For a long time now I’ve wanted to share some thoughts on the relationship between our food system and the physical space where we live that has been awkwardly labeled the “built environment.”  I had the opportunity to start that reflection with a keynote speech at the recent Kansas Built Environment and Outdoor Summit Conference. It is excerpted below.

My task today – I will call it my passion – is to explore the connections between our food system and the physical place where we live.  Both are complex systems that are inextricably linked to each other as well as to the health and well-being of our bodies, communities, and natural environment.

The food system influences the quality of our water and air; it plays a major part in separating those who easily secure their daily meals from those who struggle to feed themselves and their families; it represents a very large part – often second or third in size – of our overall economy; it has an impact on how sick or well we are; and it relates in ways both obvious and subtle to our experience of the land, nature, and the place we live. 

And as critical as these connections are to our lives, they sometimes feel like they are out of our control, like somebody far away is making decisions for us and without us. This is as true for our built environment as it is for our food system. Two major forces – the marketplace and public policy – act upon us, usually without our explicit consent or participation.  The marketplace, often finding the lowest common denominators and cheapest efficiencies, sets a course where we are not allowed to steer, but only to paddle – ever harder, ever faster – to just stay afloat.

Just as remote from our control, but with ever greater mystery is the world of public policy. If the marketplace sometimes seems fickle, the houses of policy making often appear as lunatic asylums run by the inmates. Yet, from the Halls of Congress, to our state capitols, to county commissions and city halls, our food, our health, our land, and the place we live are subject to the actions of elected and administrative officials. And like the marketplace, policymakers too often want us to be complacent and not take democracy too seriously.

I reject both assumptions, and I hope you do too. To get the food system we want, to be sure that healthy and affordable food is available to all, to breath clean air and drink clean water, to ensure that everyone earns a decent living from their food system work, and to gather as much joy as possible from the physical and social spaces we share as a people, we must indeed be conscientious consumers, but even more important, we must be engaged citizens.

If you need reasons to actively engage your food system, consider the following:

  • Our global population is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. How will they be fed?
  • The Ogallala aquifer, responsible for 30 percent of all irrigation water in the U.S. and a critical part of Kansas agriculture, is being used faster than it can be recharged. The National Academy of Sciences reports that Kansas farming will peak in 2040 due to the aquifer’s depletion.
  • Similar to other states, 30 percent of Kansans are obese compared to only 13 percent in 1994.
  • Diabetes now affects over 240,000 Kansans and, at current growth rates, will affect 368,000 in only 15 years.
  • Kansas has many rural and urban food deserts; Wichita alone has 44-square miles of them.
  • Kansas agriculture tilts heavily toward the unhealthy side of the food chain – lots of beef, grain, and feed corn – but is decidedly lean when it comes to fruit and vegetable crops. Kansas may feed the world, but it doesn’t feed itself.

I know these are big issues that we struggle to get our arms around, but the place where you can make a difference is in your hometowns – if you learn to connect the dots.

And the dots are everywhere. I rode my bike a few miles the other day down a newly built trail which ended at the bustling Santa Fe farmers’ market and train station. Along the way I passed a couple of community gardens where plot holders were peacefully tending their vegetable plants. I bought a few pieces of fruit from a farmer at the farmers’ market to munch during the 60 mile train ride to Albuquerque. Before boarding, I stood next to a class of 3rd graders sampling tomato slices at a farm stand while the farmer patiently told the children about her farm, how tomatoes grow, and then asked the children a few nutrition questions to encourage them to eat more veggies.

One stall down a mother in the WIC program was using some of her coupons to buy fresh produce and getting advice from the farmer on how to prepare it. An older man was using his SNAP benefits to purchase local food as well, but in his case the amount of his veggies was doubled because of a special “double-bucks” program run by the market. As I turned to walk to the train, I saw an overweight woman using veggie prescription vouchers given to her by a community health clinic. The vouchers were an incentive to eat healthier.

Everywhere people were moving at an easy pace, greeting friends; the chatter was pleasant, the smells delicious, and the only security was a nice young cop eating a peach. Though the site was full of bodies, the parking lot was not full of cars. More people were walking to the farmers’ market because more housing was being built downtown, and because public transportation was doing a better job of bringing people to that area.

To casual observers this scene appears interesting and fun, but they are not likely to think about how these parts came together. Since you’re from Kansas, you likely know there’s a Wizard behind the proverbial curtain. In Santa Fe’s case there were many Wizards who each in their own way saw the wisdom in bringing people to a central location to buy locally produced food. One of the Wizards realized that energy use could be reduced with public transportation, walkable places, and bike paths. Another Wizard found money to enable lower income families to shop more affordably at the market.

Benefits accrued to shoppers who wanted great food and to farmers who needed high volume retail outlets to stay in business and keep their land open. There were many public investments along the way: for the new trails, rails, and trains; for the farmers’ market site restoration; for the produce incentives; for the food and nutrition programs being taught in the public schools; for the school food service that was now buying over $50,000 a year of locally grown food for school cafeterias; and even for the developers who realized that the population was getting older and didn’t want a suburban home 10 miles out of town from where there was no place to walk to.

The public good and the commonwealth were values that were enabled by public policy.

Many smaller towns and cities are making an economic comeback from a product they had never anticipated – retiring baby boomers – now retiring at the rate of 8,000 people a day. They have their own money; they don’t compete for existing jobs; they want to downsize; they want to be able to walk to stores, cafes, restaurants, and experience some cultural activity. They may want to take a course or two at a community college. The most successful towns are those that have figured out how to build their environments to match the needs of these retirees. And food is always central to those comeback stories.

This all makes sense, so why hasn’t this way of life become as common as toothpicks on shrimp cocktail? Well, I came across a survey just the other day that made me say “OMG!” Thirty-one percent of self-described liberals preferred a big house to a walkable community, while 69 percent of self-described conservatives preferred a big house to a walkable community. In other words, when the public purse strings are controlled by the “you-know-who’s,” the private interest will trump the public interest.

Now I suppose you might see similar splits if you compared Prius owners to mega-SUV drivers, microbrew drinkers to Budweiser quaffers, or vegetarians to beef eaters. Style, taste, and yes, a bit of snobbery can account for different choices. But I think the task ahead of us is not so much to persuade conservatives to enjoy a local IPA – though getting drunk together might be a good idea – it’s more about how we nurture everyone’s understanding, regardless of politics or ideology, of the common good.

If I can begin to see my well-being enhanced by public transportation that is affordable and attractive to all classes; if I can see that my personal health will be better if I walk and bike more and eat a little lower on the food chain; if I recognize that open space and regular contact with nature improves my happiness; if I’m reminded what a local summer tomato tastes like; and if I learn that the best way to reverse the out migration of young people from rural communities is to operate really great schools, maybe, just maybe, I will accept what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “The man of genius apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth.”

We certainly have ample evidence that Kansas is doing just that. The Lawrence Park and Recreation Department is requiring that their vendors offer at least 50 percent of their food as healthy options. With leadership from the Douglas County Food Policy Council, the city and county have funded pilot projects to bring more SNAP recipients to local farmers’ markets.

Topeka changed its zoning code to permit community gardens on vacant lots. In Cheyenne County the school district plans to integrate hydroponics into their greenhouse and build raised bed gardens, while the senior centers are working on buying locally produced food for their meal program.

And in Sedgwick County (Wichita) they are developing a food policy council that will join three other local food policy councils in Kansas that have received support from the Kansas Health Foundation.

Good work, Kansas!

Having effective projects like these are necessary to reshaping our food system and the place we live, but like water purified as it passes through a large bio-mass, decisions will be enriched by the hands of thousands of food citizens practicing their God-given right to democratic participation.

In light of the challenges facing our globe, we must develop new standards of community wealth that prize health, vibrant towns, democracy, justice, and quality education over the booby prizes of American commercialism. It will not be the size of the estate we bequeath to our children that matters, or that wide-screen TV slung from the living room wall that we’ll remember. It will be the legacy of healthy bodies, clean air and water, and resilient communities that our children will cherish.

Like building your own house or putting in a garden, none of you can be denied the right to shape your community’s physical space. Such actions strengthen our social muscles as well as our physical ones. They put the public interest before the private interest because they embody all interests. Their benefits are multi-faceted, multi-layered, and multi-generational.  They lift, they empower, they liberate. They fuse the mind, the body, and the spirit in tasks that enrich us all. They are the stuff that life is made of and the stuff that makes up our quality of life. Don’t be turned back from the simple democratic notion that you have the freedom to shape your food system and the place where you live.

Speak up, be smart, get loud, and stick together; I can assure you, you will win.       Thank you.