Monday, March 1, 2010

USDA Making Some Food Ground

It's exciting that the USDA is starting to recognize - nay value - the importance of farm direct foods. This week, Kathleen Merigan, Undersecretary of Agriculture announced an investment of $5 million this year in the Farmers Market Promotion Program and potentially $10 million next year if the coffers don't get gutted in this economic decline.

In addition, late last year, USDA announced its "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food", campaign. (It's as if the local food movement is truly pulling agencies into action.) And while Obama wonders if there is a "local food movement" out there, the latest urgent call for write ins against the approval of GE Alfalfa, garnered the biggest response they've seen since USDA was making amendments to the organic food standards. In just one week, over 200,000 people wrote in to voice concern; we can only assume that the number of people that care about their food, and food safety, is only growing.

Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign with a bold mission to end childhood obesity within a generation, was launched this February. The campaign has four primary tenets: helping parents make healthy family choices, serving healthier food in schools, improving access to healthy, affordable food, and increasing physical activity of kids. Already, the administration has announced its plans to improve school meals, a financing initiative to reduce food deserts, new research tools that detail local food environments and health outcomes, including grocery store access and disease and obesity prevalence, and a broad range of public/private partnerships to solve America's childhood obesity epidemic. The food system in America is certainly getting some attention these days.

But despite all of this new support from the USDA, the nonprofit sector of the sustainable agriculture and food systems groups have been gutted by the economic crisis laden with foundation fallout. Their programming which arguably fills in the gap of government responsibility (think food banks and other emergency food programs in particular), means that an estimated hundreds of thousands of people will be struggling for their own food security.That's why it's so great to finally see some movement on behalf of the USDA, a big bloated elephant trudging through post industrial/green revolution muck, start to get re-involved.

In addition to the struggles of nonprofits, our farmers have been forced to compete on the global market for the past few decades and has been to the detriment of America's small, diversified farms. Consolidation to increase scales of efficiency to compete with China, Mexico, and South American countries (in addition to many others!) has led to the environmental degradation that we are seeking solutions for today. The dead zone, dead soil, contaminated water, and dependency on cheap food resources that depends on an ample supply of inexpensive oil. Our farmers, with higher labor and environmental standards cannot compete with food coming in from countries that have lower labor and environmental regulations. There is just no way.

I'm hoping that the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," campaign will evolve into more than just a positive PR spin for the USDA to quite the local food movement and that we continue to pressure for more assistance to our countries farmers, our stewards of the land, and our keepers of nature. While this issue certainly is complex (i.e. don't the developing countries need our markets?) the movements that we are seeing are pointing us in the right direction. In this economy, with small businesses and the American people struggling, the sustainable food movement's ask that eaters continue supporting local foods, even if it costs a little bit more, is a hard sell. We need more government incentives for sustainability. We need Green Collar jobs that pay people honestly for producing food. We need the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," campaign to get some teeth.

One of the best books I've found about the take over of the global food supply is Raj Patel's "Stuffed and Starved," also author of "The Value of Nothing". You can also check out Food First's website.

While the economy "recovers" people are using their extra time to plant gardens, eat with family and friends, and hopefully, read about all of the ways out there to stay engaged with the food system - the most intimate thing that we "do" every time we eat.

For a more political breakdown of the Washington scene, this post from the Ag Observatory, does a great job at shedding light on the Obama Administration's, what they call, "schizophrenic" approach to agriculture.

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