On Monday, Feb. 27, world famous country music artist Willie Nelson led a “Global Day of Action to Occupy our Food Supply.” During this day, more than 60 Occupy Wall Street groups teamed up with other activist organizations from around the world to lead community garden workdays, efforts to label genetically modified products in grocery stores, seed exchanges in front of stock exchange buildings, community alliances for local food to oppose megastores, and they raised awareness on how we can become more sustainable. However, if more than a few people reading this piece knew that this event even happened, I would be extremely surprised.
Maybe people have grown tired of social justice issues portrayed on the media through the “Occupy” lens. Perhaps Willie Nelson didn’t do a very good job publicizing the issue. Or maybe the idea of food justice is one that is yet to be fully understood by the public. After all, what exactly is “food justice”? What’s the point in caring?
The idea behind Willie Nelson’s Occupy movement stems from a single, powerful notion – the notion that when our food is at risk, we are all at risk. Over the last 30 years, our food system has been consolidated at an unprecedented pace. Never before has agribusiness had such a tight control over our food chain. In a typical American grocery store, just 10 corporations sell more than half of the 40,000 food items. Monsanto, the world’s most prominent multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, made publicly infamous by the movie “Food Inc.,” owns more than 90 percent of American soybean seeds and 80 percent of American corn seeds. Even in the global trade of grain, Monsanto is one of only four companies that controls 90 percent of the market. Today just three companies process 70 percent of all American beef. With such immense power concentrated in the hands of so few, we, as the American public, are truly at the mercy of these corporate giants.
The overarching corporate control of our food system is something that we need to care about. It’s something that matters. It destroys the livelihoods of millions of family farmers. Through lackluster environmental regulations, it makes soil unusable and it pollutes our land and waters. By undercutting local, small farmer efforts, it causes health epidemics because the poor can only afford to purchase cheap food grown by these superpowers. It also creates monopolies where super rich and powerful corporate lobbies can ignore safety, health and ethical concerns. In the words of Willie Nelson, “Occupy our Food Supply is a day to both resist Big Food and highlight sustainable solutions that work for all of us.”
Even though this day is long gone, this does not mean that we should stop caring. In fact Nelson’s message, and the message of all food activists, only becomes stronger and more important with each passing day. In Falls Church we are lucky to have a nationally ranked farmers’ market, making it easy for us to support this movement. As the spring harvest abounds, we must remember how important it is to shop local.
A common complaint I hear against shopping local at farmers’ markets is one that has been spouted for years. “I would go to the farmers’ market, but it’s so expensive.” Last May, Seattle University’s Albers School of Business preformed a study on prices between farmers’ markets and local stores, specifically Safeway. Not only did they show that these markets have a much better variety of produce, but they also found that the average price on organic items was between $0.47 and $0.73 less per pound at the farmers’ market than the other grocery stores listen in the study. Not only can these products be cheaper, their higher quality is undisputed.
Buying food from our local market is a fun, relaxing way to support our local economy and our local farmers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the average farmer only receives 15.8 cents of each dollar that consumers spend in grocery stores. The rest goes to big companies like Monsanto and Cargill: industry giants that thrive by shutting down local operations and perfecting the art of becoming the most expensive middlemen available. Farmers’ markets are one of the only places left where farmers can maintain a truly fair wage for the work that they do producing healthy food. Every Saturday, with children or friends in tow, we can work together to strengthen our own local food economy. Besides, if you can find a more delicious tomato at Giant, I will buy you a crepe from the crepe stand. At the farmers’ market.
Melissa Benn is a Food Studies and Environmental Policy undergraduate at Duke University.