Eat locally processed food to support health, communities

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Source: Worldwatch Institute

Let's face it. We Americans love processed foods. With no major chain grocery stores within the city limits and even smaller markets closing their doors, most Detroiters either head to the closest suburban Kroger, Meijer or Aldi or get by on slim convenience store pickings. But in all these stores you can count how many aisles of shelves filled with bags, boxes, jars and cans of food with timeless expiration dates are sandwiched between the produce and dairy refrigerated sections, if they even have a produce section.

But our processed foods aren't just eaten in the U.S.; many of them are shipped overseas to foreign markets. Zambian grocery stores are filled with processed foods from around the world, from crackers made in Argentina and soy milk from China to popular U.S. breakfast cereals.

You may imagine that all processing and packaging happens in huge factories, but this isn't always the case. On the Zambian grocery shelves you also will find a variety of locally made and processed products, including indigenous varieties of organic rice, all-natural peanut butter and honey from the “It's Wild' brand. Farmers across the globe are creating value-added products from their crops to increase income and bring jobs to their communities.

“It's Wild' was started by the Community Markets for Conservation over 30 years ago to preserve and protect wildlife. But the organization soon learned that to protect wildlife, it would need to address the lack of income sources for local communities that were sometimes forced to resort to poaching elephants or other wildlife to earn enough to feed their families.

To do this, COMACO organizes farmers into producer groups, encouraging them to diversify their skills by raising livestock and bees, growing organic rice, using improved irrigation, managing fisheries and other practices. The organization supports the creation of regional processing centers and trading depots to make it easier for farmers to process and transport their crops. Their products are then sold under the “It's Wild” brand in supermarket chains in Zambia. COMACO tries to do as much of the product distribution as possible so the money stays with the farmers, not middlemen, improving local livelihoods and preserving local wildlife.

And all across sub-Saharan Africa, other organizations are providing farmers with the processing skills and materials they need to improve their incomes and support their families — and that can produce unexpected benefits, including with wildlife, reducing food-borne health risks and improving access to education.

In Kenya, the Mazingira Institute is working to create awareness about climate change, human rights and urban agriculture. And they're training communities to learn better skills to increase income generation and well-being, including training in how to process foods to preserve them longer and make them more appealing to consumers.

Mazingira, for example, helped Esther Mjoki Maifa, an entrepreneur in Nairobi, capitalize on a growing interest among Kenyans for natural healthy products by training her to process groundnuts without any preserves or chemicals. It takes her about one day to produce 50 kilograms of groundnuts, and she sells jars of them.

Eventually, Ms. Maifa is hoping to make enough money from her products to purchase her own nut-grinding machine.

In Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, the East Africa Dairy Development project is helping livestock farmers to improve the processing and preservation of milk to produce better tasting and longer lasting dairy products that are also safer for the consumer. EADD encourages farmers to join cooperatives, giving them access to group-owned and run refrigerated milk collection centers, significantly reducing the financial burden of the process. The milk is then transported to a milk-processing facility and sent to market where the processed milk will receive a higher price than unpasteurized milk. It also stays good longer and reduces the risk of food-borne illness.

Across Detroit, you can see the budding of the local food movement and urban agriculture starting to sow its seeds to improve food security.

The next time you grab a jar of peanut butter from the convenience store or Kroger, ask yourself, who made it? The product you choose could be improving the skills, income and quality of life of a local community. Or maybe you could skip the Kroger altogether, stop by Eastern Market or the northwest Detroit farmers market and meet your farmers and processors face to face.

Danielle Nierenberg is co-project director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project (www.nourishingtheplanet.org); Amanda Stone is the communications assistant for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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