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The Boston Globe

The Good Food Revolution

Will Allen

Autumn has arrived in the Northeast. The leaves are turning colors, the days are getting shorter, and the weather has a hint of the chill to come. It's a time of change in many ways. Our nation is grappling with the daunting challenges of health care and global warming. Another change is coming as well. It's called the good food revolution. By bringing locally grown, organic, nutritiously rich food to a table near you, the good food revolution can help us tackle these larger societal issues, and benefit us all.

We need a revolution in our food delivery system because the global $3.2 trillion processed-food industry is undermining our health and significantly contributing to our carbon footprint.

Let's take a quick look at how produce in Massachusetts makes it to our grocery store shelves. Quite likely it was picked in California's Central Valley, the mother of all breadbaskets. The produce journeyed across the country from the field to the wholesaler to a retailer and finally to your dinner table. Total travel time, about 12 to 14 days.

Have you ever wondered how much nutrition is left after that voyage? Not much. You're largely eating vacuous cellulose - even if you buy it from Whole Foods. This long journey also exposes it to multiple handlers and contaminants that create health scares - recalled meat, tomatoes, peanuts - that are regular features on the nightly news.

Have you ever wondered how many greenhouse-gas-emitting-food miles it took for that nutritionally leached meal to arrive on your plate? The answer is about 3,000 miles. Figure you eat produce from California every day. That means 365 days a year, your food travels 3,000 miles across the country, adding almost 1.1 million food miles to your personal carbon footprint. Ouch!

If this system seems unsustainable to you, it is. It would collapse if it were not for the tremendous state and federal subsidies that big agribusiness receives.

The impact of our industrial food system takes an even greater toll on poorer inner-city residents. Redlining in these districts doesn't just apply to the banking industry. It's as hard to get a mortgage in these neighborhoods as it is to get fresh produce. Often residents have to drive miles to get to a full-scale grocery store. This nutritional wasteland is particularly devastating on children.

The good news is that we can turn this around. Already, more privileged households are increasingly buying locally grown organic foods and getting the best nutrition possible. Ten million people will or have planted food gardens this year, including one on the White House lawn.

It's time to bring this revolution to the rest of America. We need to make this a choice that more of us will be able to make regardless of our socioeconomic status.

Organizations like Growing Power, which I founded and direct, are cutting health care costs and greenhouse gas emissions by promoting programs so people can grow organic, culturally appropriate food close to economically distressed urban populations. By engaging the local community, Growing Power produces $250,000 worth of organic food in a working-class neighborhood in Milwaukee's Northwest side - less than a half-mile from the city's largest public housing project. Local residents work and volunteer at the farm, creating a stronger, more economically viable and healthier community.

This revolution is taking place in Massachusetts, too. Organizations like the Marion Institute work with urban schools to bring nutritiously rich food to city neighborhoods in the state. For example, the institute recently helped build 17 raised vegetable beds at the Global Learning Charter Public School in New Bedford, providing children the opportunity to eat well, learn, and experience a bit of greenery on an otherwise wall-to-wall concrete campus.

The good food revolution cannot stop at farmers' markets or natural food stores in suburban or wealthier urban neighborhoods. For the revolution to be complete, people in poorer neighborhoods must have access to it, too.

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Will Allen is founder and CEO of Growing Power, an urban farm based in northwest Milwaukee.

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