Across the United States, Local Food Investments Link Harvest to Health
By Sarah Reinhardt
Earlier this month, we took a deep, data-driven dive into the state of food and farming across the U.S. with the release of our 50-State Food System Scorecard. Although the country as a whole isn't exactly the poster child for healthy and sustainable food systems (far from it), there's a lot of variability in what's happening at farms, grocery stores and dinner tables from one state to the next—and we're here to learn from it.
Of course, we couldn't assess the food system without taking a good, hard look at how it impacts its end users: us. The map below shows how states stack up when it comes to diet and health outcomes.
But our food system is complex, and understanding how all of its various parts are connected—for example, mathematically demonstrating how a diet-related disease like hypertension might be linked to something like land use—isn't easy. There are a lot of factors that influence what, how, and why we eat what we do, and the path from farm to fork is long and winding. Meaning that what a state's farmers are doing doesn't seem likely to strongly drive the state's diet-related health outcomes. But being part of the same system, these two things do have a relationship (status: it's complicated), and the wide array of data we've analyzed just might help us see it more clearly.
The diet and health outcomes map includes indicators related to food security, dietary intake and diet-related chronic disease.
A general food rule: What happens in your state doesn't stay in your state
For the most part, we wouldn't expect to see a strong relationship between the types of food a state produces and the types of food its population consumes—much less any diet-related health outcomes. As I mentioned, there are a lot of things that factor into our dietary decisions, and dozens more that determine how they'll impact our health in the long run. Plus, much of the food produced in any given state usually doesn't stay there for long. Take the state of Washington, for example. It produces about 6.7 billion pounds of apples per year—nearly 20 billion apples. That's enough for every adult, child, and infant in the whole state to eat an apple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner six days out of the week. (Fun to picture, but definitely not happening.) Instead, Washington exports nearly a third of its apples to countries around the world and ships a whole lot more to other states nationwide.
Could local food be changing the game?
However, the local food movement is making small shifts in the way our food system works. There are now nearly 9,000 farmers markets in the US, and facilities like food hubs and cooperatives are making it easier for farmers to join forces to supply food to local institutions like schools, hospitals, and universities. What's more, many federal programs are working to help make these foods more affordable and accessible to everyone. Many markets now accept benefits from nutrition programs like SNAP or WIC, often offering incentives for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases. In addition to being good for farmers and low-income families, these programs offer data that can help us better understand the connections between farm, food and health.
As I mentioned, we wouldn't necessarily expect food production and diet-related health outcomes to be strongly related, especially at the scale we looked at. (We call this relationship "correlation," and a stronger correlation means two variables are more strongly related. And as any good statistician will tell you, correlation does not imply causation.) Data we evaluated from all 50 states show that these variables display some correlation, but it's nothing to write home about.*
However, when you look at food production, food investments, and local food infrastructure together, it turns out that they're much more strongly correlated to diet and health outcomes than food production alone. Meaning, when you take into account what a state grows, along with things like food hubs, farmers markets, and investments of federal funds to get more healthy food onto people's plates, you start to see a clearer connection to diet and health outcomes in that state. Could this mean that the local food movement may meet some of the lofty expectations we've set for it, like improving public health by getting more fresh produce to people?
We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves—it's possible, and likely, that there's another variable we didn't look at that could be partly responsible for driving both. (This is typically called a "confounding variable." See the classic example of murder rates and ice cream sales for a good explainer of this term.) In our case, a confounding variable could be something like the effectiveness of a state's government—a well-resourced and high-functioning state government could potentially contribute to higher rankings for all the variables in question.
But it's worth a second look. Scorecard aside, we've heard plenty of anecdotes that suggest these local food programs are working for farmers and families, and there's a growing amount of evidence to back them up. And intuitively, it makes some sense that achieving better diets and health would require both a healthier food supply and the means to get that food to the people who need it most. Is local food a silver bullet? Definitely not. But if we're ever going to achieve a food system that is truly sustainable, equitable, and health-promoting, investments in local and regional food systems and in healthy food access will likely be at least one piece of the puzzle.
Say, what else connects farming to food and health?
You guessed it—the farm bill. If you've followed this year's reauthorization of this massive piece of food and farm legislation, you might know that it includes everything from agriculture research that helps farmers to nutrition programs like SNAP (the largest nutrition assistance program, with a correspondingly large target on its back). But it also includes a lot of "tiny but mighty" programs that could help connect the dots between healthy food production and healthy populations.
The ideologically motivated House farm bill, which would heap additional work requirements onto SNAP participants and would reduce or eliminate benefits for millions, passed on June 21—and leaves many of these small local food programs in the dust. The Senate bill passed a week later and, by contrast, makes much-needed investments in a range of science-based food and farm programs. In addition to maintaining the core function and structure of SNAP, the Senate bill also includes many of the local food infrastructure programs that factored into our food system scorecard—like the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program (FINI), the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (as part of the newly created Local Agriculture Marketing Program), and more.
Want to see these programs fully funded in the next farm bill? So do we.
House and Senate negotiators are likely to begin meeting this month to try to merge these two drastically different bills into one that everyone can live with. That process will be challenging, and it will need to be informed by people like you.
If you're as invested as we are in the future of our food and farming systems, now is the time to act. Sign our petition to House and Senate negotiators today.
*Spearman correlation coefficients and associated two-tailed probabilities:
Food produced; diet and health outcomes (r = .39, p < .005)
Food produced, food infrastructure, and food investments indicators, averaged and ranked; diet and health outcomes (r = .54, p < .001)
Food infrastructure and food investments indicators, averaged and ranked; diet and health outcomes (r = .40, p < .005)
Sarah Reinhardt is the food systems and health analyst for the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>