The good news is, Kansas consumers spend $7.2 billion on food each year. The bad news is, $6.5 billion of it comes from beyond the state’s borders, obesity is on the rise, 56 percent of Kansas farmers require secondary income and only eight percent of Kansans have healthy diets, according to a 2010 survey by the Kansas Health Institute.
The statistics are sobering considering that Kansas prides itself as an agricultural state. And yet a new study sponsored by the Kansas Rural Center shows that though the state prides itself on “feeding the world,” residents increasingly struggle to feed and nourish themselves.
Feeding Kansas, funded through a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation’s Statewide Partnership for a Healthier Kansas Initiative and partnerships with the American Heart Association, the Healthy Kansas Hospitals, KC Healthy Kids, Kansas Action for Children, Kansas Alliance for Wellness and the Kansas Rural Center, was presented at the annual Kansas Farmers Union convention.
Cole Cottin, primary analyst for the KRC and author of the study, recently spent over one year traveling the state discussing the issue with Kansans, and what she found was both troubling and promising.
“It was one of the most critical conversations of our lifetime—how will we feed ourselves now and into the future,” she said.
While each partnership had their own focus in the results of the study, the Kansas Rural Center’s focus was with the family farm. “We’re looking at a common sense solution to this challenge that starts with our farms—the source of our foods—as being critical to increasing the availability, accessibility and the use of healthy foods in Kansas,” Cottin said. “We need to make sure that healthy food is routinely available for all Kansans.”
Four key barriers currently limit the capacity of Kansas farmers to provide a diverse selection of healthy foods, the report found: inadequate coordination, planning and resource allocation on both local and state levels, lack of regulatory clarity in state-level policies that impact the farm-to-fork food system, lack of a centralized location for finding farm-to-fork-related policies and program information, and limited information, resources and protections for the production, handling and sale of fruit and vegetable crops in Kansas.
“People say we need to produce more, but the truth is we can feed ten billion people,” Cottin said. “And yet people are chronically hungry. The issue is much bigger than production.”
Food waste—including the disposal of fruits and vegetables with minor blemishes—constitutes 40 percent of all food produced, the study found.
“It’s an issue we’re all familiar with,” she said. “But to address these things, we have to look at poverty. The economic story is critical to the story of our health.”
The economic health of family farms is at stake. A study concluded that farm income in 2012 was $2.9 billion less that in 1969 when comparing cash receipts against production expenses. Farm income is significantly lower than other types of employment, and the average farm family isn’t keeping up with the cost of living. The state is losing farms at a rapid rate, and most Kansas farms are located in rural areas that are considered food deserts, with little access to fresh vegetables and healthful foods.
And because crops require water, managing depleting water resources is paramount to success, especially in drought-stricken areas, the study said.
“We raise a lot of water-intensive things, but an 80 percent reduction in water use is needed right now,” Cottin said. “Water is an important part of food. Changing diets and reducing food waste would reduce water consumption. As a speaker said at one of our meetings, ‘We can get along without a lot of things, but we can’t get along without food or water.”
Strengthening the family farm and the state’s economy are necessary, she said, and on that front there are a few promising signs. The number of food cooperatives has risen dramatically as well as a flourishing specialty crop industry. Farmers markets continue to expand and often remain open long after traditional closing dates due to the prevalence of greenhouses and high tunnels that extend the growing season for vegetables and fruits. Another promising sign is the number of schools that actively seek and purchase locally-grown vegetables—35 percent of all Kansas schools as of late 2014.
According to the study, if Kansas residents spent $5 on food directly from the farmer, it would raise $750 million in new revenue. Getting them to do so would require both a complete shift in how people view healthful food, increased support from public and legislative entities and a concerted focus on long-term solutions involving increased production and accessibility to fruits and vegetables.
For the time being, there are no easy answers, Cottin said. However, during her travels around the state she saw enough innovation, creativity and passion to hold out hope for the future. When she discussed the issue with the mayor of Greensburg, he said that if there’s one thing residents of the town learned after almost being demolished by the EF5 tornado that struck on May 4, 2007, it was that “disaster is a tremendous opportunity.”
“This,” Cottin said, “is an opportunity.”
Feeding Kansas can be found by visiting kansasruralcenter.org