Earth to Table: Farmers Markets and Health Care Costs - Meat and Vegetable Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Jennifer Smith

Considering the rising rates of obesity and diabetes, could it be that the answer to today’s most daunting health issues lie right in your own backyard?

Joseph Baldwin, slow food chef, small town restaurateur, and avid community gardener, certainly thinks so.

Baldwin grew up on a dairy farm in southern Vermont. He left the farm to go into the army, where he was trained as a cook. In 1974, he went to the Culinary Institute of America and has pursued wellness through nutrition ever since.

“My first job was trying to purify veterans at Castle Point – veterans who needed to be purified cause their bodies were damaged so bad from war,” Baldwin says. “ The only thing that brought pleasure to them was a meal.”

Photo by Natalie Maynor.

Today, Baldwin runs a farm-fresh eatery called Rusty’s with his son, Russell, in Red Hook, New York. He also leads a non-profit organization called Earth to Table, which promotes organic and local foods by offering cooking classes, garden tours, and, of course, a bounty of fresh vegetables and herbs.

“What I feel, and I say over and over again, and everyone says ‘Joe, you’re right.’ This is America’s future health care system, right here on the table.” Baldwin says.

Joe, you’re right – at least when it comes to curbing obesity-related diseases through better eating.

The obesity epidemic places a heavy weight on the American health care system. While obesity-related diseases soar, health care expenditures are also expected to increase.

The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently published a report called “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2012.” According to the report, “the number of obese adults, along with related disease rates and health care costs, are on course to increase dramatically in every state in the country over the next 20 years.”

However, the report also projects that “states could prevent obesity-related diseases and dramatically reduce health care costs if they reduced the average body mass index of their residents by just 5 percent by 2030.”

So how does one “tighten the belt” in terms of bulging waistlines and cutting health care costs? Well, among other things, the report recommends the U.S. government fully support healthy nutrition in federal food programs.

Joseph Baldwin’s home state of New York has certainly moved in that direction with The New York State Farmers Market Nutrition Program, which “provides $4 dollar checks redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables” at Greenmarkets. Fifty farmers markets in New York City also accept food stamps.

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“You can come to my table and just make a donation,” Baldwin says on the prices of fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. “That’s the way I want it. I want you to be able to have low-priced food for yourself and for your family. That’s the way I do things.”

Farmers markets have been on the rise since 1994, signaling that people are looking for healthy food options in their own neighborhoods. According to Baldwin, who teaches gardening and cooking in his own community, it’s empowering to buy from friends and grow for yourself.

“It’s food democracy I think,” Baldwin says. “ If you don’t have food democracy, what do you have?”

Farmers market growth, 1994 – 2012. Courtesy of The U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Everybody has his/her own reasons for wanting to eat better, but keeping down future health costs might be a good incentive. For foodies like Joseph Baldwin, the satisfaction of bringing food from the earth to the table is another.

“I have the best food on the planet, and I’m going to make you eat it,” Baldwin says. “Start with the gazpacho!”

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