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What Is the Future of Food?

Satya Rhodes-Conway

Managing Director, Mayors Innovation Project

At the closing night of the 1776 Challenge Festival last month, attendees were treated to a series of conversations on the future of different aspects of our world. One conversation—a discussion about the “future of food” but focused solely on 3-D food printing—was not what I expected.

After all, we’ve got some big food problems to solve. About 25 percent of Americans are obese, partly because of poor nutrition. Millions of people rely on food banks and charity to get enough to eat, and many of the people who grow and serve our food can’t afford to feed their families, but Americans throw away almost 40 million tons of food a year. The chemicals we rely on to grow food literally poison us, our environment and the resources we need to grow more food.

So many contradictions—and a 3-D food printer won’t solve any of them.

You can’t think about the future of food—or really, the future of anything—without asking how it will be impacted by the changing climate. All you have to do is look at what’s going in California right now to realize how much increasing drought could change the face of agriculture in this country. Bigger storms, more flooding, changes in temperature and growing seasons, new pests – all these will impact food production. Are we preparing for any of this?

Moreover, food production depends on availability of land, but one of the prevailing trends of the last century has been the conversion of agricultural lands into sprawl. Will that continue, or can we reverse it with more compact development? Another trend is the consolidation of small farms into larger, more industrial enterprises. Is that what we want for our economy? Most of our food is grown hundreds of miles from where it’s eaten. Can we satisfy consumer demand without transporting food long distances?

Agricultural runoff, from fertilizers, animal waste, pesticides and herbicides, pollutes water all across the country and is essentially unregulated, causing a host of health and environmental problems downstream. Thirty percent of crops require pollination, but pollinators are dying in part because of pesticide use. It’s not like we don’t know how to prevent or mitigate this pollution; we just lack the economic and political will to do so.

We also lack the political and economic will to fairly compensate workers in our food system, or to ensure that those same chemicals don’t ruin workers’ health. From the workers who plant and harvest, to those who process and pack, to those who sell, prepare and serve—too many are exposed to unsafe working conditions, receive poverty-level wages, lack access to commonsense benefits like paid sick time, or are subject to unfair scheduling practices.

Depressed yet? Don’t worry; there is hope. All throughout the food system, people are working for change. Because my specialty is cities, let me focus on things that local governments are doing to make our food system healthier and more equitable.

Across the country, cities are helping to connect farmers to consumers and neighborhoods to healthy, locally grown food. They are supporting farmers markets and farm stands through their zoning and permitting laws. They are helping to make fresh produce available to families on federal benefits including SNAP (known widely as food stamps) and WIC (the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program).

Cities are increasing access to healthy food in neighborhoods that need it by helping corner stores offer more produce and healthier options, and by incentivizing grocery stores to locate themselves in underserved neighborhoods. They are working with school districts to provide meals to kids year-round at schools, libraries and community centers. They are supporting pantry gardens, and helping food pantries collect unused food before it becomes waste.

Local governments also are helping people to grow food locally by changing zoning codes and land-use plans to allow urban agriculture, including keeping chickens, bees and even goats. They are helping to establish and support community gardens, and in some places making it possible to garden in front yards and street terraces.

Cities are supporting their local food systems by protecting agricultural land and curbing sprawl. They’re also supporting food hubs and packing houses that aggregate local crops for wholesale, and they’re working with institutional purchasers – especially schools – to increase the amount of local food they buy. Cities are supporting food-related business incubators and commercial kitchens. They are building public markets, and supporting workforce training to prepare folks that need jobs to work in food-related industries. They are promoting or even requiring composting, and building bio-digesters to turn food waste into energy. And they are supporting better wages and benefits for all low-income workers, including those in the food system.

That’s what I want the future of food to look like: More local, more sustainable, less environmentally harmful, more resilient to the impacts of climate change, more equitable, and more economically fair. Achieving this will take more than just city action; we’re going to need system change at the state and federal levels, too. That change can be driven by consumers being thoughtful about where and how we spend our money.

It can also be driven by businesses – particularly by startups and social enterprises willing to be creative and working to find innovative ways to bring healthy, locally grown food to consumers at all income levels. These companies also must be committed to providing good, family-supporting jobs.

There are lots of interesting startups in this space already, but there’s always room for more. Got an innovative way to grow more food in cities or connect farmers with markets? Want to tackle food deserts and swamps by making good food available to low income neighborhoods? Know how to reduce food waste or increase composting? You could be the future of food! Just don’t try and sell me a 3-D food printer.

Satya Rhodes-Conway

Managing Director, Mayors Innovation Project

Satya Rhodes-Conway is the Managing Director of the Mayors Innovation Project and a senior associate at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS). She works with cities across the country to…