According to the annual Food & Healthy Survey from the International Food Information Council, more than four out of five consumers say that COVID-19 has altered their food habits, pushing them to purchase, prepare, eat, and think about food in a different light. Of those surveyed, a higher percentage of people said that they were eating healthier than usual as a direct result of the public-health crisis, and experts forecast that healthy eating will continue to be a trend in a post-pandemic world.
As consumers become hungry for better diets, they need to connect with people who can educate them on the nutritional value of their food. With their unparalleled knowledge about agricultural practices, farmers have unique insights to help educate the public on the foods being produced for consumers’ tables.
However, the average person doesn’t turn to a farmer to learn more about the food they’re consuming. Many might not even know a farmer to ask. Consumers usually turn to a trusted health professional, like a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). RDNs are food and nutrition experts who have met the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s criteria to earn the credential. RDNs contribute their services in a variety of fields, including in healthcare, education, research, public health, and agriculture. In the United States, RDNs frequently work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government agencies to decrease food insecurity and to improve food safety throughout the country.
But RDNs don’t have a farmer’s knowledge about agricultural practices. In 2018, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics identified this as an issue and made it a key element of their Strategic Plan to correct the lack of knowledge about food production in their ranks. There are ongoing efforts by a variety of regional and national programs to train RDNs on how to gain more knowledge about how food is produced and overall agricultural practices. One of the major recommendations is that RDNs should actually meet with farmers and visit their farms to help fill in those blanks in their knowledge. Connecting the dots about what “farm to table” really means can help RDNs become better at advising their clients, while helping farmers introduce what they produce to consumers.
RDNs and farmers participate in the same food system that gathers all the factors (environment, humans, inputs, methods, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) that impact everything related to food. And farmers and RDNs can help each other learn and fill in the other’s knowledge gaps.
For example, an RDN might recommend some form of “organic” diet to a client with environmental sensitivities. The RDN may know the technical definition for what makes something “organic” but has no idea how that truly translates to farming processes. A farmer could educate an RDN on how organic farmers use different pesticides that can be described as “natural,” but don’t necessarily translate into more nutritional value than conventionally grown crops. By better understanding the food sources and systems, RDNs can amplify their ability to help clients improve their health and nutritional outcomes.
On the other hand, RDNs can leverage their specialized skills to educate farmers on how to better communicate to their target audiences. For example, while a farmer may know everything about how to optimize a row crop per acre, they may be less familiar with how to communicate its nutritional advantages to a wider audience. Alternatively, an RDN could help describe the nutritional differences in cow’s milk and nut “milks” to farmers looking to stay on top of the growing plant-based milk alternative industry.
And RDNs can help dispel myths and correct misperceptions with their clients. For example, helping them understand how GMO farming is about sustainable practices and helping them understand that eating that vegetable is delicious, safe – and healthy.
As many people in the world, including 12 million children in the US alone, deal with food insecurity every day, there is also an increased need for stakeholders in the food supply system to come together and create sustainable food practices. With farmers’ connection to the production and the RDNs’ access to the consumer, if they work together they can help develop these systems.