COLUMBIA — When Monica Eng’s 7-year-old daughter asked where her breakfast came from, Eng gave names. The food was all local, even personal: the bacon and the eggs came from Kim, the milk from farmer Keith, the potatoes and onions from Jake.
Then Eng, a food reporter for the Chicago Tribune and conference panelist, thought about the cost of that breakfast. It was more than going to a restaurant.
“Local food is great, but the big question is how do we make this affordable?” Eng said. “How do we make this quality and freshness and choosiness about how we want our food to be produced accessible to everyone?”
The high cost and limited accessibility of fresh, locally grown food were highlighted during a breakout panel at the Food, Fuel and Society conference held at MU's Reynolds Journalism Institute on Tuesday. Panelists called for making a better, more sustainable agricultural system a reality.
Not only is cost prohibitive, but geography can be a compounding factor, too, said panelist Mary Hendrickson, director of MU’s Food Circles Networking Project. Food deserts — places with low access to food and grocery stores — exist in both rural and urban areas.
“People in food deserts end up paying more for food,” Hendrickson said. “I’m from a rural area in Nebraska, and food is not that cheap there.”
Panelist Kathryn Colasanti of the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems added time as another complicating factor. Even if local, fresh foods were cheaper and more accessible, that doesn't always translate to food on the plate. The luxury of time to shop and prepare food from scratch isn’t always a reality. Colasanti said she spent about two and a half hours a day dealing with food.
Conference participant Diane Booth said she cooks three meals a day and frequents local farmers markets for ingredients.
“How many people cook three meals a day? I get up early, and I’m at the farmers market at 8 o’clock every Saturday. But this is a small group of people you’re talking to; people who use farmers markets know how to cook,” Booth said. “If you really want to eat good food, you’d better get back to cooking.”
Colasanti, who specializes in urban agriculture, spoke of reclaiming a connection with food and where it comes from, closing a gap that separates consumers ("foodies") and farmers ("aggies").
Though Hendrickson described herself as “a big local foodie,” and knows where a lot of her food comes from, she also eats Cheerios, which come from who-knows-where, for breakfast. She described the tiers of food production as ranging from home-grown to globally imported.
“[Agriculture] is so complex," Hendrickson said. "We’re participating in the food system in so many ways, and we’re all trying to move into a better system in some way.”
Colasanti pointed out that the system’s infrastructure only supports national and global food supply chains. “We’ve built superhighways for the national and global; the bridges have washed out for the local,” she said.
Though considerable barriers exist to fresh, local food for everyone, there are reasons the local food movement remains popular. Eng said it creates a sense of community, as people can talk to the farmers growing their food. Hendrickson said farmers do it for a different reason.
“It's a lot of fun,” she said. “The farmers are really excited about what they’re doing.”