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2024 Sustainability Outlook: Maile Auterson

Executive Director, Springfield Community Gardens

Posted online

Auterson’s 2024 Projection: Agriculture and health care will merge to address the problems of chronic disease and hunger via “food is medicine” interventions. There is going to be more attention paid to small farmers and their ability to help solve environmental issues
and population health problems.

What are the key trends driving sustainable agriculture policy?
The “food is medicine” approach is becoming very popular nationally. One of the most important things you’re going to see in our economy is that shift in how we spend our money on health. It’s going to move toward a preventative approach in the next five years to start focusing on diet. We have a prescription box program with CoxHealth where we provide (community supported agriculture) boxes for low-income patients. You’re going to see the local food promotion programs getting local food in schools, in the hospitals or at the university.

How do small communities play a role in larger global climate initiatives?
It’s clear that if we go over 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, we are going to put the global food systems at risk. In systems thinking, when you have many, many well-functioning systems, those are better than one big system that could break down. There are so many towns our size all over the world, and what if we all worked together to have a resilient local farming system? The city of Springfield’s master plan includes goals to re-localize the food economy, and the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is pouring so much money into urban agriculture because they realize that a resilient, small local food system during a crisis can not only grow food but teach people sustainable practices. When you have these local systems, everyone feels taken care of, and that’s the sustainability piece that we just can’t keep ignoring.

What are the challenges facing small farmers?
What we see is actually an increase in new farms and local food contracts with the USDA. We cannot grow and purchase local food fast enough. The key to making it, though, is paying farmers a fair price so that they can have a living wage. We have to raise awareness about how much bad food really costs you. You have to pay a little bit more for healthy food, but in the long run, it keeps you out of the hospital. You’re not just paying for a carrot; you’re paying for the living wage of a farmer and the health of your community.

Springfield Community Gardens received an Environmental Protection Agency grant that will fund 108 interns for the next three years. What trends are you seeing with new farmers in the field?
The fastest-growing demographic is women. Young people today are more concerned about having a sustainable lifestyle, consuming less and understanding their connection to their neighbors. We’re seeing a lot of desire for community effort and community collectives, and that’s great, because it goes back to the original farm co-ops. I see the young farmers today figuring out ways they don’t have to work a 60-hour week and focusing on intangible benefits.

The USDA reported hunger worsened for families in 2022. How are you, as a member of the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Food Security Task Force and the Missouri Foundation for Health’s Food Justice initiative, seeing solutions to food insecurity?
Hunger is on the rise, so is chronic disease, and the missing puzzle piece is where we put our money. There is a bipartisan understanding that we all need to eat healthily to lower our bills. You really have to talk about small-scale economies where people are taken care of. We need to bring back subsidies given to commodity farmers, and shift that to the small farmer who’s taking care of the land and the people.


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