HEC Supports a Local Farm & Food Economy

cornskyIndiana is the tenth most dominant agricultural state in the country, with over 14 million acres of farm land[1] and production of corn exceeding over a billion bushels for the past two years[2]. Over $500 million in subsidies is given to farmers in our state every year[3], mainly to encourage planting of commodity crops that are used for industrial processing and are not eaten directly by Hoosiers. Meanwhile, a large number of our state’s residents struggle to find, and afford to buy, healthy food.

Despite our position as an agricultural leader in the country, Indiana ranks worst in the nation for food deserts. As defined by the USDA, a food desert exists if over 20% of the population makes less than twice as much of the federal poverty level and residents must travel a mile or more in urban areas to get to a grocery store. In Indiana, more than 28% of Hoosiers earn significantly less than twice the poverty level and poverty-stricken individuals are unable to find or afford transportation to the nearest grocery store. Low-income residents in Indiana spend $3.5 billion annually on food, but most current markets provide low-quality food to these consumers, as poor residents purchase food from whatever convenience store or fast food restaurant is nearest to their homes.

So over a quarter of Hoosiers do not earn enough money to eat well and only 21% say that they eat the recommended five fruits and vegetables a day, which is the minimum recommended by medical experts to prevent against cancer and other diseases[4]. This sad fact is evidenced by the health of our population. Approximately 32% of Hoosiers are obese and approximately 11% have been diagnosed with diabetes with medical costs estimated at $4 billion for diabetes treatment alone.[5]

In addition to the health issues of not having local access to fresh produce, there are serious economic consequences. Hoosiers spend $16 billion a year buying food, but over $14.5 billion of that is spent buying food sourced from outside of the state[6], as Indiana imports approximately 90% of its food. In addition, farmers spend approximately $3.5 billion per year buying farm inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, feed, and petroleum products that are sourced from outside of the state[7]. These two facts combined mean that the total loss to Indiana’s farm and food economy to outside sources is around $18 billion each year.

Some may ask how it is that in the United States, which may be the most highly developed and productive agricultural system in the world, an agricultural state like Indiana is experiencing negative consequences from its food supply and is unable to provide adequate access to healthy food for over 25% of its residents. The answer can be found in the crops that we grow and the uses for those crops. For example, 40% of the corn that is grown in the U.S. is used for ethanol and another 36% is used for animal feed, while most of the remainder is exported. Very little is used for food by Americans.[8] In addition, the vast majority of soy is processed into oils and meal that are used in animal feed and not for human consumption. So most of the traditional crops grown in Indiana are not used to feed people but are instead used to feed animals. To make matters worse, the environmental impact of traditional row crop agriculture and industrial livestock operations are becoming more and more well-known – threatened water quality from runoff and drainage, noxious odors from animal waste, and heightened carbon emissions. In addition to the voluntary work to address these issues by the growing number of farmers engaging in conservation cropping systems, a local farm economy, which encourages farmers to grow crops meant to be eaten by people, therefore has the potential to benefit local populations in numerous ways.

farmers-market-1Encouraging the growth of local food sources, especially in urban areas, and greater production of fruits, vegetables, and specialty grains by farmers statewide, along with assistance for food farmers like those producing organic, free-range, and other specialty foods, will help more money stay in the state of Indiana, furthering public health, promoting Indiana agriculture, protecting our environment, and improving our economy. For all of these reasons, the Hoosier Environmental Council advocates for programs and/or legislation aimed at further promoting local food systems.

[1] http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/state-fact-sheets/state-data.aspx?reportPath=/StateFactSheets/StateFactSheets&StateFIPS=18#.VR1BX_nF9e8\

[2] Greg Matli, State Statistician, USDA, NASS, Great Lakes Region per http://www.hoosieragtoday.com/indiana-sets-record-for-2014-corn-and-soybean-yield/

[3] http://farm.ewg.org/regiondetail.php?fips=18000&summlevel=2

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, 2010

[5] http://www.in.gov/isdh/24966.htm

[6]  Estimated by Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center in Hoosier Farmer? Emergent Food Systems in Indiana using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey.

[7] Estimated by Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center in Hoosier Farmer? Emergent Food Systems in Indiana using data from the 2007 Census of Agriculture.

[8] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-to-rethink-corn/