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Good for our health, bad for our farms?

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By Julia Freedgood of American Farmland Trust and Christine Fry of ChangeLab Solutions. Cross-posted from the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition.

We’ve all heard the drumbeat from nutrition experts: Eat more fruits and vegetables. We know this advice is good for our health. But what does it mean for our land—and for the farmers who grow food on our land?

With obesity rates at epidemic levels, easier access to fruits and vegetables is important, especially in low-income neighborhoods where healthy options can be hard to find. But ramping up demand for affordable produce means stepping up production, which means more demand on land and water.

How we use these resources will affect our environment and communities for years to come. We need to find new ways to protect both human health and the health of our land long into the future.

Farms and ranches operate on nearly half of all the land in the United States. Population growth, development pressures and severe weather like droughts and floods strain land and water supplies. Fields now sprout shopping malls instead of squash and melons, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that despite dramatic gains from conservation, 30 percent of cropland in America is eroding at an unsustainable rate.

Everyone who eats has a stake in healthy soil and clean water. We all need to understand what it takes to increase food production in a way that sustains our natural resources and the farmers who grow our food.

Fortunately, Americans’ burgeoning interest in knowing where our food comes from is helping health experts and growers build a powerful new alliance. Nutrition experts haven’t traditionally weighed in on conservation issues, but their involvement would go a long way toward establishing policies and incentives to encourage conservation practices, like using water more efficiently and planting cover crops to protect the soil.

The first step is to get growers and nutrition experts into the same room. Farmers can teach nutritionists about the challenges they face with access to land, a changing climate and competition for water. Nutrition experts can inform farmers about the challenges of healthy food access and affordability.

We can’t leave it to our national leaders to bridge this divide. As the most recent showdown over the farm bill has shown, we can’t rely on Congress to do the long-term thinking necessary to create a resilient food and farming system—one that balances farmland conservation and agricultural viability with strategies to nourish our most vulnerable. We need to turn our focus to local efforts.

Around the country, new initiatives are bringing together growers and nutritionists to look at where and how food is produced and where people buy it. These conversations often result in plans to advance a vision for food and farming in the region.

In Virginia, agriculture and health groups have come together around a statewide plan—Virginia Farm to Table—to improve access to healthy food and protect farmland. In western Iowa, growers have joined with health professionals to form the Pottawattamie County Local Food Council, connecting farmers with consumers to increase local food production and to identify new markets. In Montana, nutrition and agriculture groups have banded together to review housing development plans to ensure that the state’s fertile land can continue to provide food long into the future. And this fall, leaders in eight states, including Illinois, will host statewide meetings (with support from the national Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition) to bring agriculture and health groups together.

With Americans showing growing interest in where their food comes from, now is the time for farmers and nutrition experts to come together to protect both our land and our health.

Julia Freedgood is managing director of farmland and community initiatives at American Farmland Trust, a national conservation organization dedicated to protecting farm and ranch land, promoting sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land. Christine Fry is a senior policy analyst at ChangeLab Solutions, a nonprofit public health policy center. Both serve on the steering committee of the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition.

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