A Conversation With Christopher Wharton, Professor of Nutrition

Wharton-Post.jpg He still plays guitar, which he studied for two years as an undergraduate jazz performance major at Benedictine University before switching his major, but Christopher Wharton, sensing there was more job security in nutrition and research, was smart to shift his focus. Today, he works as a senior sustainability scientist and assistant professor in the nutrition program at Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation. The website for the university he is affiliated with lists his "research interests" as "food-policy issues at the local, state, and national levels that might relate both to obesity and to the sustainability of the food supply." But these are more than just research interests for Wharton, who recently started Chow Locally, an online marketplace that hopes to connect consumers with the best local foods available. Here, Wharton discusses how the concept of food hubs has a chance to create an enduring market for local and regional foods; why, however important it might be, nutrition education is simply not enough to change our behaviors and help people manage their weight; and how Michael Pollan, because he has been a true catalyst for generating larger discussions about our food system, deserves to be in a sustainability Hall of Fame.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I am an assistant professor in the nutrition program at Arizona State University (also affiliated faculty of the School of Sustainability). I work in the area of local food systems and food security. Basically, I work with local foods programs like farmers' markets and food hubs to help connect local agricultural goods to people who can use it the most. For example, the grant work I've conducted focuses on improving infrastructure for regional food systems so that small- and mid-size farms can be sustainable, farmers' markets can be financially viable, and individuals who participate in food assistance programs like SNAP or WIC have greater access to healthy, whole, local foods.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

From a popular perspective, I would say the local foods movement is having the most impact right now. Although not all of its premises hold up scientifically (movements are always a mix of both unsupported and supported ideals), there are still a number of good reasons to support and promote local and regional food systems, both from the sustainability and hunger perspectives.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

The biggest misconception about the local foods movement is that it is for the elite only. It's a sadly ironic situation, really, because the majority of those working to grow, aggregate, process, and deliver local foods are nowhere near well-off. Most small-time farmers struggle to get by and must diversify their businesses not only on the farm, but off the farm as well, to stay afloat. Those who run local foods programs, such as farmers' markets, are generally no better off. And businesses that are now cropping up to support regional food systems (generally called food hubs) are novel and innovative, but still trying to figure out how to be profitable. The elitist aspect of local foods comes from the high-end grocers and restaurants that use the concept to sell foods at higher prices, and they aren't really representative of the local foods movement happening on the ground.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

I think the food hubs concept is novel and has the chance to create an enduring market for local and regional foods (in a sense, balancing our nationally and internationally oriented food system). It might be the way that farmers who use sustainable agricultural practices (and thus remain small) can operate within an overall profitable system for distribution and sales. Although I have to admit, I recently founded a small business called Chow Locally that would be considered a regional food hub, so take what I write here with that in mind.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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