Picking up that Fork in the Road

Daily Hampshire Gazette
Opinion piece by Philip Korman and Margaret Christie
March 6, 2013

Last month, on the same Sunday, the Boston Globe and the New York Times both ran stories on food. Each presented a vision for the future, and each spoke to us about the power of marketing to influence culture — for good or for ill.

The Globe portrayed Northampton and the many green initiatives it supports. The New York Times ran a story titled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food”, describing the major food companies’ use of both science and marketing to override our bodies’ instinctive avoidance of overeating.

The Globe’s story on Northampton focused on food and community: our vibrant farmers markets, our community farm and the Pedal People’s full circle, bicycle-powered services (farm shares delivered and compost picked up). It detailed Grow Food Northampton’s successful effort to buy farmland within the city limits and the growing roster of farm activities it hosts, including Local Hero farms Crimson & Clover and Valley Malt’s Slow Tractor Farm.

It noted that Northampton has more farmers markets than any city its size in the state, with a market open three days a week from May to November and a weekly Winter Market. Through joint action by farmers, residents, activists and city officials, the community has built a network of public spaces within the city where food nourishes both our bodies and our community.

In the New York Times article on junk food, author Michael Moss traces the efforts by corporate junk food producers to win the “stomach share” of the market by engineering foods which deliver high quantities of salt, sugar and fat, while fooling our brains into thinking we are still hungry. Faced with an epidemic of obesity and diet-related health problems, these companies continue to develop strategies to create junk food addicts, in part by targeting advertising at children.

And the result? More than a third of Americans are obese, including 17 percent of our children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moss ends his article with the story of a former Coca-Cola executive who left his job when he could no longer stomach pushing Coke to poor Brazilians.

Now, he’s promoting investment in “baby carrots” to a private equity firm, using the slogan “Eat Them Like Junk Food.”

Undoubtedly, advertising and marketing can influence both our perceptions and our actions, and play an important part in introducing new ideas in our culture. In fact, CISA’s Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown campaign — the longest-running “buy local” campaign in the country — was founded on the premise that the use of mass media techniques could change the way we grow and sell food. CISA and the Kellogg Foundation, which funded the launch of the campaign, agreed that these methods could raise the profile of local agriculture, helping fresh local food to compete with the processed food products sold to us through television advertising, movie placements and event underwriting.

Thanks in part to the Local Hero campaign, agriculture has experienced a renaissance in the Pioneer Valley. Farmers markets and CSAs have grown and flourished, and hospitals, schools and colleges in our region are searching for additional sources of regionally grown food.

Nonetheless, we have a long way to go if we want locally grown products to be a bigger part of the diet of all Pioneer Valley residents, every day, all year long.

The road to the food of our future forks in front of us. One path leads us to a dependency on large companies that use a tremendous amount of energy to process and transport unhealthy food products. The other path utilizes local resources and talent to enrich our diets.

This second path describes a world where people create time together to share the tools and learn the skills needed to grow, produce, market, distribute and cook healthy, fresh, locally grown produce, meat and other farm products. This path weaves the economic and social fabric of our community.

The decisions we make every meal, every day, take us a step further down one path or the other. At CISA, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of our efforts to link farmers and communities to strengthen local agriculture. We believe that over the next 20 years, we can double the amount of local food in our diets.

So when you come to the fork in the road, pick it up and join us! You’ll get to know your farmers and neighbors while discovering just how good food — and community — can taste.

Philip Korman is executive director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). Margaret Christie is the group’s special projects director.