Local foods: Good for your health and the economy, stresses state commissioner

"Local foods, first" is more than a new food fad. It is a high priority for Albany policymakers who want to move locally grown fresh food, fruits and vegetables into the stores, farmers markets and homes of New Yorkers, said Patrick Hooker, commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, March 10, delivering the keynote address in the Statler Ballroom at the annual Applied Research and Extension Program Council Conference.

Promoting local fresh foods is smart policy, not just because it will help farmers' bottom lines at a time when many small farmers, in particular, are struggling, but also because it will improve family nutrition, said Hooker, who chairs the New York State Council on Food Policy formed by the governor's office.

Hooker said encouraging local foods production, distribution and purchasing are important goals in a state where there are 17,000 small farms looking to increase profits while many New Yorkers do not have easy access to healthy food choices.

"For many communities, the nearest store that sells something other than Doritos and Cokes is miles away," said Hooker. "There are millions of people we are missing, not just to sell products to, but to increase healthy eating options for underserved populations."

Hooker noted that people who eat just three servings of fresh fruit a day are 42 percent less likely to die of stroke and have less risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.

The daylong conference, sponsored by Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES), Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, included more than 100 researchers, extension specialists, public policy officials, farmers, community representatives and other stakeholders who annually review grant proposals for federal formula research and extension funding in agriculture and food systems, youth development, quality of life, natural resources and environment, and community and economic vitality.

At the conference, program councils -- the stakeholder groups that review research and extension project applications each year -- established top priorities for 2009's upcoming funding managed by the experiment stations and extension agencies. All projects are rated for relevancy by program council members, who are "close to the ground," said CUAES Director Michael Hoffmann, to ensure that money is spent where it will have the most direct impact. Every year Cornell receives a portion -- usually about $13 million -- of federal formula fund dollars distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The conference also included reports from more than a dozen researchers and extension specialists who described the impact of projects funded in prior years. Anu Rangarajan, a senior extension associate in horticulture, for example, discussed the Small Farms Program, which has been a model for other states, and its quarterly magazine with a readership of 27,000 and cutting-edge news about small farm issues, and a Web site with information on "what every entrepreneur needs to know."

Also highlighted was the award-winning Parenting a Second Time Around program, which seeks to support the increasing number of grandparents in caregiver roles, which is used nationwide, said Rachel Dunifon, professor of policy analysis and management. And Cornell entomologist Tony Shelton provided an update on the swede midge, a new threat to the cabbage industry in New York and elsewhere. With initial federal formula funding, this combined research and extension effort has developed several management options and is helping farmers implement them. Cornell is considered the national leader in combating swede midge invasion, he said.

Lauren Chambliss is assistant director for communications, Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

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