- Associated Press - Friday, July 17, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Obesity, encouraging economic development in rural areas and balancing the state budget all are thorny problems, but the Kansas Rural Center maintains it has a tool for all three: buying from local farmers.

According to KRC’s Feeding Kansas report, if each Kansas resident bought $5 worth of food from farmers in-state each week, that would generate $750 million in revenue for farms, which would create $48.7 million in state sales tax revenue at the new 6.5 percent rate. That would drop if the tax rate for food falls as planned in the future. Much of the food Kansans eat is shipped in from other states or imported, The Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/1MonYLV ) reported.

It also pointed to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture study that estimated more than 90 percent of Kansans eat a “nutritionally imbalanced” diet, meaning they get too little of food groups like vegetables or plant-based protein or too many calories from refined carbohydrates, solid fats or alcohol.

Natalie Fullerton, project director at Kansas Rural Center, said local “food policy councils” and “farm-to-fork task forces” could be the start of a new, localized food system.

“It will help improve Kansas’ economy, community environment and health status,” she said.

The report is designed to spark discussion about solutions, not to show one model that will work in all communities, Fullerton said. For example, it mentions that some people can’t afford healthful foods, but doesn’t say how to change that, she said.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for different models,” she said.

Here’s a rundown of the ideas and potential roadblocks to local food systems:

Problem: As of 2012, Kansas ranked 40th in the country in production of both fruits and vegetables, according to USDA. Corn, wheat and soybeans dominate Kansas production, and while all can be part of a healthy diet, most will go toward livestock feed or processed foods, which most Americans already eat in abundance. As of 2012, only 441 Kansas farms produced vegetables and 489 had orchards.

Proposed solution: State and local governments would buy local fruits and vegetables, creating demand that farmers would step in to supply. The report also called for Kansas State Research and Extension to add an agricultural economist specializing in fruits and vegetables, to help farmers and food processors to make business decisions, and to add extension agents specializing in fruit and vegetable production in their regions.

The state also would need to commit to stable funding for horticulture research and come up with solutions to the problem of herbicide “drift” from row crop farms that kills vegetables and fruit, the report said.

Beginning farmers who don’t have the cash to invest in large plots of land and expensive equipment have shown interest in produce as a less-expensive alternative to the row crop-and-livestock model of agriculture, Fullerton said. While some large farms likely would still focus on corn and cattle to supply the global food system, other farms could focus on local demand, she said.

“We believe there’s room for smaller systems,” she said.

Possible complications: School districts and other publicly funded entities may be able to influence the decisions of farmers in their area, if they convince the farmers they represent a stable customer. On the other hand, the food system is global, meaning demand for livestock feed in China or ethanol at the federal level may do more to move markets, and farmers’ decisions, than local decisions do.

Rich Llewelyn, an agricultural economist with K-State, said transitioning from row crops to produce would be difficult for farmers, because they would need new equipment and have to know they could sell their crops quickly.

Fruits and vegetables sell for more than corn or soybeans, but they can be difficult to get to the consumer before they spoil, he said.

“The ones who would consider that more are the ones who have relatively small acreage who are close to an urban center,” he said.

Problem: 92 percent of Kansas counties have some areas within that are classified as food deserts based on distances to a grocery store. Despite the common perception of food deserts as city neighborhoods where fast food chains and convenience stores dominate, many of Kansas’ food deserts are in rural areas. In some, residents have to drive 20 miles or farther to find a source of healthful food.

Only about half of Kansas’ 675 cities have a grocery store, and 82 of the 213 supermarkets in communities with fewer than 2,500 people went out of business between 2007 and 2012.

Even where they do exist, rural grocers may not be able to stock healthy food, because they can’t meet the minimum order size distributors require, or because the higher prices for low-volume orders make selling fruits and vegetables not economically viable.

Proposed solution: Farmer’s markets and other types of ‘food hubs’ that connect producers to consumers could meet some of the demand. Flexibility is the key, because each community has a different mix of grocery options, farmers and organizations that buy food in bulk, Fullerton said. For example, in one town, a grocery store owner allowed a farmer’s market to set up in his parking lot, meaning customers could get everything they needed in one spot and he wouldn’t have the expense of stocking fresh produce, she said.

“Folks come to the farmer’s market and buy produce, and then they come into his store and buy the other things they need,” she said.

Possible complications: Even if more farms begin growing fruits and vegetables, the economics still might not work out in rural areas, Llewelyn said. It would be important for farmers to have a stable buyer like a school district or grocery store to keep risk down, he said.

“To really be commercially viable, you’re going to have to able to sell enough that it’s worth someone’s time,” he said.

Problem: Even when we have access to healthy foods, some of us don’t eat them.

Proposed solution: The state could build on K-State Research and Extension’s nutrition education programs and encourage “farm to school” programs to bring local produce into schools and educate children about healthy diets. Schools and organizations also could decide not to allow certain unhealthy foods, so making healthy choices will be more automatic, Fullerton said.

“You have to start somewhere,” she said.

Possible complications: While Americans as a whole have shunned trans fat, artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup because of concerns about those ingredients’ health effects, as a group we still want the tasty and not-so-healthy foods we did before. That has led to the odd phenomenon of “all-natural” cream-filled sandwich cookies and sodas touting their use of cane sugar as if it were an elixir of health.

Furthermore, an emphasis on healthier ingredients has prompted a backlash from some who see them as injecting a political agenda into their favorite foods. Cultures, including food cultures, do change over time, but getting us to adopt healthier diets will be a long process.

___

Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide