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One of the great things about writing this blog for Golden Gate Organics is that it is an excellent excuse to learn more about food-related issues, so when I saw an announcement for a lecture titled “Food to Feed the World,” I thought it might be interesting and I signed up to attend.

Sponsored by the Commonwealth Club’s INFORUM division, the presentation was moderated by Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark. The panelists were Nick Saul, author of The Stop and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, an innovative community food development program; Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, a book that digs into the economics and politics of the global industrial food system; and Nikki Henderson, executive director of West Oakland’s People’s Grocery, a nonprofit fighting food insecurity through the Grub Box CSA, leadership development, a community garden, greenhouse and cooking classes.

With the panelists coming from such different vantage points, the discussion was pretty wide ranging, but the focus repeatedly circled back to a fundamental issue of food justice that all of the panelists could directly speak to: poor diet, and the health problems caused by poor diet, are a direct function of economic disparity.

One of the most telling quotes to come from the evening was from Saul:  “If you are rich, you get organic and local; if you’re poor, you get diabetes.” Indeed, the statistics are jarring — $225 billion (that’s billion with a B) is spent on diabetes care in the U.S. alone, and the poor get diabetes twice as often as more well-off people do.

In many places – such as the liquor-store-dominated food deserts of the Oakland flatlands — limited access to fresh produce is a big factor, but it is also a question of price per calorie. Simply put, not only are fresh, healthy foods less available to the poor, but they are more expensive than high-calorie processed foods that are full of salt, sugar and fat – the very foods that have fueled the nation’s obesity and diabetes epidemic.

It is with no small irony, then, that what moderator Mark called the “food banking industry” has been complicit in the problem for decades by handing out heavily processed and packaged foods to those who are most susceptible to consuming them in the first place.  It was heartening to hear that food banks nationwide are beginning to turn away donations of unhealthy foods in order to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to their recipients and teach them how to prepare them.

I was thinking about all of this as I left the Commonwealth Club’s office at Market and Montgomery and made my way toward BART. While I waited for the light to change, I saw a homeless guy stretch shoulder deep into a garbage can as he fished around the bottom for bottles. He pulled a couple out and opened them and consumed the remaining contents before putting the empties into a cardboard box, which he then started pushing down the sidewalk with his foot.

Now there’s a guy who could really use a couple bucks, I thought to myself. I pulled two ones from my pocket and crossed the street and approached him.

“Hey, man,” I said, “if I gave you $2, what would you do with it?” I was expecting him to say, “get some food” or maybe go for blunt honesty with, “buy a beer,” but what he said instead stopped me cold.  “I’d get a soda,” he said with zero hesitation as he took the money from me.

The guy was way too skinny to be healthy, and the thought of him chugging a corn-syrup Coke instead of getting the nourishment he obviously needed hit me like a brick.  I tweaked his biceps and told him he needed some meat on his bones and suggested some food instead. “OK, a soda and a burger” he said, looking up at a McDonalds storefront, which was now just steps away. “You need food,” I said, “foooood…!” I sang at him as I disappeared down into the BART tunnel.

Sitting and waiting for my train, I fumed.  Well-meaning, educated and affluent progressives can subscribe to organic food boxes, attend lectures and talk about food justice until they are blue in the face, but it means absolutely nothing to this homeless guy on Market Street, scrounging in garbage cans to feed his soda jones and turning to Mickey D’s for what passes as nourishment.

The work the food forum panelists (and others) are doing is vitally important and transformative wherever it touches individual lives, but as Henderson from People’s Grocery acknowledged, “there’s only so much we can do in these little pockets of proactivity in a reactive system.”

And there it is again. That word: system.  No, this is not an individual problem. It is a systemic problem. And systemic problems demand systemic solutions.

So here is the question: How do we change a system that teaches people to prefer unhealthy foods that are cheap, ubiquitous and deeply entrenched in American culture?  How do we create widespread, systemic change that alters one of the most basic relationships that humans have – their relationship with their food?

How do you get a homeless guy to crave an apple instead of a soda, or to want a fresh salad or sandwich instead of a cheap, greasy burger?