Our country's food system is flawed. How can we fix it?

An open-air market in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, features mounds of fresh vegetables and fruits. (Matthew Laird Acred/Flickr)

On a warm Sunday morning in Mississippi, a day before my first day of college, I woke up to realize that I had run out of all my food supplies from the week of orientation. Back home in India, a vendor would come by our house every morning with a cart full of fresh vegetables. Hence, we never had to walk out of the neighborhood for grocery shopping, unless it was the Sunday farmers market. Now, I had to arrange for a ride to Walmart to buy groceries. 

Walmart, at first, seemed like an interesting place to me – many aisles for various kinds of food, pharmacy items, clothing, and even furniture. It had more than everything a person would need to sustain a life. After frequenting the store a few times, I observed that most of the produce was imported from other countries. 

Grown in Mexico’ read the package. 

It seemed too far-fetched to me at first, knowing that Mississippi was historically an agricultural state. Perplexed, I spent some time researching about the agriculture sector in Mississippi and the United States as a whole. 

The Mississippi Delta holds some of the most fertile lands in the country for agriculture due to the presence of the Mississippi River. It is best suited for crops like beans, whole grains, and the like, that are not only healthy but also sustainable for the environment. Instead, the state abundantly cultivates corn and soybeans, crops that wreak havoc on the environment. 

That was where I spotted the problem in the American agricultural system. Farmers only want to grow certain crops that are subsidized by the government under the Farm Bill — corn and soybeans being the two major subsidized crops. There are farmers receiving more than 25 times the average yearly income of a U.S. citizen in farm subsidies. It almost has reached a point where the $867 billion piece of legislation has been developed to create a market for farm millionaires. This is unfathomable for a place like India. 

I still remember riding with my grandfather on the back of his scooter every Sunday to the farmers market. There would be seemingly limitless stalls lined up in an unorganized fashion selling all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Seeing this, I tried to better understand the apparent non-existence of farmers markets in Mississippi towns, which ironically are surrounded by farms, by spending some time talking to the vegetable vendors in my hometown during my visit to India last year. 

“All of the produce is grown on our own lands on the outskirts of the city,” a farmer told me. “We rotate crops throughout the year to remain in business, while also ensuring a regular supply of seasonal foods." This turns out to not only be beneficial to the land, but also provides more nutritional options for consumers. 

In fact, in a New York Times article titled, “Millennials ‘Make Farming Sexy’ in Africa, where tilling the Soil Once Meant Shame,” Augustine Collins Ntim, a Ghanaian politician, explains that with increased governmental efforts to make farming modern and lucrative, no maize was imported into the country in 2018 while most produce was sold locally. Moreover, they have made it a priority to lure more youth into engaging in agriculture. 

However, this is not completely the case for the United States or India, which provide food for millions each day. Due to their large populations they have developed different practices in order to develop food not only for their inhabitants but the world. The United States can benefit from setting up farmers markets like India by redirecting money from the Farm Bill to help small-scale farmers grow healthier crops. Additionally, it can help increase access to whole foods in low income areas, as these populations tend to eat highly processed foods from big (corporate) agriculture, as it is less expensive. Some U.S. states, in fact, have successfully utilized this practice. 

Rural towns in Michigan, for example, have been working on putting healthy foods on local tables for the past few years by organizing farmers markets. According to the 2015 Fair Food Network Survey, 90% of rural participants were eating more fruits and vegetables while 63% of vendors reported making more money. This system truly could have a profound impact on hundreds of rural towns in Mississippi and around the country in food deserts.

In times, where climate change is more pertinent than ever, certain bold steps aimed towards stasis, harmony, and healing instead of growth and dominance (capitalism) can improve farming practices exponentially, while also being good for the environment. Ultimately, it is about transforming mindsets and not saving the taxpayer money. It is about involving youth and not fighting cronyism. It is about moving the planet forward. 

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.