Why should we care if our young people know where their food comes from?

With the world growing quickly in population and interconnectedness, it is important for today’s youth to recognize the complex system that puts food on their dinner table every day and that they understand that they have the power to make a difference.

In the past decade there has been a noticeable shift in the U.S. towards consumer interest in where their food comes from. Michigan State University Extension recognizes that rather than staying away from farms and production, people have started to become invested in their local food systems. In fact, a poll in 2011 by the National Grocers Association found that 85 percent of consumers prioritized grocery stores that stocked food from regional producers.

So what is a “food system”? When discussing food systems, we are intentionally recognizing the interconnected network of professionals who get food on your table for dinner. This is not limited to the producers growing the food, but also includes others involved in processing, distributing, and marketing the food you consume. Denoting a “regional” food system confines the network to a specific community, which can be defined by a collection of factors including: geography, social, physical, governmental, environmental, or economic parameters.

We as consumers are also a part of our regional food system. We have economic power to place value on food produced in our region. The idea of “voting”, or voicing your priorities, with your dollar is not a new concept in the world of conscious consumerism. Being a critically conscious consumer means we make efforts to understand the environmental, social, and political consequences of the choices we make with our spending, and then taking ownership over said consequences.

Imagine your regional economy as a bucket. Every time individuals in your community use their purchasing power to spend money within their region, it’s like putting water into the bucket. As individuals spend money outside their region, imagine tiny holes being poked through the sides and bottom of the bucket. This “leaky bucket” means that money is exiting your local region and community.

In 2012, consumers in the U.S. spent 6.1% of their annual disposable personal income on food for consumption at home. The investment we make in our food annually has been steadily declining over the years, falling from 19.3 percent in 1929 to 13.6 percent in 1963, all to way to 8.3 percent in 1990, bringing us to where we are today. In 2012, only approximately $0.10 of every one dollar spent on food went directly to the farms and farm production, and the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 58.3 years old, according to a 2012 census report. Overall, we’re spending less money on our food, our farmers are getting older, and by 2050 the population of the world is estimated to be nine billion people.

This year, Millennials are between the ages of 15 and 34, and have an estimated $200 billion in direct purchasing power with an additional $500 billion of indirect spending (from their influence on Baby Boomer parents/guardians). Because there are many young Millennials who are still in secondary school, the generation as a whole hasn’t yet reached its peak level of buying power. If we want to ensure that our regional economic “bucket” has as few leaks as possible into the future, we need to engage Millennials (and Generation Z, the youngest current generation) in a relationship with the systems that provide regional inputs to our economies, or put water in the bucket.

One of these systems is our regional food system. Adults with an annual income should be working to help young people today feel connected to their food and where it comes from. Inspiring young people in our communities to value our regional food systems and be conscious consumers helps build support for our regional economy in the long run while also shaping the young leaders of today and tomorrow into informed and critical thinkers.

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