The Farm Bill and City Cooking
Food Politics and the City Kitchen Table
Sources include: U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Farm Coalition, JustFood.org, FarmAid, Local Harvest, Seafood Watch, Sustainable Table, Public Health Action
I've been doing a lot of reading about The Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is short-hand for a collection of programs, entitlements, and subsidies that Congress revisits and reauthorizes every five years -- and it's time to do it again.
This complex legislation oversees our food's production and distribution but it also encompasses conservation, bioenergy, food stamp programs, school lunches, commodity crops, rural development, international trade and food aid, food labeling for country-of-origin and organics, food research, and much more. It's huge.
The Farm Bill is also full of obscure acronyms, arcane jargon, and gigantic sums of money that get spent, at best, in unbalanced ways. One statistic says that 75% of the $165 billion spent on farm programs between 1995 and 2005 went to enormous commodity crop subsidies, half of which was spent in only 20 Congressional districts. [There is a compelling argument to be made that subsidized commodities like corn and wheat benefit the huge multinationals that produce the cheap processed foods which have led to our obesity epidemic.] These taxpayer subsidies also benefit big industrial farmers to the lopsided disadvantage of smaller, family-run sustainable farms.
The more we know about national farm policy and spending, the more we can lose our appetites.
Let's Invite Congress To Dinner
Although the 2007 Senate version of The Farm Bill is still taking shape, the House passed its bill (H.R. 2419) on the eve of its August recess, largely sustaining the status quo and being notable for what it doesn't do. It doesn't adequately differentiate how the government treats factory farms versus family farms. It doesn't ban the practice of using zaps of carbon monoxide on cellophane-packaged meats of a certain age to make them appear bright red and thus, more appealing than you'd otherwise think. And it doesn’t stop the confounding practice of paying farm subsidies to non-farmers. The House version does make some progress on sustainable farming, organic farming, and food safety; it gives more money for food for the poor; and it gives the 44 members of the House Agriculture Committee (who represent most of those 20 Congressional districts noted above) something to help them get re-elected next year.
Still, we have reason to hope that things might get better in the Senate. Unlike any time past, this year the nation's small farms, environmental interests, and grass root organizations that share concerns about our food supply have organized themselves enough to have a voice almost as loud as that of agribusiness. The Senate is being asked to improve conservation, reduce the volume of subsidies given to program crops, and add meaningful support to "community supported agriculture" (see below). Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and he's got the challenge to improve the legislation while ending up with a final bill that can be acceptable to the House and avoid a Bush veto.
Here are a couple more statistics that you may find compelling: Only 2% of the American population are farmers. Subsidized program crops, like corn, are grown on 266 million acres but only 12 million acres grow fruits and vegetables. This few people on this little land are feeding us all.
But The 2007 Farm Bill is not just about the nation's farmers. It's about all of us and our national food crisis. For all too many Americans, eating well is a luxury. New Yorkers are lucky to have an enormous selection of superb food merchants and producers, but the fact is that good food is expensive and sometimes scarce. I'm not talking about pricey restaurant food; I'm talking about the ingredients we buy to cook at home.
How can we improve our nation's food supply? Well, an e-mail to your Senators, even if only to let them know that you're paying attention to The Farm Bill, wouldn't hurt. Coming from New Yorkers (despite our 35,600 farms in New York State), they may be surprised to know we're watching. And we can tell the gaggle of Presidential candidates that the nation's food policy is a top priority. The rest of the change must come from each of us, one meal at a time.
New Federations, New Criteria, New Choices
We make an ethical and ecological impact every time we buy groceries. The crisis in our nation's food supply (e coli spinach scares, tainted garlic from China, corn syrup and trans fats in processed foods, mercury in swordfish -- the list is long) means each of us must be responsible for policing our own food and creating new options. While this can be a scary prospect, there are some new resources and small-but-potent ways to make a difference, both in your own kitchen and on our farms.
- Community Supported Agriculture: CSA occurs when individuals pledge financial support to a farm as if to make it their community's farm. In exchange for financial support (usually an annual payment of about $300 to $500), a farm gets added financial security, a sharing in risks and rewards, and distribution without having to spend time and money on marketing. The community gets weekly or bi-weekly deliveries (for an entire growing season -- in New York that means about 25 weeks) of locally grown foods that previously were either not available or too expensive. In other words, for about $20 a week, you get about 5 months of weekly deliveries of farm-grown produce. Enough for a family, from "your" farm, brought to your neighborhood. The idea originated in Europe and Japan in the 1980's and today there are more than 400 CSA programs in the U.S., most of which are located near large cities -- there are about 50 in NYC. See our link to JustFood.org (in our list of Favorite Blogs/Web Sites) for more information about the very successful CSA initiatives in New York City and how you can participate.
- Fair Trade: Fair Trade is both a market and a movement. As a market, it connects farmers, producers, businesses and consumers who are concerned with fairness, the environment, and sustainability; when you see a "Fair Trade" label on a product, it means that farmers and their workers who produced the food received a fair price. As a movement, Fair Trade encourages sustainable farming, protects the environment, provides access to financial support to small farmers, helps farmers get linked to cooperatives instead of working through inefficient or exploitive middlemen, and helps consumers know where their food comes from. Fair Trade focuses particularly on foods grown in developing countries, notably coffee, bananas and chocolate, and exported to developed countries. Inspections and certifying are done by national and international federations which represent producers and producer groups and cooperatives, export and import companies, retailers, and other fair trade support organizations. .
- Farm Aid: This is how Max Fraser, writing in The Nation, recently described this organization: "What began as an ambitious attempt to bail out financially strapped farmers in the dark days of the Reagan years has grown into a visionary initiative to bring about fundamental reforms to our profoundly out-of-whack systems of food production and consumption. In its present incarnation, Farm Aid is as much about getting needed support to the country's vulnerable family farms as it is about reminding the country why it needs family farms in the first place." The founders and current board of directors include Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Neil Young and John Mellencamp but music star power aside, for more than two decades FarmAid has made a specific, important, and life-saving difference to our small farmers. We love these guys.
- Sustainable Agriculture: This means to grow food or raise animals in a way that is healthy for consumers and animals, replaces and replenishes natural resources -- air, water, soil -- that are consumed in the process of producing food, prevents pollution, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and enhances rural communities. Most sustainable farms are small and run by families, although that doesn't have to be the case -- a huge industrial farm could equally be sustainable. Alice Waters has launched a number of sustainable food initiatives across the country (The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA and in New Orleans, and The Yale Sustainable Food Program) proving that the children of both rural and urban communities can produce foods that have been produced with equal regard for nutrition, flavor and our ecosystems.
- Eating Seasonal and Eating Local: No mystery here. It means buying food that you know has been grown only a short truck ride from where you live. Plus you'll get the best price and the best flavor when you buy and cook foods when they're in season. Because New York food markets get stocked from international sources that pass through Hunts Point, we can have vine-ripened tomatoes from Israel and kiwis from South America in the middle of the winter, and of course, anything we want most of the year from California where more than half of all the produce grown in the U.S. comes from. But instead of trying to eat whatever you want whenever you want, your food will taste better if it's bought in season and especially if it's been grown locally. Okay, I know we can't get New York-grown strawberries in February, but the point is to choose squash over asparagus if it's November. This also goes back to sustainable agriculture and the amount of fossil fuel that's needed to bring those tomatoes from Israel to New York in the dead of winter, losing flavor and nutrients along the way. And besides -- they really don't taste half as good as they look.
- Certified Organic: The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets standards for what it means for a food to be organic, as do other governments as well as industry organizations. But what organic means to one may be different than what it means to another. For the Canadian government, the standards are merely guidelines, not enforced rules, leaving certification to private sector organizations. Confused? We should be because who knows what "certified organic" actually means. Usually there are some criteria: no hormones in meats or dairy products or no chemical pesticides used in growing produce. But the federal government has recently let the standards become lax, permitting ingredients grown with chemical fertilizers as long as some of the product is fully organic.
To participate in the USDA's organic programs, farms must pay fees, agree to periodic inspections, fill out lots of paperwork, and buy more costly "organic" animal feeds. Actual certifications aren't done by the USDA but instead state, non-profit and private organizations approved by the USDA. From most accounts, buying "organic" produce is probably giving you what you expect -- fruits and vegetables grown without chemical pesticides. But when it comes to meat, poultry, eggs and cheese, you may be far better off buying from a small, local producer who stands by quality and farming methods instead of a USDA checklist; I've spoken at length with hog farmers, egg producers and cheese makers who refused to be certified "organic" arguing that it adds cost and bureaucracy to production while actually diminishing the quality, integrity and taste of their product. Case in point: neither Knoll Krest Eggs nor Flying Pigs Farm, both superb local producers, are organic.
So how do you know what you're eating? Unless you grow it yourself, you don't.
If you're curious to learn more, the best single source I've found is author Michael Pollan's (The Omnivore's Dilemma) web site which contains a rich list of links to food and agriculture-related sites, articles and books. You can find him on our list of Favorite Blogs/Web Sites.
Back to The Farm Bill. We're not likely to unwind what's been done or have much of an impact as the Senate turns its attention to its version of the bill next week. But we can still wield our influence in the most powerful way we can: with our grocery choices and our wallets.