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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reporting From FamilyFarmed: Fun With Numbers

Posted By on 03.11.10 at 07:42 PM

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Every time I go to a conference, I'm reminded again of the paradox apparently built into the form. Conferences practically guarantee an engaged audience: attendees are self-selecting; they want to be there. They are, more often than not, experts, of some stripe or another. Yet the schedule, usually jam-packed with panels and speakers, rarely allows for much more than a quick gloss of any given subject.

Such was the case with today's closing plenary, at which keynote speaker Kathleen Merrigan acknowledged that she was preaching to the choir. And I agree: does a group of farmers, food policy experts, and advocates really need to see a video about the joys of shopping at the farmers' market? Do we need to know that gardening is hot?

Still, you can always rely on the government for some statistics, and here Merrigan didn't disappoint. Some may be new to you; others are just good to be reminded of. Can you find the common thread?

54%: Amount of Illinois agricultural sales generated by corn.

1 in 3: Predicted rate of type 2 diabetes for kids born after 2000.

15%: Poverty rate in rural America.

38 million: Number of Americans currently receiving food stamps.

11.5 million: Americans living in low-income areas more than a mile away from a grocery store.

57: Average age of American farmers.

107: Maximum number of miles any American must travel to get to a McDonald's.

6: Weeks the average chicken lives before it becomes dinner.

69%: Amount of USDA budget allotted to nutrition assistance (this one surprised me).

14%: Amount of American children who get the USRDA of fresh fruit in their diet.

These numbers change over the years, but they've been in heavy rotation in discussions of food, nutrition, poverty, and sustainable agriculture for a while now. What's different is that people are paying attention. As Merrigan's warm-up act, Slow Money founder Woody Trasch, pointed out, when Time magazine runs a cover story on The Real Costs of Cheap Food, it's a safe bet the issues are starting to have traction.

But Merrigan provided some more convincing proof. "It used to be," she said, "I would go to a party and tell people I worked in the field of agricultural policy, people couldn't back away fast enough. They'd just leave me there, alone with my gin and tonic. But now I say 'agriculture policy' and they think it's cool!"

Also, she says, Willie Nelson agrees: "Farmers are the real rock stars now."

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