The students and instructor of the Food System and Health class and the panelists of the Local Food Systems Discussion. Photo credit: Tatiana Thomas
“Because it [the food system] is an interdependent system, everyone has to move together, producers, consumers, farmers, retailers, distributors have to take responsibility to collectively improve the system.”– Quoted from Silas Conroy, one of the discussion panelists.
On September 26, 2018, the Master of Public Health Program’s Food Systems and Health class hosted a panel discussion about local food systems shared by four community members who work in different parts of their local food system. This is one of multiple efforts to give students an opportunity to interact with real-life food system workers, and see how their roles relate to public health.
Four panelists from four organizations with four distinctive roles contributed to a comprehensive picture of the food system: a dairy farmer, a supply chain intermediary, a sustainable agriculture educator, and a farm and food justice educator.
The dairy farmer is Eric Carey, the co-owner of Carey Farm LLC – a 275-cow dairy farm located in Groton, 20 minutes driving from Cornell. He manages all of the livestock on the farm and also assists his father and employees with all fieldwork.
The supply chain intermediary is Silas Conroy, the Director of Supply Chains & Produce Merchant, Headwater Food Hub. As a “matchmaker”, Silas has built well-established relationship with myriad farmers, producers, retailers and consumers across New York State.
Yao Foli is the Sustainable Agriculture Educator. He founded “Ndor” Eco Village to transform the livelihoods of farmers in his community through promoting rural education and sustainable agricultural training in the Volta Region of Ghana.
Laura Arias is the Farm and Food Justice Educator of the Youth Farm Project. She has worked with students ranged from pre-k through 12th grade from diverse social and economic backgrounds to help them learn about the discrepancies within the existing food system and how to address these issues.
The panelists of the Local Food Systems Discussion. From left to right: Eric Carey, Silas Conroy, Yao Foli and Laura Arias. Photo credit: Tatiana Thomas
The discussion went on as an interactive dialogue where students learned from the panelists by asking them various questions regarding the environmental impacts of raising cattle and current solutions to mitigate these impacts, the dairy quality control to ensure customers’ health, the importance of coordination among different stakeholders to bring healthy food to more people regardless of their socioeconomic status, and the power of youth education in resolving the current pressing problems the food systems are facing.
Regarding the environmental footprint and impact on human health of dairy farming, Eric shared that thanks to the technological advancement, the dairy system has reduced negative impacts on the ecology while increasing milk quality. For example, somatic cell count (SCC) (white blood cells) in the milk has been monitored effectively and thus has greatly increased the chance of SCC reduction, leading to the healthier milk and a decrease in milk production losses. Another technology is manure injection, where cow manures are incorporated into the soil to capture the ammonia/nitrogen that volatizes, by which nutrient runoff in the soil will be reduced. The livestock productivity is tenfold compared with that of 50 years ago, where milk yield has increased dramatically while the number of cow decreases, which results in fewer amounts of land and water use, as well as less waste and nutrient runoff into soil.
Eric also told the audience about the gap in knowledge and empathy between farmers and consumers. An example of this discrepancy is the usage of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), a bovine growth hormone that is made in a lab using genetic technology to increase daily milk yield and therefore increases environmental sustainability. While the farmers think that rbST is no different than the calcium supplement human often use to make their bones stronger, customers consider that rbST is harmful to their health, and farmers use it only to maximize their profit. Consequently, the usage of rbST has been banned; farmers cannot use rbST or sell the milk from cows fed with this substance anymore. Therefore, Eric claimed that the power to shape the food system is in the hand of consumers, which can frustrate farmers, especially the smaller ones, who can be targeted as profit-motivated agents while they are the most vulnerable to changes imposed by farming policies.
In order to narrow the gap between farmers and consumers, or between any stakeholders of the food system, Silas emphasizes the importance of coordination between these key players. Multiple actors with their own agenda and agricultural practicing scales can slow down progress toward a more sustainable system. As a supply chain intermediary, Silas empathizes with farmers about their triple dilemma balancing productivity, environmental footprint and customer health; he also acknowledges the difficulty of consumers who cannot afford healthy food options. Therefore, working with these very different stakeholders is crucial to improving the whole system. For example, he has supported large-scale farmers to adapt to the changing taste of consumers for cleaner and healthier food by gradually moving toward more sustainable agricultural practices. With small-scale farmers who already adopt ecologically friendly practices, he helps them to scale up their production to reduce cost and reach to more market segments like big food service companies to gain economic sustainability enabling access to more affordable and healthy food to more people.
In addition to problems from stakeholders working in siloes, issues of food illiteracy and food injustice also plague the food system and health outcomes . Youth education is key to addressing these issues, as promoted by both panelists Yao and Laura. In Ghana, people mainly depend on chemical agriculture and have little knowledge about the long-term negative effects of the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the health of human and environment because of illiteracy. Their children are at a high risk of following their parents’ practices, and will suffer deleterious consequences from food-borne diseases and polluted soil, air and water caused by those chemicals. Therefore, Yao highlighted this is the time for us to reverse the situation by creating educational opportunities for kids and young people. Children can learn quickly via specific and simple examples, like how the chemical residues run off to the lake and kill fish, or how harmful it is to eat food with chemical residues. These children will not only be educated but they also tell parents what they have learned from school, which, to an extent, might affect their parents’ current mindset of practicing chemical agriculture.
Also indicating the impact of youth education, Laura proposed the integration of food literacy into formal education at school because food is a huge part of human being, physiological development, disease prevention, livelihood, and a basic human right. As a farm and food justice educator at the Youth Farm Project, Laura helps kids and young people, especially kids of color, to explore the food system through an anti-racist lens, address the present disparities in the food system, and find a way to achieve food affordability and accessibility for everybody. She underlined the intelligence of kids, once they learn more about the food system, they start to ask themselves what they want to or should eat, what there are in their food, why certain kinds of foods are so expensive, why there are people living in food deserts and so on. That is the time they start to make a change to their food choice, and also influence their parents.
The discussion ended with a story about how kids can think of the power of money. In a game to teach children how money could create food inequity, Laura distributed a number candies which was less than the number of children in the class and asked them to figure out how to distribute the candies, or the wealth in the figurative sense, evenly among participants. At the end of the game, there was a girl who did not get any candy, so Laura came and asked her how she felt when she had nothing from the “global wealth”. The little girl said, “Well, I don’t really care about money because there are things that we don’t need money for.” She and then the other kids started to list out these things, for example they did not need money to get love from family, they did not need money for water and air (in a sense, that is true, although careless recognition might lead to “the tragedy of the commons”), and especially, they also included food as something they did not need money for since they could grow food on their own. That’s how the children teach adults like us a lesson about how to live without or with less money, especially with the issue of food availability.
 Recombinant bovine growth hormone. American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/recombinant-bovine-growth-hormone.html. Accessed 07 Oct 2018.
Written by Thao-Vy Vuong, M.S. Candidate in International Development and student in the MPH course VTPMD 6121: Food Systems and Health