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July 22, 2014

Sustainable Food: Positive Happenings

Where does your food come from, and who's making sure it's being produced responsibly? Our food editors explore the sustainable food initiatives happening right now in the U.S.

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Farmer Poli Yerena, one of the Bay Area suppliers to Good Eggs, an online farmers' market.

Why was senior associate food editor Greg Lofts talking about the issues surrounding sustainable food and agriculture? These are topics that affect all of us and that we in the food department think about a lot and Greg had just gone to the Cooking for Solutions conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where amazing culinary experiences and dialogue about sustainable food practices converged. To delve more deeply into what's happening to make our food grown and sold (and ultimately prepared and consumed) in a more sustainable way, we called upon one of the experts at the conference: author and sustainable-food advocate Anna Lappe.

 

"It's really clear that there is a consumer awakening [regarding sustainable food initiatives]," says Lappe. "People are realizing that their food choices make an impact and matter. We're seeing a spike in the number of restaurants that try to celebrate and support local farms."

 

Indeed, it's encouraging to see substantial growth in noncommercial support of farmers' markets too, which gives consumers a direct connection to farmers. Anna says there were about 200 farmers' markets in the 1970s -- and today there are more than 8,000. She cites this upward trend as further proof that people are increasingly curious about where their food comes from, which is a giant leap in the right direction.

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At FoodChain in Lexington, Kentucky, students tour the tilapia tanks that are part of the indoor aquaponics system.

New Ways of Farming

Lappe is also excited about innovative new approaches to farming, such as Bright Farms, a company that's developing a model to grow salad greens close to or on top of supermarkets. Selling the greens they raise to -- and via -- those markets would reduce food miles and costs, and ensure fresher, more nutritious produce. FoodChain in Lexington, Kentucky, is a great example of this initiative -- it's a nonprofit that raises tilapia aquaponically and filters the water from the tilapia tanks to irrigate the herbs and lettuces they grow.

 

Even venture capitalists are seeing food start-ups as an area in which they can make a positive change. There is already funding for projects to connect restaurants with food purveyors. There are delivery services and online farmers' markets like Good Eggs and Farmigo that link local farms to consumers. Companies like Hampton Creek are working on creating new foods that will be nutritious and have a more positive effect on the environment, human health, and animal health. Anna sees all this progress as evidence that "consumers care and businesses are seeking ways to meet that demand."

Encouraging More Farmers

Encouraging more young people to get into farming and supporting them is another movement Anna applauds. For decades, the number of farms and farmers in the U.S. has been shrinking. Farms have been getting bigger and swallowing up small and midsize farms since the 1970s: We’ve been producing more food on fewer farms. Data suggests that trend has peaked and according to the USDA, about 20 percent of farms today are less than 10 years old.

foodcorps-ma-boston-stephanie-many-kids-seedlings-0714.jpg Photography by: Kelly Campbell
FoodCorps service member Stephanie Simmons with students from the Food Project in Boston.

Educating the Next Generation

As more people become involved in promoting sustainable food practices, Anna emphasizes the importance of educating a new generation about the food they eat. FoodCorps is working to increase awareness of how food grows and connect kids with real whole foods and with farms -- educating them about their own nutrition along the way. So far this year, FoodCorps has worked with more than 100,000 kids across the country via their programs around setting up school gardens and adding fresh fruit and vegetables to lunch programs.

 

Read Anna Lappe's book Diet for a Hot Planet

Learn what you can do to shop and cook more sustainably.