Toward a Value Driven Diet

December 7, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director

our values_food 1 wallace cnt

I spent last Friday afternoon at the latest in the series of Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) Food System Stakeholder meetings.  This one focused on the indicators of a sustainable food system.  What that means in less wonky terms is what are our “food values” and how do we measure them.  Put another way, if we, as individuals, are what we eat, our food system is a reflection of what we value  . . . or is it?  I’ve written in past blog posts (link here , here and here)  about the disconnect between agri business and what we eat, and whether we know much at all about where our food comes from, how it was produced, and what impacts it has on the earth.  But in this meeting on indicators I came face to face with food values.

I was taken with the speaker, Dr. Molly Anderson, founder of Food Systems Integrity and a principal researcher for the WK Kellogg Foundation as they explored how to define “good food.”  I will launch into her work in a moment, but I want to start with a quote that she offered near the end of her presentation (and I apologize for not having the source):

You get what you measure, but we have not cared enough about the healthfulness, sustainability, justness or affordability of our food supply.

That’s the kicker about indicators, we all need them and use them, but they are rarely purely objective, in fact, they are about what we value.  Donella Meadows (a hero to many) captured the essence about indicators in a 1998 report entitled, Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development.  She wrote the following:  Indicators arise from values (we measure what we care about) and they create values (we care about what we measure).  She also noted that “the choice of indicators is a critical determinant of the behavior of a system.”  For me, this means that DVRPC’s work in identifying indicators for the regional “sustainable” food system study is an awesome undertaking and one that must reflect healthfulness, sustainability, justness and affordability .

Dr. Anderson, as a Wallace Center Fellow,  helped the Kellogg Foundation develop the report, “Charting Growth toward Good Food.”  The report describes the attributes of good food in terms of “healthy, fair, green and affordable,” and it provides indicators to estimate the “amount of good food available in the US.”  The project focused on the food system, including food production, processing, distribution, sales and purchasing, and consumption.  I encourage everyone from food system sleuths to the food curious to dive into the charts.

Wallace cnt at winrock

The data in the charts is compelling (it includes hot spots, innovations, and lessons learned) and it might help you elevate a value drive diet above all other diet indicators that focus on calorie counting, trans fats, carb intake, etc. (not that these are insignificant).  If you care about “good food,” there are many factors to consider beyond the  ingredients and nutritional facts captured in the standard food label.  In examining health, fairness, environmental trends (greenness) and affordability, one must account for issues such as the wages of field and livestock workers, the acreage of the mid-scale family farm, the water contamination by pesticides, and whether childhood overweight prevalence is increasing (and this is just a sampling of the indicators).

By now you are thinking that a revised food label will require a pull out section, and that food shopping will require a doctorate in something or another, but it really comes back to food values – do our food selections accurately reflect what we care about?  If we care about soil quality, family farmers, animal welfare, adult and child health, farm laborers, and affordability, then I think the answer is no.

That is where DVRPC is picking up the slack.  And this is where Dr. Anderson thinks DVRPC is getting it right.  She believes that there are key decisions to be made in the indicator selection process.  Is the process participatory or expert driven?  Is it national or community based?  Does it look at food product or food system attributes?   DVRPC is about the stakeholder/community driven process and the food system  (all of which Dr. Anderson endorses).  So far, the regional food system study includes a vision wherein (and I’m paraphrasing) farming is recognized, respected and profitable; food and farm workers have fair working conditions and earn a living wage; ecological resources are sustained; people have access to, can afford to buy and know how to cook healthy foods; diversity is recognized; farmland is preserved; stakeholders contribute; food and farming are cornerstones of economic development; and goals take into account land, energy and climate considerations.


DVRPC has documented more than 300 potential indicators (and counting). The goal is to get to 5 or 10 (recognizing, as Dr. Anderson pointed out, that there are key indicators that account for the interrelatedness of many single indicators).  Beyond this daunting task, however, lies the challenge of presenting the indicators.  Dr. Anderson noted that one must devote significant time to using the indicators to tell a story to policy makers.  This goes back to the notion of we measure what we care about and we care about what we measure.

What food system indicators are most important to you?  What will it take to create a value driven diet that accounts for land-food-people connections? There are no hard and fast answers that I know of, but I encourage you to listen to Mark Bittman’s 2007 TED talk on “What’s Wrong with What We Eat,” and then let us know about your food values.