The Groundswell

Women Work Together for Sustainable Food Solutions

Young community farmers supported by the organization Wholesome Wave.
© Wholesome Wave

For Annie Farrell, a childhood spent in the tiny dairy farm town of Bovina, New York, connected her to land, and food, in ways that would shape her entire adult life. "There was a cherry tree in the yard that hung over the stoop," Farrell told a roomful of people at the YWCA in Greenwich, Connecticut, recently. "You could pick the cherries right off the tree. I thought it was a miracle." She says she's always wanted to be a farmer. Now she is one—the head farmer at Millstone Farm in Wilton, Connecticut, a for-profit working farm that promotes local and sustainable food production.

During her talk as one of the panelists for an event called "Women and the Sustainable Food Revolution: Transforming the Way We Eat," Farrell lamented our disconnection from the sources of our food. She talked fast and authoritatively, glasses perched on her nose, her long blonde hair clipped back simply in a barrette. "I don't know what percentage of our meals comes from our gardens now," she said, but added that there was a time when virtually all of our meals were grown either in our yards or nearby. She sees the food revolution as a very local experience—families converting lawn space to gardens; urban and suburban residents raising their own chickens. Whether for financial reasons, environmental reasons, or survivalist instincts, it's a movement toward greater self-sufficiency and greater appreciation for the origins of the plants and animals we depend on for sustenance.

Farrell also praised community supported agriculture (CSA), the system of individuals buying into local farms and receiving boxes of fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs and other commodities as they become available. More CSAs are expanding to include winter offerings, she says, from root vegetables to baked goods; and there are more community storage and food lockers available, which means excess veggies and fruits from harvest time can be canned and stored for use throughout the winter.

Small Scale, Big Impacts

Farmer Annie Farrell runs Millstone Farm in Wilton, Connecticut.
© Analiese Paik

Betsy Fink, president of the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation and the owner of Millstone Farm, spoke about the global significance of sustainable agriculture. U.S. farm subsidies to the "Big Five" crops of corn, soy, cotton wheat and rice were keeping those products artificially cheap. These crops then became the basis of the majority of our processed food (minus the cotton, of course), making that, in turn, some of the cheapest food around. "Nowhere in that list are there vegetables," Fink told the Greenwich audience.

What's more, local, sustainable food production could help keep climate change impacts at bay—from conserving water to maintaining soil health and preserving biodiversity by rotating crops and planting heirloom plants. Health Counselor Amy Kalafa, best known as one of the "Two Angry Moms" behind a documentary on transforming school lunches, has seen firsthand how those subsidized, highly processed food items—the Doritos and chicken nuggets and French fries—are being offered at school cafeterias across the country, undermining parents" attempts to keep their kid's meals healthy, and suggesting, by virtue of their being in schools, that these processed foods are a nutritious choice.

The initial impetus to put food in schools was a good one, says environmental advocate Jayni Chase, another speaker at the event. School lunches were a way to prevent malnourishment in the mid-1940s. But now, it's obesity, not malnourishment, that is the country's major food-related concern; driven in part by the fact that we "feed kids grease, fat and over-processed food" at school, Chase says. She founded the Center for Environmental Education in 1988 to help teach K-12 schools how to create environmental leadership among kids through the curriculum, the lunch room and energy-saving, healthy building initiatives.

Fresh Ideas for those in Need

It's not easy to infiltrate school systems; and those in the neediest urban districts are the ones that can least afford expensive changes and where families have the least easy access to healthy alternatives. That's where organizations like Wholesome Wave can make an impact. The nonprofit supports farmers and farmers" markets in cities across the country, from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Atlanta, Georgia, to nine different locations in Chicago. Besides providing fresh, local food to areas where the closest market is often a convenience store, the nonprofit makes that food more affordable through its Double Value Coupon Program, which doubles the value of food stamps when they're used at a participating farmers" market (right now, there are more than 60 such markets in 12 states).

"The demand [for fresh, local food] is there," said Betsy Fink. "We have to figure out how to get in there and make it affordable."

CONTACT: Center for Environmental Education; Millstone Farm; Wholesome Wave.

BRITA BELLI is editor of E.