'Food Frontiers' Documentary Reveals the Changing Landscape of the American Food System

Story at-a-glance -

  • One in 7 American households experiences food insecurity, and 1 in 3 children will develop diabetes during their lifetime, thanks to a poor diet
  • “Food Frontiers” features several community-driven projects aimed at improving access to healthy foods in a number of innovative ways, in order to combat hunger and rising disease statistics
  • Along with improving access to healthy foods, learning how to cook is also important, as many have lost this crucial survival skill. Cooking real food is absolutely foundational for disease prevention and survival

By Dr. Mercola

Did you know that 1 in 7 American households experience food insecurity, not knowing whether they'll be able to eat on any given day? It's a massive problem, but one that communities across the country are beginning to tackle in earnest.

"Food Frontiers," co-produced by Leo Horrigan and Mike Milli, features several community-driven projects aimed at improving access to healthy foods in a number of innovative ways.

The film is part of Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future Foodscape's online curriculum — an interactive site scheduled for release in August, which will teach high school students and teachers about the American food system and what can be done to improve it.

Improving Food Security and Food Quality Is a Community Effort

For example, in southern California a farm-to-school program has helped improve students' access to healthy food by making fresh local produce a staple in school district cafeterias.

In Virginia, a pediatrician has combined her medical practice with a commercial kitchen, and prescribes cooking classes for her patients and their parents.

In New York City, a nonprofit organization helps organize farmers markets in neighborhoods lacking access to fresh foods, and in Philadelphia, a Fresh Food Financing Initiative raised $190 million to build new grocery stores and upgrade existing ones.

This initiative was so successful at reviving and improving conditions in struggling Pennsylvania neighborhoods, 17 other states eventually went on to duplicate the effort.

The Importance of Food Distribution and Access

Having access to healthy food is an important consideration when you're trying to address rising obesity and diabetes rates, and according to Horrigan, the film can be a helpful teaching aid and a conversation starter.

"We hope this film will inspire people who may want to replicate the successful projects we examined," he says.

Farmers markets and other fresh food outlets are particularly important in low income neighborhoods, as lower income communities tend to have a higher risk of disease due to the poor quality of processed food typically sold in small convenience stores and gas stations.

The film also discusses the importance of healthy foods in the school system, and shows how farmers are working with schools to provide fresh produce.

As noted by Rodney Taylor, a food service director who led school start-up projects in Santa Monica and Riverside, California, children need to be taught healthy eating habits, and it all begins with what they see in the cafeteria.

Are there fresh veggies and fruit available, or is it all packaged, processed food? It's hard for kids to make the right choices when they don't know there's a difference between real food and processed food, and even more difficult if they're rarely or never exposed to fresh foods.

Nebraska Village Creates Student-Run Grocery Store

The grocery store in Cody, Nebraska, is a perfect example of a social enterprise — a business whose primary purpose is the common good. Cody is a tiny rural town of about 150 people, and, prior to 2013, residents had to travel more than 40 miles to the nearest food store.

The low number of residents made opening a grocery store financially unviable, but through brainstorming sessions with local teachers, a novel concept was developed.

The store is set up as a non-profit organization operated by the school, and high school students run the store during the day. The kids work for class credit, real-world work experience and general life skills. This way, salaries are kept to a minimum.

The kids only get paid for after-school hours and during school breaks. The small grocery has turned into a thriving success that benefits the entire community in a multitude of different ways. It was even featured on PBS NewsHour earlier this year.1

Farmers Markets Thrive in Low-Income New York City Neighborhoods

In New York City, the nonprofit organization Harvest Home develops farmers markets in low income neighborhoods. At present, they operate 19 farmers markets in 4 of the 5 city boroughs, serving about 250,000 customers each year.

Most of the neighborhoods served have a high incidence of diet-related conditions like obesity and diabetes, and the customer base is lower-income people who normally cannot find fresh produce in their local grocery or convenience stores.

Many are immigrants, and Harvest Home realized that holding cooking demonstrations at the markets was a good way to educate people on how to use the produce sold at the market. It's a win-win for farmers and customers alike.

The market is also set up to accept food stamps, as a majority of customers are on assistance programs.

"Elected officials now have started to rally around supporting the markets, because they have seen the benefit to their constituents.

In 2009, the department of health came out with a new incentive program for SNAP, that for every $5 you spend at the market using SNAP, you get an additional $2 coupon.

That mechanism was to promote and incentivize people to come into the market and use their food stamps," Maritza Owens, CEO of Harvest Home says.

Teaching the Joy of Cooking

"People don't know how to properly feed themselves," Paige Balius, facilitator for Sustainable Food Center's The Happy Kitchen, says. "At worst, they outsource it to a restaurant. At best, they follow some fad diet advice they found in a magazine."

The fact of the matter is, if you're not cooking your own food, it's really difficult to eat healthy. The Happy Kitchen,2 located in Austin, Texas, started in the late 1990s. At that time, the organization ran farm stands in low-income neighborhoods.

Food Expenditures Graph

In time, they realized people needed cooking lessons as much as they needed access to fresh produce, as many didn't know how to prepare whole foods from scratch. Many also don't understand the deep connection between your diet and your health. The cooking classes are held by volunteers from the community, many of whom have neither teaching nor culinary backgrounds. What they do have is a passion for healthy eating and cooking. And they teach you how to do it on a tight budget.

Pediatrician Serves Up Cooking Classes

Virginia pediatrician Dr. Nimali Fernando has also come to understand the deep need for cooking instruction. Many of her young patients suffer from gut problems, constipation and lack of bowel movement, and this is a direct cause of eating a fiber-less, highly refined processed food diet, she says.

She admits that 10 years ago she'd simply send them home with a laxative, but she eventually realized that this is not doing anything to fix the problem. She decided she really needed to give her patients and their parents the tools to improve their health through proper diet, and that includes the know-how of cooking with healthy ingredients.

From this realization grew "The Doctor Yum Project," which includes a teaching garden and a full kitchen, in addition to a doctor's office where the overall décor is focused on health and wellness, as opposed to disease and drugs.

Fernando holds regular cooking classes in her commercial kitchen, which is adjacent to her medical office, but she'll also bring families into the kitchen to expose them to various dietary concepts as part of their medical appointment. "If I do my job right on this side [the kitchen], I won't have to see them on the other side [the medical office] that much," she says, and that is her goal.

California Schools Join Forces With Farmers

American school lunches have become notorious for their poor quality. In most schools, none of the dishes are made in house, and most are notably lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables. Overall, school lunches are the epitome of processed factory food, laden with sugar and synthetic ingredients. The seriousness of this situation is further deepened by the fact that many low-income children depend on their school lunch as the primary, and perhaps only, meal of the day.

Rodney Taylor, director of Nutrition Services for the Riverside Unified School District in California, is well-acquainted with hunger, and has made it a personal mission to make sure every single student in his district has access to wholesome food at school. "The experts tell us that if we do nothing, 1 in 3 children will develop diabetes in their lifetime. This is unacceptable to me, as we know that through diet alone, we can change that," he says.

After being approached by a local farmer over a decade ago, Taylor developed what has become an extremely successful farm-to-school program. Starting with just three farmers, the program has grown to nine different farms, which cooperate and coordinate their services via a food hub. Two years ago, Taylor's district committed to serving ONLY fresh produce, and they now use no canned, processed or frozen fruits or vegetables at all.

This switch also ends up addressing the issue brought forth by many naysayers — the fact that kids "won't eat" fresh fruits and vegetables even if it's served to them and therefore fresh foods are a waste of the school's money. "When that's all they're seeing [from the time] they come into kindergarten, they get used to eating it," Taylor says. "And it's going to make a whole generation of children healthier. How do we educate the whole child? I think it's a tragedy if we haven't taught him to be a lifelong healthy eater."

This program has also been a saving grace for the farmers. Many of the orange groves in this California area are over 100 years old, and as orange trees get older, they produce sweeter but smaller oranges. Their smaller size means commercial vendors don't want to buy them, because they want large oranges. As a result, orange growers were really struggling to stay afloat. The farm-to-school program is the perfect outlet for these perfectly healthy but commercially undesirable fruits.  

There Are Many Ways to Build Sustainable Food Systems

Few things are more important these days than building a more sustainable food system, and as this film shows, there are countless ways of going about it. Best of all, it doesn't take huge numbers of people to make something happen. A handful of dedicated individuals can have a positive, long-term impact on an entire community. 

This is particularly true for people who run food services for a school district. Here, a single person has the power to influence the daily diet — and hence the health — of tens or even hundreds of thousands of children.

Along with improving access to healthy foods, there's also a need for education. In generations past, cooking skills were passed from parent to child, but with the advent of processed foods, many lost these crucial survival skills. That's really what they are — if you cannot cook, you stand little chance of living a long and healthy life. Cooking real food is absolutely foundational for disease prevention and survival.

Where to Find Healthy Food

Fortunately, organic, locally grown foods are becoming easier to get a hold of between farmers markets, food hubs, and other community supported agriculture (CSA) venues. (Of course, you always have the option of growing your own, and that's ultimately your best option.)

Even raw milk is slowly becoming easier to find, and that's great news. If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area.

The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund3 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.4 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com. Other organizations that can help you locate farm-fresh foods include the following:


EatWild.com provides lists of certified organic farmers known to produce safe, wholesome raw dairy products as well as grass-fed beef and other organic produce.

Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass-fed products.

Weston A. Price Foundation

Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass-fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.

Grassfed Exchange

The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass-fed meats across the U.S.

Local Harvest

This website will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.

Farmers Markets

A national listing of farmers markets.

Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals

The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.


The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.

The Cornucopia Institute

The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified-organic brands of eggs, dairy products, and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.