Yesterday I had the chance to go to the Community Food Security Coalition's Food Justice conference in Oakland. The 5 day event was attended by 1,000 people from across the country, most of whom are involved in various parts of the sustainable food movement. I have to say - that's a lot of foodies in one room.
Much of the focus of Monday was on the Farm Bill, which is currently being created behind closed doors by a super committee. While the bill was supposed to be up for revision in 2012, but the budget crisis (or, as Mark Bittman likes to put it: the "Republican manufactured budget crisis") has resulted in a rushed process that is due to be decided on by the end of the year. Not great news for sustainable food and agriculture activists who had planned events for 2012 and were hoping for a more open and democratic process.
So that's happening. And it's upsetting. But what exactly is the big deal?
Why the Farm Bill Matters
The Farm Bill is a piece of federal legislation that affects your everyday life, and a new one is passed every five years or so. Whether it's the price or availability of the food you eat, protection of farmland, or food aid, the Farm Bill plays a role in shaping America's farm and food policy. It's also a driving force behind diet-related disease and failing small farms.
The first Farm Bill was called the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, and was enacted in the wake of the Great Depression. It was put in place to address problems such as unfavorable export practices, soil erosion, and hunger, but the good intentions have since been stripped away in order to support corporate interests.
Here's another way to look at it. You remember when the USDA came out with the nifty little plate image to show nutritional guidelines? While I have a number of issues with this image (dairy is not the only form of calcium, for one), it's a step up from the grain-based pyramid of the past. However, when you look at the food that the Farm Bill actually subsidizes, you get another story. Take a look at this Washington Post graphic that shows how fruits and vegetables, which take up a full half of the plate in our nutritional guidelines, are only being subsidized a fraction of the amount going towards commodity crops and proteins. It's no wonder we can't afford to eat healthy in this country.
What's Being Done About the Secret Farm Bill
|Chellie Pingree speaks with us about Farm Bill 2012|
At the conference, we were lucky enough to get to hear from Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), one of the few representatives in Washington to actually have a history of dedication to small and sustainable farmers. In fact, she has owned her own small, certified organic farm since before she was in politics, and originally moved to the east coast as a part of the back to the land movement of the 70s.
I don't have a lot of hope for this Farm Bill. It's being decided by the leaders of the House and Senate agricultural committees, which means that just four people are crafting the proposal that shapes all our food and farm policy. And these four people represent Oklahoma, Michigan, Minnesota, and Kansas - not exactly small farm territory.
But many people and groups are banding together to provide comprehensive recommendations for the committee, in the hopes of influencing the outcome. You can view a list of these ideas at FarmPolicy.com, but the one that stands out the most is the Pingree's Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act. She's pushing needed changes such as infrastructure (we are sadly lacking in slaughterhouses for small farms - who wants to send their healthy, pasture-raised meat to a conventional slaughterhouse?), support for EBT and WIC programs (better known as food stamps or food aid), progressive school lunch policy, senior food access, money for community food projects, value added grants, and even encouragement for states to use Farmers Markets as educational outlets.
We'll have to see how many, if any, of Pingree's recommendations get into the Super Committee report, but here's hoping.
For more information on the Farm Bill, here are some resources:
- List of Farm Bill Media Sensations of 2011
- Updated Farm Bill policy recommendations from various groups
- Super Committee updates by the New York Times
- Why does a salad cost more than a Big Mac, a visual
- #farmbill twitter updates, a great way to stay up to date