So concludes an article Lindsey Smith-Taillie and I wrote for the Journal of Nutrition that is out online this week. After several lengthy discussions, bemoaning the socioeconomic gap between those who do and don’t shop at farmer’s markets, and the lack of progress made on shifting the food system from one that is wasteful and perpetuates poor health to one that is sustainable and supports nutritious decisions, we decided to dig into the scientific literature.
After months of reading USDA reports, articles from journals ranging from the Journal of Applied Economics to the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, and the websites of Walmart, Whole Foods, and other large grocery store chains, we concluded that consumers and researchers have been oversimplifying the food system, and that this oversimplification may cause more problems than it solves.
One example of this simplification we talk about in the article – the local food focus on carbon emissions from transport without consideration of water usage among other things – has also been highlighted in the media recently (the “you consume more than 300 gallons of California water each week” news byte). A slight decrease in meat and dairy consumption would have a greater environmental impact than a substantial shift towards local foods. But even that is an over-simplification because environmental impact is just one factor –one domain—influencing an individuals’ choice to purchase and consume any given food item.
We organized the article around four domains: nutrition and health; economics; social justice; and the environment. There was no clear “winner” on any of these domains, and we identified significant gaps in information and knowledge surrounding all of these issues. For example, we don’t know the relative cost to consumers of local versus conventionally grown food. And we don’t know whether farms selling produce at farmer’s markets pay their workers more or give them better benefits than farms selling produce at Walmart or Trader Joe’s. And we don’t know how the local food movement in the U.S. impacts farmers in low- and middle-income countries. And the list goes on.
In the face of so many unknowns, it’s impossible to answer, “Where is the best place to buy your food?” Given the complexities of the U.S. food system, we predict that there is no “best” place, but we as consumers can advocate –and as researchers can inform – a shift to “better” places.