From farm to plate to policy

Consumers in prosperous societies are demanding healthy, sustainable foods to feed their families. To feed the world, we'll need ways to apply those practices to global food systems.

Credit: Martha Rich

When Robert Thompson reels off facts about the worldwide food situation, he can sound a little apocalyptic. By 2050 the global population is expected to grow by 2.6 billion people, a nearly 40 percent increase over the roughly 7 billion people who inhabit the planet today. At the same time, there is only about 10 percent more arable land available for additional farming. Food demand is going to increase exponentially as people continue to move from rural to urban areas, a migration that will also affect water availability as cities compete with farmers for resources.

Image credit: Martha Rich

"That's the magnitude of the challenge," says Thompson, a visiting scholar at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies who has spent four decades researching global agriculture. "Growing 70 percent to 80 percent more food on, at most, 10 percent more land using less water."

The major success of the food reform movement of the past 15 years has been getting people to understand eating as a political act that straddles personal choice and public policy. Author-activists such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have explored the relationship of food manufacturing and consumption, successfully getting people to reconsider what they eat. The real revolution of farm-to-plate restaurants isn't a more delicious dining experience—it's getting diners to be mindful of whose farm and whose plate is feeding them.

It's going to take more than consumer changes to address the food problems facing the planet over the coming decades.

Thus far the food reform movement's most visible changes have taken place at the consumer end. We try to buy local. We try to eat organic. We try to eat fewer processed, genetically modified foods. We try to get schools to provide kids healthier options. But just as digestion in the body is systemic, feeding a global population is, too. It's going to take more than consumer changes to address the food problems facing the planet over the coming decades.

Many people at Johns Hopkins—from researchers and faculty to students, staff, and other educators—are tackling current and future food crises from a variety of angles: teaching high school students to think in a systems-oriented way about the food they eat; mapping out how food makes its way around the region; working with the university to put healthy and sustainable food practices in place; linking global food shortages with big-vision issues like equity, justice, and poverty; and even growing food themselves (though that one's more for fun). What follows isn't an exhaustive account of what Johns Hopkins is doing to solve one of the world's pressing problems; instead, it's a thumbnail sketch of just a few strategies—a taste, if you will.


In fall 2010, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future published "The Baltimore City Food Environment" study, which included a city map of supermarkets, corner stores, and convenience stores, along with neighborhood demographic data. It pinpointed where healthy food choices were and weren't available, and showed that so-called food deserts—those areas where healthy foods are scant—tended to fall in socioeconomically depressed areas with predominantly African-American residents.

The study delivered a portrait of food access, along with recommendations to improve it. But it didn't offer a broad enough picture to consider how to make such improvements. "We looked at it and said, 'OK, even if we're going to try to make recommendations to change things, we have no idea what's out there," says CLF's Eating for the Future program director Anne Palmer. "We have no idea where the food was coming from."

Enter CLF's Maryland Food System Map (, an interactive, online map that lets users plot where farms are located (subdivided into certified organic, dairy, livestock, poultry, etc.), identify where farmland is preserved, locate food processing and slaughterhouse facilities, and identify points of purchase, from supermarkets and farmers' markets to chain and carryout restaurants. It also offers overlays of health statistics (such as diabetes mortality rates) and poverty demographics.

The map is a herculean act of data collection, culling pertinent information from a variety of publicly available sources to present a baseline aggregate of the state's food situation from farm to plate. Amanda Behrens, senior program officer, explains that she and her team of researchers pulled food permits from the city health department to determine the locations of everything from restaurants to farmers' market stalls, and then coded that information for the map database.

Since digital cartography went commercial about a decade back, maps have become less top-down mandated reference materials than bottom-up tools tailored to specific users. And just as a map app can tell somebody how to get somewhere, the Food Map enables users to look at their community's individual needs.

"It's really a conversation starter," Behrens says. "I like presenting it because it's not saying how things should be. This is where it is right now. When you're looking at it, what do you see?"

Over the past year the center has been approached by a number of local agencies seeking maps generated to suit their needs. Maryland Hunger Solutions wanted to look at Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program usage/redemption rates and areas of need. Behrens and her colleagues are working with Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture to develop a foodshed plan for the mid-Atlantic region. They've partnered with the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission to develop a better idea about what food deserts mean in rural areas and how to map them accurately. And they're working with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, which approved use of the map for city programs and policy development.

That's precisely how Behrens envisioned the map's eventual purpose. To better track how food moves around, researchers need more data available to them and they need to track that data over time. The map offers a starting point for analysis but has also raised awareness among city and state agencies about what data exist, what is still needed, and how those agencies can benefit from sharing information.

Eating for the Future's long-term goal is not just to make sure everybody has access to affordable, healthy food that is produced in a way that's sustainable for individual farmers as well as the agriculture industry as a whole. They also want to offer realistic strategies to get us there. "Sometimes I get frustrated with the definitions of food deserts, especially with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], because it's supermarket or no supermarket," Behrens says. Supermarkets are scarce in Baltimore, but the city is rife with corner stores. "We already have these infrastructures. Some of them do offer healthy foods—few and far between, but they do. How can we use what already exists? That's definitely something the city's looking at."


For the past three years, Real Food Hopkins has prepared what it calls the 100-Mile Meal. Each fall, the group—which is the Johns Hopkins chapter of the national student-led Real Food Challenge advocacy organization—prepares food for about 100 diners with all items (save olive oil, salt, and pepper) sourced from within 100 miles of Baltimore. They invite food reform advocates and Johns Hopkins faculty to speak at a panel during the meal. Raychel Santo is a junior public health and global environmental change and sustainability double major who co-founded Real Food Hopkins her freshman year and helped launch the first 100-Mile Meal in May 2011. "We've just heard that some other universities are now using our idea and doing 100-mile meals on their own campuses," she says. "So it's cool to see that the idea's spreading."

For the past two years Real Food Hopkins has been trying to work with the Johns Hopkins Department of Housing and Dining Services to determine how much food that comes to the Homewood campus is locally sourced. "We're going through all the receipts of all the purchases and figuring out what the percentage is," Santo says. "We want to have a baseline to improve off of each year. If you're purchasing something you should have a little bit of say of where it's being purchased."

For the past decade Housing and Dining Services has aligned its dining plan with the university's broader environmental and economic vision by using cage-free eggs, antibiotic- and hormone-free milk and cream, fish and seafood sourced in accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guidelines, and an increasing number of locally sourced items. That's not always easy, admits Carol Mohr, associate dean of housing, residential life, and dining, who says that buying local during the dead of winter is a challenge. But setting goals encourages food vendors to be more creative. "What's important is that we constantly make progress," she says. "And we've really challenged our vendors to tell us how they can help us get there."

In 2007 a group of college and university presidents issued the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a call to reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by 80 percent by midcentury at the latest. Johns Hopkins didn't sign the challenge, but it did partner with the food service provider Aramark to research how food service might contribute to that effort. Aramark funded an interim position in the Bloomberg School of Public Health to write a white paper about what calculators currently exist that could be used to measure carbon emissions from dining hall procurement—a way for universities to determine, for example, the carbon footprint of X pounds of ground beef transported over Y miles by truck.

"There wasn't a database of the life cycle analysis of enough of a variety of foods to really make it useful and meaningful," says Leana Houser, solid waste and recycling manager for Homewood. This white paper was presented to Clean Air-Cool Planet, a nonprofit organization the develops toolkits to help universities assess their carbon footprint, which launched a pilot program working with universities and their food service vendors to begin tracking sourcing data to develop a better food calculator for campuses. Aramark and Johns Hopkins participated in that effort.

But working food into the larger environmental discussion is difficult, Houser says. While issues of greenhouse gas emission and recycling are firmly positioned as social responsibilities, eating still seems like a matter of personal choice. And responsible food sourcing can still feel financially challenging. "Some of the other [environmental choices] have an economic return on investment, and food doesn't," she says. "But, thankfully, I think there is a strong food movement across the hierarchy of the institution—across demographics, across faculty, staff, and students—to get there. It's tangible."


Robert Thompson didn't foresee the dramatic spike in global food prices that triggered food riots in Asia and Africa in 2007 and 2008. But looking back, he can see how a 200 percent increase in the cost of food in some areas caught governments off guard. Thompson (who grew up on a farm in upstate New York) has served as the World Bank's director of agriculture and rural development and as the USDA's assistant secretary for economics. For the past four decades, he has observed how farming has and hasn't changed in accordance with population changes, economic development, and agricultural research.

In the 1980s, he says, the United States and European countries had improved industrial farming to the point where there were more surpluses than shortages. The question of food security fell off the global agenda, taking a backseat to what seemed to be more pressing concerns, such as the environment, HIV/AIDS, and democratization. "A lot of important issues emerged, and I guess agriculture came to be seen as old and boring," Thompson says. "It was only with the explosion in agriculture product prices in 2008—where there were food riots in three dozen countries, one head of state lost his job, and probably the price of food contributed to the Arab Spring—that agriculture started to claw its way back onto the agenda."

Global population is expected to increase 40 percent over the next 40 years, requiring global agriculture to produce about 70 percent more food on 10 percent more land using less water.

As outlined at the start of this piece, global population is expected to increase 40 percent over the next 40 years, requiring global agriculture to produce about 70 percent more food on, at most, 10 percent more land using less water. To do that, says Thompson, farming in the developing world needs to improve.

Thompson emphasizes that that's going to take a big vision—one that goes beyond investing in rural agriculture, improving adaptive agricultural research, and reducing postharvest losses. "If low-income countries are going to contribute to world food supply as well as their own national food supply, it's going to take significant investment in infrastructure in general," Thompson says. "It's going to involve solving a lot of the problems in communications in rural areas. You're going to need electrification eventually. It's also essential to redress the imbalance in investments in education for rural and urban kids. So you've really got to improve social and economic mobility, and that requires at least literacy and numeracy and a reasonable level of health care."

In short, responsibly addressing the future of agriculture means tackling poverty head-on. "Having rule of law and a reasonable level of political and macroeconomic stability, property rights, the ability to enforce contracts, is crucial," says Thompson. "No government can create all the jobs that it's going to take to solve the problem of poverty. But government's role is to create the enabling environment, in legal and public policy areas, in infrastructure, investment in people, and in research—and then get out of the way and let the private sector create the jobs that will eventually solve the problem of poverty."


One of the food reform movement's recurring concerns is that most of us are so far removed from the farm that we've forgotten where our food comes from. As more and more people move into urban areas, might that collective cognitive distance get even worse? The Center for a Livable Future's Teaching the Food System curriculum is an effort to prevent that distance from becoming a disconnect among young people—the lucky generation that will get to contend in real time with the looming 2050 food situation. Geared toward high school and college students, the lesson plans—a collection of 11 freely downloadable and flexible modules—cover topics such as the history of food; food and animal production, processing, and distribution; the impact of diet on health; food marketing; and food security. Together, they give students a big-picture understanding of contemporary agriculture. When developing the curriculum, CLF staff looked at existing lesson plans and found a number of garden- and kitchen-based curricula, but nothing offering a broad overview. "There wasn't really this kind of systems-based approach where learners can navigate and explore interrelationships, like how is food related to public health," says Brent Kim, a CLF project officer who was the lead developer on the curriculum. "The food system is a spectrum of people, activities, and resources that span seed to plate. How does it affect society? How does it affect health? How does it affect social equity? It's not just about putting food into your mouth." Kim reports that, since being launched in 2012, parts of the curriculum have been picked up by faculty and staff at high schools, universities, and other organizations nationally and internationally. CLF also awarded 10 Maryland teachers grants to fund projects that grow out of the curriculum. It's an effort to see how the curriculum plays out in the classroom. "It's one thing to tell kids, 'Eat more whole fruits and vegetables,'" Kim says. "But we thought at older grade levels it's just as important to help them understand why we make these recommendations and why we eat what we're eating. What are those influences? Family, our peers, what's available in our neighborhoods, income—all those things shape our relationships to what we eat. Our agenda is to empower students with the critical thinking skills and the background knowledge to make their own decisions about how they want to eat, what they want to eat, and how they think we should farm."


When people know what they want to eat and how to farm it, who knows where that will lead them? Scott Smith found himself at home, thumbing through a mail-order gardening catalog. It was a dreary March day, and though Smith had done a little vegetable gardening before, the catalog—with page after page of bright, colorful fruit trees—seemed filled with promise. I'm going to be a lot happier if I get going on some of this, he thought. He ordered five blueberry bushes and five apple trees.

Fast forward 10 years and Smith, a professor in the Whiting School of Engineering's Department of Computer Science, is the proud keeper of his very own backyard orchard. He grows about 650 varieties of fruit, including apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, and quinces—all on a quarter acre of land.

"My orchard is really more like my little lab," Smith says with a wry smile. It's a compact orchard: He prunes his trees to pedestrian height, keeping his yields low. "Because I have so many varieties and I cram them in, I don't get big harvests. So it doesn't end up being difficult for a family to use up the fruit."

Listening to Smith talk, it's not hard to understand the allure of homegrown fruit. He explains how he looks forward to his apricots ripening in July. He says that persimmons aren't his family's favorite when they're fresh, but they're delicious when dried. And his plum tree was so productive last year he was able to make jam.

But such agrarian knowledge didn't come easily. "I've learned, and I try to educate people, on how difficult many fruits are to grow in the area," Smith says. "That catalog just talked about how wonderful the taste is and how big and red these lovely apples are and all these neat things. But it said nothing about how many pests are going to come and try to eat them from you." Smith has spent a lot of time online, connecting with people around the country and talking fruit. He has had to learn hands-on what works, and what doesn't, through trial and error.

"I've learned a huge amount, just chipping away year by year at this kind of fruit, soil aspects, different kinds of bugs," he says. "For apples, the codling moth is a difficult bug. And I know about a dozen different ways to deal with the codling moth. I know how to monitor the codling moth. I know its life cycle. I know where it winters. It's unbelievable the amount of stuff I now know about a moth."

In the process, he also learned a great deal about what he likes. He says he had no idea about the wide variety of apples that exists, and he's become a huge fan of russet varietals, which have a dull outside covering and which aren't typically found in stores or farmers markets. He now grows about 20 varietals. "I have big russets, small russets, sour russets, sweet russets— I love them," he says.

"There's one called the pomme gris, it's a French apple, and it's just really cool. It's a sweet, nice apple and it's got this texture like coconut. And there's just something I really enjoy about chewing on a coconutlike apple."

Bret McCabe, A&S '94, is the magazine's senior writer.