'Know your food' will find it impossible to please all

10/02/2009 12:26:00 PM
Tom Karst

The admonition to “know your farmer, know your food” may be mission impossible to a generation of clueless consumers.

Tom Karst
National Editor

Unless we are a devotee of community supported agriculture or a seasonal customer of a farm stand, we don’t know who grows our food. Our fondest association with farmer may be our now distant ancestor who homesteaded some Iowa farmland back in the 1880s.

Do we know the dairy farmer who gives us that gallon of milk in our hometown retailer’s refrigerated case? Do we know where a box of Life cereal comes from? We might think the oranges come from California, but upon closer examination they could be Sunkist oranges from South Africa.

Consumer ignorance of food and food preparation itself may even be more profound. Pop Tarts are a fairly instinctive food, but what do we do with parsnips, broccoli and squash, provided we ever purchase them?

Surely the sterile merchandising tactics of some of our largest retailers might be partially to blame. All we might see at a discount supermarket is a bin of fruit and a lonely price sign.

No point-of-sale information that gets the consumer excited about a new variety, the grower’s story or recipe idea — just the same-old same-old display bin.

Into this setting the U.S. Department of Agriculture is introducing the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign.
In the oft-used mantra of a “rising tide lifts all boats,” produce industry leaders have largely praised the initiative, stating that the more consumers connect with food — particularly with fruits and vegetables — the better it is for all producers.

After all, come February in Chicago, consumers will buy produce, and it won’t be local.

The USDA initiative is described as a “conversation starter” concerning how to develop local and regional food systems to spur economic activity.

Agency officials have also alluded to using existing USDA programs to break down “structural barriers” that have kept local food systems from thriving.

As part of the program, the USDA said it will make $50 million available for schools to buy local produce.

In a news release, the agency said the 2008 farm bill gave the department new ways to procure local fresh fruits and vegetables for the school lunch program.

Using that flexibility, USDA has proposed that schools now be able to arrange to buy fresh produce grown locally through their state agencies. From a USDA news release:


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