Knowing where food originates influences healthy choices
NEW ORLEANS — The marketplace has a gap between consumer needs for healthier food products that meet the criteria for taste, cost and convenience and the ability of the food industry to economically produce in a competitive landscape, according to Louise Wicker.
Wicker, director of the LSU AgCenter School of Nutrition and Food Sciences, spoke recently at the Farm to Table Experience. The three-day program held Aug. 18-20 included presentations, food tastings and workshops sponsored by the National Farm to Table Alliance, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and the New Orleans Convention Center.
“We live with a complex food system,” Wicker said. “Producing, processing and distribution are complex.”
The marketplace faces a polarity of opinions about advocacy versus regulation, she said. “We have to consider the perspective of advocacy groups, the food industry, food policy and the consumer,” she said.
Food choice includes taste, cost and convenience. “Different consumer segments make different food choices constrained by factors we don’t always know,” Wicker said. “While restrained eaters may resist tempting foods, nonrestrained eaters do not.”
Cooking skills and cooking interest have disappeared from many segments of society, she said, citing delis, drive-thrus and meal kits as examples of how the food marketplace has changed. “We must make healthy choices easy choices.”
Products with sugar, fat and salt are the ones that sell, she said.
“Industry is partially responsible for their own woes,” Wicker said. “Labeling based on marketing rather than health is misleading. Industries need to hear from consumers.”
Helping consumers learn more about their food and where it comes from is the focus of a set of exhibits known as From the Farm to the Table to You. Developed by a group of AgCenter nutrition agents, the program is designed to increase awareness in elementary school children of the links between food origins, nutrition and health, said AgCenter agent Cathy Agan.
“AgCenter nutrition agents bring the farm to the table to help kids learn where food comes from and how to build healthy plates,” Agan said.
The traveling exhibit includes four stations that present information in 15-minute sessions complete with lesson plans for teachers, said AgCenter agent Alethia Lawrence. “We show where food comes from and the pathway to the table.”
The exhibit includes sessions at Louella’s Dairy Farm, where students are given a chance to “milk” a life-size model of a cow, and Sam’s Silo, where participants have an opportunity to mill rice, said AgCenter agent Brittney Seay.
The Delta Farm station gives students the opportunity to make a seed tape with carrot seeds that they can take home to plant in a garden or flower pot, she said.
Currently presented in northeast Louisiana, the program includes hands-on activities for third- through fifth-graders and supplements the presentations with materials the students can take home, said AgCenter agent Saundra Raines.
The difference between rural and urban children is that rural children have a better idea of the process of producing food because they see farming activities almost every day, Raines said.
“Most youth in general don’t know where their food comes from,” she said. “That’s our concept of farm-to-table.”
A session on the Food Safety Modernization Act focused on some of the requirements of the rule, with attention to on-farm practices by small producers and responsibilities of food service establishments and consumers to ensure producers are following good agricultural practices.
Food travels through several segments from farm to table, and the environment may harbor many pathogens. “We need to make sure each segment of the food chain emphasizes food safety,” said LSU AgCenter food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari.
Raw is higher risk than processed, Adhikari said. The food chain needs a “killing step” to control pathogens.
“The onus of food safety is on producers and food manufacturers,” said Chef Richard Jones with Green Door Gourmet in Nashville, Tennessee. “They must be proactive rather than reactive.”
Small farms have advantages to gradually embracing these controls, Jones said. “That’s a marketing advantage. It’s a smart thing to do.”