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Research reveals wealth gap in access to sustainable food

Friday 09 November 2012

A study released in the United States in October suggested more needs to be done to improve access to local, healthy foods. The study, conducted by Indiana University researchers, showed farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs largely attract a "privileged" class of shoppers.


More needs to be done to improve access to sustainable food

Professor James Farmer, of the IU School of Public Health in Bloomington, said "Our findings present a need for broadening local food opportunities beyond the privileged, higher-income consumer, through alternative payment plans and strategic efforts that make fresh foods accessible to a diversity of people."


Farmer presented his findings to the American Public Health Association in San Francisco on Wednesday 31st October. His research focused on farmer's markets and CSAs in Indiana, which has more than 130 of markets and 50 CSAs. Popularity of both CSAs and farmers’ markets has exploded recently in the United States, where farmers markets have seen a 450 percent increase since 1994. The trend is also being repeated across Europe.


In the UK, organic certification body the Soil Association previously coordinated and conducted research on Community Supported Agriculture projects. However, in the past year the association has stepped back from this role, leaving CSAs without a central representative body. In late 2011 The Soil Association's Michael Marston said there were around 80 trading CSAs in England, of which over 50 are under three years old, and that more than 100 such schemes were in development.


Benefits of CSA model


Professor Farmer said this model provides the benefit of shortening supply chains and added that, generally speaking, "local foods are more often produced using sustainable farming practices that eliminate or decrease the use of chemical applications." His findings were presented as another prominent research and sustainable development organisation, CGIAR, announced it had mapped the emissions footprint of the world’s food supply chain and said efforts must be made immediately to reduce emissions and improve the sustainability and resilience of food production.


According to research by the Soil Association-led 'Making Local Food Work' programme, CSAs provide benefits for both the environment and local economies. CSA’s support high levels of employment relative to the land available (the equivalent of 0.14 employees/hectare compared with a mean of 0.027 employees/hectare across UK agricultural as a whole) and keep money circulating within local communities for longer. They also tend to feature more publicly accessible areas, trees and wildlife areas.


Expounding on the model’s benefits, UI professor Farmer commented, "When you consider freshness as an important value for consumers, hands down local foods that are distributed directly from the farmer to the consumer get from the field to the table in a much shorter period of time. Also, when you shop at a chain grocery store, the money you spend quickly leaves the local economy, as opposed to being spent several times over within one's own town or city."


Recommendations made by the UI researchers to increase access to the sustainable food opportunities offered by these enterprises include introducing payment instalment plans, work-exchange programs, and sliding payment scales. Professor Farmer added that, "Additionally, the need for farmer's markets and CSAs to be positioned in locations proximate to people who are food insecure would also increase access." He said that alternative payment models do exist for CSAs and farmer's markets in the US, but that they need to become more widespread.

Strengths and limitations of CSA in the UK


Although proponents of CSA schemes have said some of these issues also exist in the UK, they claim that in some respects CSAs in Britain have successfully addressed problems of limited access to local food. Katherine Darling, spokesperson for 'Making Local Food Work' commented, "The experience of CSA in the UK has been more varied; in the US the movement is more established than the UK and more resources and research are available there. In the UK, CSA is more about communities developing a relationship with their farmers.

"Access to local food is a problem across the board, but it's one we are trying to address, and with some success; for example urban communities have better access to CSA schemes in the UK."


She elaborated that sustainable food initiatives have been set up in towns and cities, reducing the problem of location identified in the US study.  She also pointed out that some schemes in the UK were found to aid those at risk of social exclusion (12 percent of scheme members have a household income under £15,000 a year according to the campaign).


Nevertheless, increasing access to healthy, local food is something Ms Darling said needed to be addressed in the UK as well as the United States. As models such as CSA have been shown to improve wellbeing of members, as well as providing environmental and further social benefits independently (over 75 percent of CSAs in the UK offer training to improve the skills of members and volunteers), it could be suggested that the changes needed to improve access to local food are more structural.


The Environmental Audit Committee, which evaluates the sustainability of government policy, has suggested that a more cohesive approach is needed between several areas of policy to improve access too food and wellbeing in the country. The Committee suggested earlier this year that government policy view education, health, food and environmental matters as fundamentally interrelated, as has been trialled in Denmark.


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