I didn’t exactly grow up on a farm. I was born and raised in Los Angeles where lot sizes are measured in square footage, not acreage, and it might take you an hour and a half to drive 10 miles. Despite that, we had a milkman, and I distinctly remember a school field trip to a dairy farm when I was in the 3rd grade. But I never had much interaction with farmers, farming, or agriculture – none really. I grew up in the city, and while I had great opportunities and learned a lot about a lot of different things, I learned very little about where the food in our refrigerator and on the dinner table came from. I didn’t know any farmers.
With just 2% of our population intimately involved with agriculture, this is by no means surprising. Despite our dependence on farmers, we are no longer an agrarian society, a fact illustrated by a recent experience. Just over a year ago, I was giving a presentation with one of our dairy farmers in Logan, Utah. Logan is a college town with strong agricultural roots and boasts a growing population of just about 50,000. After our presentation, the teacher thanked me for bringing some information about farming to her students, “These city kids,” she said, “have never been on a farm. They have no idea where their food comes from.” Though I had left Los Angeles years prior, her comment gave me pause. If kids from Logan were “city kids,” we have a lot of work to do.
But I had come a long way from the kid who grew up in LA. A series of diverse work-experiences after college landed me in grad school pursuing a degree in sports nutrition. I am a distance runner – I ran in college and competed for several years after college and saw a huge need to bring nutrition education to young athletes. While advising athletes, developing programs, and conducting hands-on cooking workshops, I found myself spending a lot of time tinkering in the kitchen, playing with ingredients and asking the question so many people have at the moment, “Where does my food come from?”
So I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to go work for dairy farmers and really learn a bit more. As a dietitian and communicator for the Dairy Council of UT/NV, I am responsible for working with health professionals, creating informational materials for consumers, and translating scientific research into practical, applicable messages. I am responsible for generating tools that people can use and answering questions about why dairy products should have a place at the table. But before I can do any of that, before I can build those external relationships, I always have to take a step back. Where do milk, cheese, and yogurt come from? Who are the people that take care of the animals? What do their farms look like? Who are their families? Why have they chosen to stay on the farm? First and foremost, my responsibility is to our Utah and Nevada dairy farm families, to the people I represent and for whom I have the privilege of working. Only once I know them, once I understand, in my own non-farm-background-limited-way what dairy farming is all about can I even hope to speak effectively about where our food comes from and be a valuable resource for health professionals and the public. I get excited about introducing colleagues, friends, and family to our farmers – telling stories, showing pictures and videos, or inviting them to visit a farm.
In many ways, our food story has become unnecessarily complicated. At its core, our lifestyle, no matter where we live, is still built upon our humanity and our ability to build relationships and trust one another. I didn’t grow up on a farm or with farmers, but having this opportunity to work for farmers and get to know them has built a bridge and given me the chance to understand something more about the origin and production of our dairy foods. There is something profound about making a personal connection. Kids are more apt to try a new food when they have a hand in its preparation; it is easier to trust the advice of a friend.
The dairy industry is committed to bridging this gap and fostering relationships with the people behind our food supply – if not personally, then virtually. Knowing our foods’ origins is the best way to begin building a healthy relationship with food itself.
What are you doing to know where your food comes from?
Kristi Spence is the VP of Communications for the Dairy Council of Utah/Nevada. She is a registered dietitian and certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. She loves spending time with her family, cooking, running, hiking, and connecting people with farmers. Check out www.thecowlocale.com and follow Kristi on Twitter @Kristiruns & @DairyUTNV.