On a Mission to Understand Local Foods Movement, An Interview with Chris Wharton

A couple weekends ago, I attended the ADA leadership institute in Dallas, TX. Despite heavy rains, I arrived on time for two of the three days of the event. I was so surprised (and happy) to run into a former fellow student of nutrition. We both served on the ADA Student Council Advisory Committee (as chair and vice-chair). We lost touch and all I can say is he’s been up to a lot, including getting a PhD, a Yale Post-Doc (Rudd Obesity Center) and now a researcher trying to understand more about the local foods movement. Of course, I’m interested… I love finding out what influences behavior. So enjoy this guest post/interview with Chris. Check him out. Leave a comment. As someone who grew up in the midwest of a low SES and very limited exposure to fruits and vegetables, I’m so curious to learn more about what Chris is researching and learning. Feast on this food knowledge nugget (no fillers).

Chris Wharton, PhD

Chris Wharton, PhD

I’m studying a few areas all related to local foods. First off, I’m interested in how and why people get involved in local foods programs (in particular, CSAs), who they are, and how they are affected by their involvement. People make the assumption that those getting involved in local foods programs are of a particular SES. But, it’s not necessarily true that only higher income, more highly educated individuals get involved. It’s also not true that those who buy into CSAs only shop at Whole Foods and similar stores. There’s a stereotype being floated out there, and it’s likely just that, a stereotype that does not capture the local foods audience correctly. This might be the most commonly misunderstood aspect of the local foods movement, that the population buying into it comprises foodies, rich people, and granola-types. More likely, these are people interested in maximizing nutrition or food safety (whether or not they are correct that local foods are healthier or safer), they might be interested in becoming involved with local food as a political act (against the consumer culture), or they might be coming at it from an environmental or community-support perspective. But, from our focus group work, they might still shop at Sam’s, Walmart, or Costco, they might still be of lower income, and they aren’t all MS or PhD-level educated. We’re working on a statewide survey to check some of this out.

I care also about how their involvement affects other food-related habits. Do they cook more? Do they eat out less? Do they garden more or incorporate local foods into diet regimens? (I ask these particular questions for specific reasons, which I can go into later.)

My second area of research relates to farmers’ markets (FMs). I am working on creating a farmers’ market association for the state of Arizona with a grant from the USDA. This is a huge project, but it’s meant to improve the marketing for FMs all over the state, to develop coordination and communication among them, and to improve the infrastructure for local foods in AZ.

These things are important (and hopefully can impact society) because local foods represents an alternative to an industrialized food system. This food system isn’t necessarily wrong, but it in and of itself is unsustainable as it’s currently structured. For a variety of reasons I can talk about later, local and regional food systems offer some solutions (but they have significant barriers to overcome in their infancy).

So far, the greatest challenge in my area of work is the conflation of philosophy, passion, and science. It seems that some who are passionate about local foods define themselves by its philosophy, and because science does not yet fully support the local foods movement (not to say that it eventually won’t), some allow their philosophies to trump scientific data. That’s a problem for the advancement of the movement. Ideals are nice, but you must temper your ideals with science and follow the most realistic path. More on that later, too.

For those looking for balance (not significantly altering their diet, but still trying to incorporate some local foods), it makes sense to incorporate local foods where it’s easiest to do so. Simpler, more common produce will be easier to incorporate into easier dinners than less identifiable goods. So, buy local corn (from a small- to medium-sized grower), tomatoes, potatoes, greens, apples, berries, etc., and don’t delve too much into produce you’ve never seen before. It’ll be a lot more fun to simply shuck an ear or two of corn with your kids and boil them for 10 minutes before serving rather than trying to figure out what to do with your Sputnik-looking kohlrabi.

Chris’ Links

http://www.polycsa.org/ Poly-Harvest CSA

http://www.public.asu.edu/~cwharton Personal page

http://nursing.asu.edu/facultystaff/biopages/wharton.htm Bio page