but to help people who were struggling, those same people needed to be around the table: farmers, food pantry managers and people unable to afford regular, healthy meals. All of them had opinions to offer.
The Ohio State University has since chosen food and agricultural transformation as one of eight complex societal challenges it will target with funding. The Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), which Hoy and Snyder lead, will hire 30 new faculty members. Coming from disciplines as varied as medicine and business, the faculty will interact with people in Ohio and beyond to generate solutions that improve citizen’s ability to regularly eat enough nutritious food.
Hoy and Snyder spend much of their time seeking out ideas from others. Like a professor and preacher would, they talk, they listen, then they try to come up with specific ways to solve the vexing problem of people not having enough nutritious food to eat. Whether people can regularly get balanced meals hinges on a myriad of
factors: how much they earn, how many family membersthey feed, how close they live to a market with fresh produce, and what, if any, food they can grow themselves.
In Ohio, nearly one in seven households experiences food insecurity to the extent that itcannot afford balanced meals on a regular basis, a rate higher than the national average. Only 11 states have worse rates than Ohio’s.
“A lot of farmers are very proud to say ‘We feed the world,’ and they are indeed very productive, but you tell them these statistics about their neighbors and it comes as a real kick in the gut,” Hoy said.
Economics have pushed Ohio farmers over the years to grow more commodity crops, primarily corn and soybeans. Yet these crops do not end up in the stomachs of humans until they’ve been fed to livestock or added to sweeteners or other food ingredients. They’re also used for plastics or fuel.
Decades past, we talked about the hungry or the starving — not the food insecure. Food security is a relatively new term. Not so long ago, starvation conjured images of bellies swollen, torsos with exposed ribs, people in Africa somewhere far off struggling. That’s not the typical appearance of the malnourished in Ohio or the nation. The malnourished may even be overweight, struggling with diabetes or obesity. Worldwide, more adults are obese than underweight, and across Ohio, nearly one out of every three adults is considered obese.
“Oftentimes, the people standing in line in food pantries are not very thin,” Snyder pointed out.
Sometimes they’re overweight from diets with too many cheap, empty calories from highly processed foods, rich in starch and sugar, that put them at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other long-term illnesses.
““A lot of farmers are very proud to say ‘We feed the world,’ and they are indeed very productive, but you tell them these statistics about their neighbors and it comes as a real kick in the gut."”Casey Hoy
The fix is not simple. It’s insufficient to simply attract large supermarkets into every neighborhood or spur more farmers in the state to grow produce that can be sold locally.
Part of the solution, Hoy and Snyder said, lies in developing more local and regional food supply chains so a farmer who raises animals can have the meat processed in Ohio, instead of out of state, and a crop farmer can sell his or her vegetables and fruit within the state, either fresh or processed here. That would keep the earnings in Ohio while making fresh produce grown here more available to people who live in the state.
“Right now, a lot of farmers are growing crops that are shipped somewhere else for processing and then go to some unidentified end point. And that has implications for the local economy,” Snyder said.
Specifically, that means the money earned on crops that are processed and sold elsewhere is largely leaving Ohio. But until farmers have markets closer to home for their crops, there’s little incentive for them to stop producing mostly corn and soybeans that get processed and sold out of the state, Snyder said.
In Ohio, the average farm size is 190 acres. Yet a farmer would have to be raising corn and soybeans on a few thousand acres to make a living for an entire family from the profits of selling these commodity crops, Hoy pointed out. So, InFACT collaborators are examining ways to maintain farmers’ efficiency while encouraging agriculture practices that benefit the environment. At the same time, they want to help spur more diversity in what farmers produce and increase the number of food producers, all of which they expect will make nutritious food more widely available and improve profits for Ohio farms.
Expectations for the new researchers InFACT hires will be to improve Ohio’s ranking for food insecurity; reduce the prevalence of heart disease, obesity and other chronic illnesses; increase food business startups to create more local food supply chains; support policy research; and examine food culture through the humanities, art and design.
InFACT’s ultimate goal is “transformation” of the food supply chain, a word that can make people uncomfortable when they hear it.
People get anxious that it’s too big a goal and that we could never take credit for meeting it,” Snyder said. “We’re not that interested in taking credit. We would just like the needle to start moving in the right direction.”