Food prepared by the C&O Restaurant, Charlottesville Jessica Derstine

Beyond struggling for a space in the grocery store parking lot, most of us don’t think too hard about how we’re going to get our food. We assume that the aisles will be abundant and the produce section stocked. We’ve gotten used to the tremendous advantage of having year-round leafy greens and our pick of an array of meats and cheeses. With all of this variety, the bounty of the American dinner plate has become a limitless frontier. But what is the path foods take to get to the supermarket? And how does food shape not only our waistlines, but the world around us?

Get Your Protein

“It’s hard to talk about chicken without talking about the ever-expanding tentacles of a vast system,” says Benjamin Cohen, assistant professor in UVA’s department of science, technology and society and leader of the UVA Food Collaborative. He’s talking about the conventional way most chickens are raised and processed—very close together and in a factory. The practice leads to a number of problems and raises a common refrain among food systems experts—the tension between efficiency and quality. “In the past century we’ve done really well with quantity and productivity,” Cohen says, “but in the process have left a lot of work to be done in achieving equitable access and distribution, not to mention reducing environmental harm.” According to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, 8.9 billion chickens were produced in the U.S. in 2007.

Most brand-name chickens that you find at supermarkets are raised by producers under contract with large poultry companies, and have spent part of their lives in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). In these settings, chickens reach full size six weeks after hatching. “They’re bred to grow very, very quickly,” says Paul Freedman, who teaches a food and politics class and co-founded the UVA Food Collaborative. “Antibiotics and other chemicals are introduced into their diets, and one of the problems when you’ve got chickens so concentrated is that pathogens can take hold.”

“The antibiotics get into the water, they get into us,” says Cohen.

To illustrate the concern that these tactics might play out in ways we can’t yet imagine, Cohen references the case of a hormone called DES (diethylstilbestrol), which was used to fatten chickens in the 1950s. Years later, researchers found that this chemical causes cancer in women. It was phased out of food production in the 1970s. “It takes a while to find these things out,” says Cohen.

But not all farmers subscribe to the same model. Both Cohen and Freedman cite Virginia’s own Polyface Farms, which was featured in Michael Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as an example of a different way of producing meat, and as an indication that there’s a sea change in the way people think about food.

“Polyface doesn’t do hormones,” says Cohen. “They don’t cage the chickens. They integrate them into a more ecological system. This helps maintain the nutrition cycle. Their food doesn’t require antibiotics because you haven’t compromised their health.”

“They’re living a life in which they’re contributing to the life of the farm,” says Freedman. “These chickens are running all over the place, and they get processed right there at Polyface.”

Don’t Forget a Grain

“Part of the story of corn is that it’s everywhere,” says Freedman. “It’s in almost everything we encounter in the center aisles of the supermarket. And if you’re eating a chicken, you’re eating something that’s eaten a tremendous amount of corn.” In the documentary King Corn, UVA professor Stephen Macko analyzes a strand of the filmmaker’s hair and finds that corn accounts for more than half of his diet.

If you’ve had your ear to the national conversation about nutrition, you’ve probably heard the controversy about corn—its hand in obesity rates through high fructose corn syrup, and its reach into other industries, such as beef and chicken production, where producers use a great deal of corn as feed. According to the National Corn Growers Association, about 80 percent of the 72.7 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by livestock, poultry and fish production.

But how did corn become so ubiquitous? How did it get so woven into our diets? “Subsidies are a big topic of conversation,” says Cohen. He says the federal government started subsidizing corn in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. “It made sense in that era to support price structures so that food was being distributed in a meaningful way,” he says.

However, this eventually made it harder for farmers to keep a margin of profit, so they had to produce more and more, expanding and buying new equipment. Now, smaller farmers are having a hard time keeping up. “The subsidies are almost a century old,” says Cohen. “As time has gone by, they generally go to support large corporations.”

But large-scale expansion has complications, ones for which solutions create issues of their own. “Efficiency and productivity and expansion require you to do more dramatic things,” says Cohen. “Those things then create problems. You need so many chemicals. It’s the same thing with chickens. You need pesticides; you need fertilizer; those get into the water.”

Freedman stresses the external costs of industrial corn, such as the tremendous amount of fossil fuels it takes to grow and ship. “No matter what we put on our plate, if it’s grown in a conventional industrial way it has moved us away from solar energy and toward petroleum,” he says. “We live in a world where what we’re eating isn’t always what we think we’re eating. To a great extent, we’re chowing down on petroleum.”

And a Vegetable

Take a piece of lettuce. Or a stalk of celery. Or a cherry tomato. If it’s off season, and you found it at a regular supermarket, chances are it’s come on a very long journey, from perhaps as far away as the fertile coast of South Africa or a vast growing field in Argentina. “We’ve gotten greater diversity, so that’s exciting,” says Freedman, “of course they’ve traveled a very long way, and were picked under conditions we often don’t know very much about.”

To satisfy year-round demand, growers will pick a variety—or cultivar—of a certain vegetable, not necessarily for its taste or nutritional value, but for its ability to ship and store well. Vegetables might be picked before they’re ripe and shipped over many miles in plastic, all of which saps nutrition.

“You have vast fields of thousands of acres of tomatoes that are going to ship well and taste like cardboard,” says Tanya Denckla Cobb, associate director at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at UVA, which provides and teaches conflict resolution solutions through consensus building, mediation and community engagement.

Much of the way food is grown and shipped is dictated by consumer demand and an expectation that foods will look a certain way. Even though small marks and holes may not be indicative of quality, people are used to spot-free vegetables. “We’ve been conditioned to buy only picture-perfect vegetables, rather than trained to look for taste and high nutritional quality,” says Cobb. “That’s part of the reason why Americans today may be overfed but malnourished, and suffering from a host of diet-related diseases.” A recent study by biochemist Donald Davis shows that fruits and vegetables tracked from 1950 to 1999 showed noticeable declines in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C.

Another danger is that when so many people are getting their food channeled through large packing and aggregation centers, if something goes wrong, the reverberations are widely felt. Cobb points to recent outbreaks of food contamination traced to processing plants. “The more people that lay hands on a product between the point of production and your mouth, the more room there is for contamination,” she says.

Wash It Down

Milk production in the Shenandoah Valley is another area overshadowed by what Cobb calls “the inexorable march toward efficiency.” Local dairy producers, she says, are very uncertain of their future. “They tend to be smaller. They do not have these massive dairies, and the milk has to be processed somehow.” The vast majority of milk is shipped out, processed, then shipped back. “Even if we buy Shenandoah’s Pride milk, there’s no way to know exactly where it comes from.”

It’s a similar story to that of corn—smaller farmers find it hard to compete with bigger dairy operations that have been buoyed by federal supports that keep prices down. Milk processing plants, in turn, are compelled to get milk from more dairies, from farther away. Their operations expand, and next thing you know, milk from Virginia is being sent to Florida to get processed and mixed with other milks.

“Farmers have a choice of getting big or getting out,” says Cobb.

However, there are those who are doing it a different way. If you want raw milk from Virginia, you can buy a share in a cow. “It’s happening everywhere,” says Cobb. “I can purchase a share in a cow, and in return I get a certain amount of milk.”

This practice, as well as the success of farms such as Polyface, indicates a growing demand for locally sourced food, and a growing value placed on its benefits. “The food is fresher, passing through fewer hands,” says Cobb. “And if it’s picked right and stored right, it’s going to be more nourishing.”

But don’t just trust the weathered guy at your farmer’s market. There’s a national awakening to the advantages of local food and the costs of buying food grown, processed and shipped in industrial ways. And that means, “there’s a market for it,” says Freedman. “Increasingly, there are outlets to obtain food that was grown close by.” Wal-Mart, for instance, our nation’s biggest retailer, recently announced an initiative to put more local foods in its stores and invest in sustainable agriculture.

“When Wal-Mart says they’re going to start sourcing some of their food locally, you know there’s a trend,” says Cobb.

“Everybody has an interest in thinking about the long-term costs of doing business the way we’ve been doing business,” says Freedman. He refers to the long-term health care costs of eating less-nutritious food, as well as environmental costs such as soil depletion and chemical runoff into water sources. “That $1 hamburger turns out to cost much, much more,” he says. “People are recognizing that the food that seems to cost more in the store, under a different accounting, may cost less in terms of externalities of production.”

When it comes to local food, Cobb has a different way of putting it: “People want to support their neighbor, and they say it tastes better, too.”

Paul Freedman, Tanya Denckla Cobb and Benjamin Cohen Dan Addison and Luca DiCecco

The UVA Food Collaborative

The UVA Food Collaborative promotes research, teaching and community engagement in pursuit of more sustainable food systems. Its members include faculty, staff and students at the University who conduct research at student gardens on Grounds, Morven Farm and Blandy Experimental Farm, in league with Green Dining at UVA dining halls. Faculty members currently offer over a dozen courses about various dimensions of food and landscape studies with plans to offer a concentration in sustainable food systems. Members also collaborate with local farmers and entrepreneurs to craft a more sustainable foodshed, which includes everything from the land food is grown on to the routes and markets it goes through to end up on your table.

Dollars and Cents

Americans spend less of their income on food than they used to. In the 1930s, the average household spent almost 25 percent of its disposable income on food. Now, they spend less than 10 percent. Freedman notes that lower-income Americans still spend a larger proportion of their money on food than average; indeed, those who earn between $10,000 and $15,000 a year spend a quarter of their income on food.

During the first half of the 20th century, the prices of farm products fell. Even after 1960, when food prices began to rise, the cost of other consumer products grew much more quickly, so the relative price of food has remained low.

Since 2008, world commodity prices for food have shot up. Economists attribute the change to several factors, including increases in the price of petroleum used to grow and transport food, reduced government stockpiles of food, trade liberalization that cuts subsidies, increased demand for grain-intense meat in developing nations and the use of grains to make biofuels.

How will price changes affect American consumers? Less than you’d think. The price of ingredients is only a small portion of what we pay for processed food. Abdolreza Abbassian, a U.N. economist, recently told NPR, “If you eat a loaf of bread in the West, two percent of the price may be the wheat-flour price. In the developing world, it’s 70 percent.”

“Keep in mind, though,” says Freedman, “that as grain prices and gas prices rise, the cost of food to the consumer is likely to increase as well.”