By Bill Palladino
Area government agencies and nonprofit organizations in our community frequently speak of their critical roles in creating a better place to live. As citizens, we tend to support them in this notion with our tax dollars and financial contributions.
That is why I’ve found myself disappointed at meetings around the region when I find the food served disconnected from the values of the host.
In this region, millions of dollars are spent each year by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and businesses on food for meetings, events, and for guests. As someone trained to understand the origins of the food I eat, the vast majority of food served by these groups in Traverse City is at best unspecific, and at worst counterproductive for both economic and health considerations.
During a meeting a few months back hosted by a major nonprofit institution, both conditions were evident. In a four-hour session, we spoke of community concerns including environment, hunger, failing health statistics, and local investment. The snacks featured included packaged Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies, Lays potato chips, Cheezits crackers, an assortment of Coca-Cola products, and Nestle’ bottled water to drink. There was also a small basket of what I’ll call origin-free fruit, including oranges, bananas, and Red Delicious apples.
In another meeting, hosted by a government agency, the boxed lunch consisted of sandwiches from an area franchise, along with a bag of their chips, cellophane-wrapped chocolate chip cookie, and a bucketful of sugared and artificially sweetened drinks. For meeting-goers, these offerings are far too familiar.
There are two reasons this type of food disappoints me. The first is that most of this food is of dubious origins. It’s purchased cheaply as part of a commodity food system designed to put as much distance as possible between the consumer and the farmer or producer who made the product. Remember, all food starts in someone’s hands. The closer we keep our expenditures to those hands, the more economic benefit remains where those hands work. In the faceless commodity food system, most of our food dollars disappear out of our community, our region, our state, and even our country.
But it doesn’t stop at economic impacts. My second disappointment is the negative health impacts of this food system—an obesity epidemic, diabetes at record numbers, heart disease, etc. The further we go afield in sourcing our food, and the more we rely on highly processed, hermetically sealed products from thousands of miles away, the fewer health and nutritional benefits remain.
While the food we serve at lunches and meetings might sound like a drop in the bucket, it’s at least a statement to everyone in the room that we’re all responsible for the choices we make. Our region already has farmers and producers offering high-quality products ready to meet the demand. Government agencies, nonprofit institutions, and businesses should commit to their own purchasing policies prioritizing local food sourcing. Pick your number. A 20% local goal is a reasonable place to start for any organization. The time is right, it isn’t too painful, makes economic sense, and can have lasting positive impacts on the future health of our community.
Bill Palladino is a business consultant and Executive Director of the Grand Traverse Foodshed Alliance. http://gtfoodshedalliance.org
This article was originally published on October 14, 2017 as part of the Agricultural Forum in the Traverse City Record-Eagle newspaper. See the original version on their website.