The Farm Bill and you
Everything But the Kitchen Sink
by Alicia Harvie
A writer at heart, I’m not a particularly visual person. But, two images snagged my attention recently. The first was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new MyPlate (http://www.choosemyplate.gov)—an updatednspin on the food pyramid that frequented our cereal boxes for decades. What were USDA’s new dietary recommendations, in the form of a dinner plate? Half of your plate should be fruits and veggies, and another quarter should be grains. Just a quarter of your meal should be a protein. A full cup of dairy should accompany your meal (personally, mine would be filled with ice cream).
When I first saw this plate, I laughed. I could only imagine the many millions of lobbying dollars and bureaucratic conversations that sculpted it. Still, I sensed it represented some progress over its previous incarnation, the pyramid. If everyone’s plates looked like MyPlate, our nation probably would be healthier.
The second image was a fascinating map of the White House kitchen garden. The product of a scrappy grassroots effort, “Eat the View” by Kitchen Gardeners International (kitchengardeners.org) surrounding President Obama’s inauguration, the garden is an unprecedented, remarkable feat showing support for healthy, local food in the highest office of the land.
The map at hand is an exercise in political contrast, a visual “what if?” of food policy. It juxtaposes the White House garden’s current layout—a veritable cornucopia of vegetables and herbs both familiar and obscure—with what the garden would look like if crops were planted according to the amount of taxpayer support received through federal agricultural policies. The resulting “Subsidy Garden” reveals that just a handful of crops would dominate the garden. For the most part, these aren’t crops that would be featured on MyPlate. Instead, they include corn meant for animal feed, soybeans, wheat, sorghum, rice, peanuts, canola, tobacco, and cotton. Yummy. Not.
Just a smidgen of the garden would be devoted to diversified fruits, vegetables, and nuts. These so-called “specialty crops” receive about $50 million a year. That might sound like a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $11 billion the other crops receive annually.
Their flaws or merits aside, I pondered these images and considered the giant piece of legislation that unites them both: the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is the one policy that dictates the great majority of what we eat, what food graces our grocery aisles, and which crops farmers plant in their fields each year.
Clearly, there is a gargantuan disconnect between an ideal food system that would advance our health and the food system that now exists—one that is overwhelmingly supported by the Farm Bill. One that contributes to a costly obesity epidemic. One that jeopardizes soil fertility, the quality of our water and the integrity of the air we breathe. One that drains rural economies and concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, at the expense of the many.
Here’s one example: the first chapter of the Farm Bill is called Title I: The Commodity Title. It’s a chapter that governs the so-called commodity crops—corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, sorghum, cotton, rice, barley, oats and a few other choice oilseeds. The policies of Title I are convoluted and complicated to say the least, but generally constitute payments and loans available to farmers who raise these crops. They are the “subsidies” that Michael Pollan eviscerates in The Omnivores Dilemma, the billions of dollars that shaped the “Subsidy Garden” image above. And they are not available to farmers who grow the many other fruits and vegetables we should be eating on a given day.
Most people’s eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the word policy. It’s no wonder. Change comes at a snail’s pace, if at all. But like it or not, policy has a huge impact on our lives. And like it or not—sure don’t—the structure of our food system is no accident. It has been shaped by years of government policies.
The Farm Bill has roots that extend back to the 1930s, when the Great Depression and Dust Bowl demanded government intervention on behalf of farmers and eaters alike. The piece of legislation that evolved into the Farm Bill expires every five years. And every five years, it must be renegotiated and reauthorized. The last one—the 2008 Farm Bill—cost 284 billion buckaroos. Not surprisingly then, the next one, the 2012 Farm Bill, is an important focus in this belt-tightening budget era.
I sympathize with those who roll their eyes at politics and policies. Yet, I believe strongly that our voices do matter and that we must use them. All meaningful change starts with the individual. When we change, the reverberations are a thousand-fold, far beyond our ability to comprehend. Who said it better than Margaret Mead?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Yes, we are small. And the Farm Bill is a behemoth. But it also governs the food that nourishes our bodies and so much more. While we ourselves cannot write it, our voices—or our silence—undeniably shape it.
So, what’s the bottom line? Tune in. Educate yourself. Consider what you can do, what you want to do and then raise your voice.