Food Matters: Our Food, Our Health, Our Environment

I recently gave a talk at the University of St. Joseph in Hartford, Connecticut on how our food affects our health and our environment.  Below is a copy of the program I put together.


Hi,  hope all of you are doing well. I’m so excited to talk all of you about food and how effects our environment and our health. This is the perfect time to talk about it, because this is the season when we get to enjoy all of the great, local, sustainable food Connecticut has to offer. First, though I’ll tell you a couple of quick things about me. As you probably have surmised by now, my name is Bree Shirvell. I grew up in Connecticut and still live here for part of the year although more recently it seems like I’m spending more and more time in the Washington, DC area. For the past four years I’ve worked as a journalist in many different places – La Cucinca Italian, Conde Nast Traveler, Stonington-Mystic Patch, but no matter what I’ve been doing my reporting always seems to make it’s way back to food somehow. I left Patch in March of this year to focus on my freelance career.


So, food.  We are what we eat. I don’t think it comes as surprise to anyone that that old saying we are what we is true. We see it, hear it and read about it every day. Study after study after shows that diet and exercise affects the rate of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. We know the rate of obesity is raising in the US and here in the US, the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts that Connecticut’s obesity rate could rise from 24.5 percent which is fairly low compared to the rest of the county to 46.5 percent by 2030. We talk as a society talk a lot about food and what we are eating in terms of sugars, fats, and even in terms of the weird gimmicky food we have today like go-gurt. What we don’t talk a lot about is how is the food we eat is produced and how that production affects both the environment and our health. So, today we are going to talk about things. We’ll talk about what we are eating in terms of production – conventional, GMOs, organic, Sustainable and Local. We’ll talk about how get whether from big agriculture, you’re small town farmer and from supermarkets, specialty shops and farmers markets, and we’ll talk about what happens we get that food home as well as some things to watch for in the future.


What exactly are we eating. We talk a lot in terms of buzzwoods when discussing food, terms like sustainable, organic, local, and conventional are just a few that seem to keep coming up. But what do they mean? Ingredients can be sustainable, local, slow, and organic, but they can also be local but not organic, organic but not local, sustainable but not local or organic, sustainable and organic but not local? It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Conventional is the food most common on the supermarket shelf. It was grown or raised using chemicals, often varying amounts. This food is your big agriculture food but also your small farmer food some which which pratice pest management control where they only spray chemicals if they have to.


Then you have your GMOs. Ask 10 people what they think of genetically modified foods and you’ll get 10 different answers.

Some will ask ‘What’s a GMO?’ Some, like Prince Charles, will tell you GMOs “are the biggest environmental disaster of all time.”  Others, like the Monsanto Corp., will tell you GMOs are beneficial to the environment and perfectly safe. And most of us, despite the fact that products containing GMOs have been on the shelf of supermarkets for nearly two decades, are still trying to sort GMOs out.

Genetically modified foods, GM foods or GMOs refer to food, most often crops, which is created through a process of genetic engineering whereby the genes of one organism are transformed to another to create such food crops as corn that are herbicide-tolerance and insect resistance.

You’ve ate them. They’re basically everywhere at this point. And yet we don’t know a ton about them. There hasn’t been much long-term testing on health or the environment. The majority of people want them labeled but state governments across the United States have been slow to respond.

Connecticut is one of 20 states considering GMO labeling bills. For the past few years the bill has come up in Connecticut it’s died in committee without getting a vote. Despite support from several state representatives and senators, farmers markets and chefs, there is strong opposition. The Connecticut Farm Bureau and the state Department of Agriculture oppose the bill, saying it is the responsibility of the federal Food and Drug Administration to require labeling, not the states. Monsanto Corp. has threatened to sue states that pass legislation.

On the national level, the Just Label It campaign that would require GMOs labeling submitted more than l million comments to the FDA as part of its petition. The FDA has not yet responded to the petition.

While Americans wait for the GMO labeling debate to play out, there are several resources they can use to learn more about GMOs. Non-GMO Shopping Guide provides a resource for learning what foods have and don’t have GMOs, while the Alliance for Better Foods talks about the environment and safety of GMOs taking a pro-GMOs stance.


The US government defined sustainable agriculture in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trace Act of 1990. The definition is entirely confusing to anymore that speaks English. People that pratice stustainable food every day, such as the Vermont sustainable food laboratory, columbia’s university sustainably projct and the aracdia define sustainable food as a philosophy of growing, producing, and eating food in a way that respects the environment, animals, farmers and farmer workers, is healthy for consumers, and supports farmers and their local communities.

Then we have local food. Those who subscribe to the local food philosophy are called locavores. The term locavore was coined by Jessica Prentice in 2005 and refers to someone who eats locally grown food normally produced within a 100-mile radius although the exact distance is flexible.

The idea behind the local food movement is that food produced locally supports the local economy, community and is better for the environment than shipping food across the country.

“I tell people one of the benefits of sustainable agriculture is it supports local agriculture, preserves the health of the land and preserves farmland,” Barbara Putnam owner of Beaver Meadow Farm in Litchfield, Conn., says.

In that sense local food should be considered part of the sustainable food philosophy. However, what if someone lives ten miles away from a huge industrial chicken farm. While getting food from that factory could be considered local it wouldn’t be considered sustainable.

To be clear locavores are generally not pro industrial factory farms, but it is important to know the difference between local food and sustainable food as one doesn’t necessarily equal the other.


How do we get food. Well we most likely go to some sort of store, but first our food is produced.


For the most part our food comes from a farm. And it probably comes from a big farm. Big agriculture farms account for only seven percent of the farms in the U.S., but account for 60 percent of US agricultural production.  These big farms are also getting the most government subsidies. According to a 2006 investigation by The Washington Post, farms with revenue of more than $250,000 receive more than 54 percent of government subsides.

These big farms come with a number of problems. Communities where industrial farms move into town often see a decline in the health of residents. Respiratory problems, skin infections, and nausea are just a few of the side effects that linked to living near factory farms where runoff and pooling collection of animal waste is often a problem. According to the USDA, the US meat industry produces 61 million tons of waste each year and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, animal waste from the meat industry has polluted over 35,000 miles of rivers in over 22 states.

The contaminated water can’t be good for humans, but it also containments water is used for farming, fishing and other activities that are essentially putting it back into the food industry. It also may be the case of fish and aquatic wildlife that have died rapidly in areas near industrial farms such as in North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay.

In addition to the runoff of animal waste, the hormones and antibiotics often found in the animals on industrial farms become part of the runoff from the farms. The runoff of hormones and antibiotics affects plant growth, animals, and the health of rivers and streams and once again can make its way back into the food system, because now the hormones and antibiotics are in the soil used for growing crops as well as in the water used for irrigation and drinking water.

Factory farms can also affect air quality, because the use of heavy machines produces carbon dioxide, as well as methane gas from the animals, both of which can contribute to global warming.

Animals, such as cows, are fed a grain-based diet of corn, soy, and other grains that produces fatter animals in a shorter time. Often the animals are given antibiotics and other hormones, and residues of those hormones can wind up in the meat sold at the store. The meat is often more likely to carry bacteria such as E. Coli that leads to food poisoning in humans. According to Animal Welfare Approved, over 300 pounds of meat and poultry products were recalled between 1994 and 2007 due to bacteria such as Listeria and E. Coli.

Local farms in contrast, according to the US Department of Agriculture make up nine of every ten farms. But running these small family-fun farms is expensive. Smaller farmers even face an uphill battle to get certified as organic, animal welfare approved, or any one of the other certifications, as they do not have the time or manpower to deal with the paperwork. Farms get bought out because the price developers are offering is hard to turn down, and young farmers who simply cannot afford to pay the taxes associated with owning the land necessary to farm.

Connecticut Farmland Trust is a non-profit organization in Connecticut that works to raise awareness about local farms also protect farmland. Founded in 2002, Connecticut Farmland Trust got involved with Dinners at the Farm four years ago and works at the events.

According to Connecticut Farmland Trust Connecticut looses between 7,000 and 9,000 acres of farmland each year and the trend is towards loosing significant amounts of land. Of Connecticut’s 300,000 acres of farmland, they say only 40,000 acres are protected.

Raising organic and/or grass feed meat means needing more land to rotate where the animals graze and it means money spent on expensive organic food. Sustainable farming avoids the soil degradation, which is so often a problem on big farms, but it requires caring for the land, which adds to the overall price of farming. Sustainable, organic produce, which White Gate Farm in East Lyme, Connticut produces, means expensive and creative ways to deal with pests such as netting, watching carefully for bugs, and even inviting bats at night into the area.

Grass fed beef also matures slower than grain fed beef. On average, grain feed beef goes to slaughter after just 18 months, whereas grass fed beef doesn’t go to slaughter until the age of four. The additional maturing time adds in additional costs to the price of the beef.


Distributing the food is also costly. White Gate Farm runs a year round farmer’s market on the farm. The market is two days a week and the farm sells all the food it produces. That requires staffing the market, but other farms that travel around the state to different farmers market pay a fee for their booth as well as the expensive of staffing the booth and getting the food to and from there. There is also no guarantee that once at the farmers markets farmers will sell all of the food they bought.

Small local owned stores and restaurants such Mystic’s Oyster Club will often buy directly from local farmers, but getting their food in local Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, Big Y, and other corporate owned supermarkets if not impossible is often expensive and time consuming.

Some local farmers make weekly drop-offs around the state of Connecticut, selling meat to a restaurant in Greenwich, Conn., on one side of the state and to another restaurant in Stonington, Conn., on the other. While on those two ends of the state he drops off meat to residents who pre-order it. Running their own distribution adds to farming cost.


When we go to get our food, we have a ton of choices. Not just on the food we buy but on the stores we go to. We have farmers market, the regular supermarkets, the specialty supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

And in most American households, to this day, women are still making the majority of purchasing and cooking decisions for food. The Campaign for Safe Food is an Oregon based organization formed by physicians against GMOs. They see the expansion of farmers markets in recent years as helping people more aware of the health benefits of sustainable food. And they believe it is women that will help the movement go mainstream.

“Our main target audience is women, especially mothers,” North said. “They ‘get it’ more than most people. “

These choices affect directly affect the environment. Eating locally saves land from development. If, as the Connecticut Farmland Trust says, Connecticut loses about 8,000 acres of farmland each year, than supporting local farms contributes to protecting that land. Most small family farms such as Bill Stuarts and Pauline Lords practice sustainable agriculture methods. Buying local food reduces the traveling associated with distributing food and how far food travels may have a big impact on the environment. A report in the Journal of Food Policy found that eating local food is better for the environment in terms of pollution and air quality than even eating organic food because it tends to travel less. Health and environment aside, sustainable farming is also about producing food in a way that allows farmers and farm works to earn a livable wage.  Buying local food even when it is more expensive supports the local economy and the local farm worker.


The big question in all of this is will it last. Is this food movement just the latest trend and if it’s not how do we make it scalable. As it stands now small family run farms can’t sustain us, which isn’t too say our current system is sustainable.

A recently released University of Connecticut study ranks Connecticut’s 169 towns in terms of “food security.”

UConn researchers compiled information on farmers markets, poverty and unemployment rates, household access to vehicles and education levels of residents in order to determine the availability of safe, healthy, affordable foods in each Connecticut town. According to the report, “2012 Community Food Security in Connecticut: An Evaluation and Ranking of 169 Towns” Weston is the most food secure town in the state and Hartford is the least food secure.

Food security affects a lot of different things, it’s one of things that the government looks at when it considers closing military bases which in turn can affect the entire state’s economy, and housing market.

One of the biggest challenges is getting fresh, local food to low income areas. This is something I think we’ll see more of. Arcadia put together a sort of guide to creating a mobile market which also details how many receiptants were using government aid to get food. That’s a policy issue that falls along party lines for the more part. Blue states seems to be better about passing legislation that requires farmers markets to accept food stamps as well as food assistance programs for seniors, red states not so much.



Leave a Reply