Food, food, everywhere, and not a bite to eat

Reforming America’s broken food and agriculture systems is possible, but it won’t happen overnight.

 

As anyone who’s ever driven the interstate highway system can attest, rural America is awash in food. The fecundity of our farmlands is breathtaking: Fields shimmer with wheat, glitter with corn, glow with fruits and vegetables of every size, shape, and color. In New Mexico, where agriculture annually contributes some $10 billion and 50,000 jobs to local economies, the bounty features pecans, onions, and, of course, chiles; in nearby southern Colorado, potatoes are the star.

Why, then, is the Southwest still so hungry? As Andrew Martinez reports this month for “Small towns, big change,” 17 percent of New Mexicans face food insecurity — three percent more than the national average. Access to healthy food is particularly tenuous in rural communities, which often lie many miles — not to mention thousands of feet in elevation — from the nearest purveyor of fresh produce. Towns that are too remote and sparsely populated to serve as cash cows for the food retail industry are often abandoned by full-service grocery stores, leaving residents without any ready source of nutritious calories. The problem is hardly unique to New Mexico: According to the nonprofit Feeding America, rural areas account for the majority of the nation’s most food-insecure counties. Yes, the Southwest is covered in farmland, but global markets gobble up much of the crop. Food, food, everywhere, and not a bite to eat.

This month, “Small towns, big change” explores solutions to the dilemmas facing our food and agriculture systems. Admittedly, America’s caloric industrial complex is stubbornly resistant to change. The burgeoning national affection for local produce — witness the meteoric growth of farmers’ markets — is encouraging as far as it goes, but it hasn’t changed the fact that this country devotes more acres to raising corn-based ethanol for cars than it does for growing leafy greens that feed human beings. And the system can treat producers as badly as consumers. The consolidation of agribusiness, the mechanization of farming, and the vagaries of shifting global markets have spelled doom for thousands of family farmers. New Mexico’s Taos County is a microcosm of the problem: As J.R. Logan reports, a wave of development and wealthy second-home buyers has pushed many longtime growers off their property. When farms cease production, the local availability of healthy produce dwindles further, and the carousel of food insecurity spins again.

Even so, we refuse to abandon hope. In this month’s package, we explore some of the most promising fixes to our broken food systems — systems that won’t be reformed overnight, but that can be improved nonetheless. Staci Matlock examines a pair of small-scale growers who are experimenting with new techniques and crops; Andrew Martinez visits the food pantries that are finding better ways to serve Rio Arriba County’s hungriest residents; and Lyndsey Gilpin tackles a plan for attracting more young farmers into the agricultural workforce. You’ll find stories about water-saving cover crops, tax policies that could keep more farming families on the land, and rural grocery stores that are surmounting immense business challenges to bring fresh produce to their communities. And no food series would be complete without a story about the virtues of rich, stinky, plant-enhancing compost. 

Thanks for exploring America’s food and agriculture with us. We hope you read these stories with a full belly and an open mind.

On behalf of fresh food,

Ben Goldfarb

Solutions Journalism Network

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.