Turning the Farm Bill into the Food Bill

Posted on Oct 11, 13 at 02:10 PM

June 17th, 2011

I work in food and agriculture, so when I sit down to a locally sourced, home cooked dinner with my family, I often think of the 2012 Farm Bill’s connection to the food on my table. Re-christened the “Food and Farm Bill” by a fierce tribe of good food advocates, the 2012 version is the most important piece of environmental legislation that Congress will enact in the next 18 months.

I have no illusion that my dinners are completely different from those of millions of Americans. Most people eat mainly processed food as a result of the billions of subsidy dollars diverted to industrial agriculture and the cheap food that is produced by it. The next Farm Bill is our best shot at fixing these flaws in our food system.

Good news: the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is fighting for better policies that would make local and organic dinners like mine the norm rather than the exception, including turning its attention to the 2012 Farm Bill.

EWG helps families make healthier personal and environmental choices, moving consumer markets for good and winning policy battles. Many of us know their work from their handy shopping pocket guides. Recently the group released the seventh edition of its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce with updated information on 53 fruits and vegetables and their total pesticide loads, featuring the catchy and accessible “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15.” In the new 2011 version, apples trumped celery for the most contaminated produce and cilantro made the Dirty Dozen list for the first time.

Curious about the impending 2012 bill, I’ve made several visits to EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database, which illustrates the imbalance in an agricultural system that pays $246.7 billion to farmers who grow commodity crops that we can’t really eat. It tracks top recipients of funding from 1995 to 2009, showing that 10 percent of farmers collected 74 percent of all payments. These large commodity farmers of corn, cotton, and soybeans make out like bandits, while our government shorts struggling small family farmers who grow food you’d want on your family’s table.

On May 25, the House Agriculture Appropriations committee announced $2.7 billion in cuts, mainly to conservation and sustainable agriculture. While there had been discussion of cutting or capping farm subsidies, the House saved subsidies at the last moment on Wednesday, cutting hunger programs instead.

I recently wrangled a ticket to EWG’s annual benefit “Turning the Farm Bill into the Food Bill,” which hosted 300 donors in foodie culture’s mecca, the soaring cathedral of light and highbrow food principles that is San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Building. The sold out event’s glittering speaker line up included musician-cum-environmental activist Bonnie Raitt and integrative medicine icon Dr. Andrew Weil.

The evening was well curated, balancing thought-provoking environmental messages, deliciously responsible food, and world-class networking with EWG’s scientists and supporters.

I spotted my heroes Jim Cochran, of Swanton Berry Farms, fresh from winning NRCD’s Growing Green award; Dan Imhoff, editor of The CAFO Reader; and Michael Dimock, Executive Director of Roots of Change. Along with EWG, each of them is working to change the food system, tackling issues ranging from farmworker justice, to eliminating factory farms and strengthening regional food policy.

At my table were EWG Senior Analyst and long-term Farm Bill activist Kari Hamerschlag, who elatedly showed us a sneak preview of her upcoming Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change, and Seth Nickinson of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Not much for light chatter, we debated dairy’s role in climate change and the benefits of methane digesters versus pastured cows with tablemates from the cooperative, Organic Valley, and explored farmworker justice awareness or lack thereof with UNFI’s marketing folks.

Hamerschlag waxed euphoric about EWG’s committed base and the prospect of real change. “Despite a tough budget year, we have people power on our side,” she said. “With one million EWG supporters and millions of others who care about good food, we can mobilize to force Congress to shift a portion of the billions of dollars spent on wasteful and inequitable commodity subsidies into healthy food for our kids. I believe we can build thriving local and regional food systems that support local farmers and create new jobs in our communities.”

I asked Nickinson what brought him to the event. He told me that among the serious issues facing the nation, the Farm Bill is critical. “EWG does a remarkably ambitious job of connecting a diverse set of issues to personal, community and environmental health. It’s important to work on pesticides, cosmetics and other toxins, but food is the number one thing we ingest. Food is not just a personal issue. It has incredibly broad societal impact.”

EWG’s Ken Cook took us on a sobering romp through the numbers, noting that our nation’s 6,000 farmers’ markets are dwarfed by our 257,000 fast food joints. He explained that the three-fourths of current farm bill dollars are allocated to nutrition; over five years, that translates to $314 billion most of which goes food stamps. We spend the next highest chunk on crops that could never make it to the table as a healthy meal: $60 billion is allocated to subsidies in the form of crop insurance and commodity payments for a handful of industrial crops, such as corn, soybeans, and cotton which are the backbone of the industrial food system that makes too many Americans fat and sick.

More sobering still, $22 billion is allocated for “conservation” and a paltry $15 billion for “everything else” including organic agriculture and school food. I know these figures well but still feel despair every time I hear them. Searching for an upbeat ending, Cook concluded with an inspiring picture of the Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Ann Cooper, hovering over a salad bar with small group of healthy, happy, schoolgirls. He exhorted us to follow her example by working to make sure the Farm Bill helps put more fruits and vegetables on kids’ plates.

It was growing late and I had beans to soak for the next day’s dinner. Heading to the door, I was pleased to run into Jamie Dean, a Program Officer with the Packard Foundation, one of EWG’s funders. She had a strong opinion: “Without major reform, the Farm Bill has nothing at all to do with food or health. It benefits neither the average person nor the average farmer. It benefits industrial agriculture. Since food resonates with so many of us, the 2012 Farm Bill is an opportunity to re-frame the issue,“ she said.

EWG’s work should inspire and inform all of us: To think of the Farm Bill when we sit down to dinner with family and community and to join this organization and others in working for change. Despite the challenges ahead, I am heartened at the prospect of converting the Farm Bill into the Food and Farm Bill.

Haven Bourque is the founder of HavenBMedia an Oakland, CA-based communications group focused on food, environment, and community. She helps businesses, non-profits, and individuals get the word out about their commitments to responsible food sourcing and social justice. When she’s not communicating, she’s cooking up a storm in her kitchen, or walking her neighborhood’s goats. Follow her on Twitter.