Netroots Nation, Day Two notes pt.2

This morning, I’ll cover the second panel I attended last Friday, “The Recipe for Change in America’s Food System”.

But before the cut, two amusements:

* Preschoolers’ interpretation of Obama’s Berlin Speech

* A ditty about John McCain’s foreign-policy expertise:

By Iraq, is Pakistan near;
While Czechoslovakia’s here.
Sunnis are Shi’a,
Sudan is Somalia,
And Putin’s the German premier.

The Food Policy panel was hosted by Jill Richardson, who blogs as “OrangeClouds115”. Last year she spearheaded efforts to educate DailyKos about the Farm Bill. She’s the one who got “Recipe for America” going, and now “La Vida Locavore“. She assembled some great panelists, and I’ll introduce them as they enter the discussion. Mostly I’m omitting the questions, since they’re pretty evident from the answers.

First up Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Low income people spend 20% of their budget on food, as opposed to 10% for middle-income. There are currently 28 million people on food stamps. We need to respond to human need, but we should do it in an informed way – the U.S. shells out $60 billion on food assistance, but there’s still as much “food insecurity” (new government term for what used to be called hunger) as there was 40 years ago. So we’re not seeing improvement, we’re merely managing poverty. A more sensible approach would include attacking the root causes of poverty.

Judith McGeary, a small sustainable farmer and attorney, founder of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, which seeks to lower the regulatory burden on small farms and ranches, in order to save family farms, and improve the quality of the food supply. (Note for those not versed in Food Policy: One way that ADM or Cargill gets rid of the competition is by pushing for agricultural regulations that don’t scale down. These are a minor imposition on huge factory farms, but business-killers for small operators. Example: Any place that slaughters animals for sale must have a bathroom solely for the use of the USDA inspector! I don’t know too many small businesses that could afford that.) Rumors that switching to organic and sustainable agriculture will “starve the world” are based on bad research. In most of these studies, land that had been depleted by industrial agriculture techniques was used, and part of it was cultivated using (not necessarily ideal) organic methods. Established organic or sustainable farms show greater productivity than industrially-farmed land, but it takes a long transition time to re-establish fertility, when the soil biology has been wiped out by chemicals. It doesn’t lend itself to single-variable research techniques, since it’s all about creating and managing a complex system. And Big Ag isn’t interested in hearing the results, since they’re entwined with Big Chemical. In one study (which was cancelled before completion – strange how that happened) organic pecans were shown to be more plentiful and heavier, and to contain levels of anti-oxidants that were 400% of that found in industrially-grown pecans.

Margaret Krome, Policy Program Director of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. She coodinates an annual grassroots campaign to fund federal sustainable agriculture programs, and helps develop state and local programs and policies. In the most recent Farm Bill, we failed to get improvements to the commodities system, but there were increases for farmer’s markets, research and getting people back into agriculture. One problem is actually getting these programs to happen. The Farm Bill itself is just an “authorization” bill. These outline how money is to be spent, but there can be a disconnect between authorization and implementation. “Appropriation” bills are what actually establishes programs and makes sure the money gets spent on them. Activists have a big role in getting new programs implemented, and implemented properly. Follow-up is essential, otherwise the money languishes – just because it’s authorized doesn’t mean it will be appropriated. The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture sends out action alerts, to keep the grassroots community aware of the status of programs and initiatives.

Michele Simon, public health lawyer, nutrition advocate and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back“. Parents are getting too much credit/blame for what their children eat. There is a Public Health Diet Crisis. Big Food is trying to control the conversation. She sees the focus on parents as a PR move to deflect attention away from the quality of food that’s being made available, and how its advertised, esp. to children. Advertisers often get to go “behind parents’ backs”, sometimes through schools. Good policy helps parents.

Judith: Buy local. Know that regulations are set by/for Big Ag, and are often purposefully designed to be cost-prohibitive for small or non-abusive farms. Consumers need to tell government to draw distinctions between industrial and sustainable agriculture when it comes to regulations. The types of safe-guards that are necessary for CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are highly inappropriate, and even counter-productive, for grass farmers.

Margaret: Appropriations bills are passed annually. The nuts and bolts are put together on key sub-committees, so there are truly only a handful of federal legislators who have all the power on any topic. There is not a lot of transparency. Having people like the Nat’l Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, who know which legislators are involved, and how to approach them is helpful (Ed. note: this highlights the power of lobbyists, doesn’t it?)

Mark: Cheap, healthy food is actually hard to find in poorer areas, both urban and rural. In urban centers, there are often no stores with produce sections. In rural areas there are sometimes no stores for miles, and selection can be limited. Rural shoppers can’t shop often, and therefore don’t get as much fresh food. Our nation has many “food deserts” – communities that have been abandoned by the grocery industry. And public transit fails people, too – often no connections between poor neighborhoods and grocery stores. A poor person has to be very committed in order to get good food, since they will have to use time and resources to travel for their food. Schools also don’t teach good food decisions or food preparation. Nutrition education programs are underfunded.

Michele: (Response to “self-regulation” question) “Trans-Fat-Free Cheetos!” are not the answer. The public needs to realize that corporations are bound by law to make money for shareholders. Beyond that they have no obligation. A corporation is legally amoral. It may help their image to be seen as “good citizens”, but it will always come down to the bottom line – and it should. The balance is supposed to fall between public (government) regulation and private profit-making. (Ed. note: I also would add that when all the power is on one side of the equation – either side – you get bad results).

Michele: (Is individual action enough?) People who have access and awareness can take care of themselves. But society has a moral obligation to make that access and awareness available to everyone. That goes beyond individual action. (Ed note: given equal access and awareness, then it can come down to individual choice.)

Mark: (How can citizens influence policy?) A lot of the action is in DC, but there are opportunities at the state and local level – city and county councils, school districts, etc. Make food more available, incentives for healthy corner stores, better bus routes to reach underserved communities. Local Food Policy Councils are a way to be involved. Watch for overreactions – there was a case where one small cider producer had an e. Coli incident. Local authorities swung into action, proposing regulations that would have put dozens of small producers out of the business. Instead a Food Policy Council intervened, and by bringing everyone together, they managed to get to a solution that included training for small producers, but didn’t result in them having to stop making their own cider.

General question to the panel: What can bloggers do?

* Get information out – educate a wider audience.

* Get people thinking about where their food comes from. Get people’s heads “above the plate”.

* Deconstruct Food Industry rhetoric, pushback against corporate messaging

* Help target messages for specific states, legislators, topics.

* Aggregate information from multiple sources

Is there a missing message?

* Eating healthier is not just “a personal act”

* Government has been “captured” by Big Corporations

* Sustainable agriculture is viable and successful with a better long-term future than Industrial Ag

* Too many people currently can’t participate in the organic system

Other observations:

* Since sustainable agriculture is profitable, why aren’t more people doing it? What are the barriers?

* Public investments can help close the “food gap”, to get people better food opportunities

* When the marketplace fails, government should step in

* Zoning can be used to affect how many fast-food restaurants vs. other food outlets are built

* Community colleges can have an impact with how they train food professionals

* There needs to be a shift in attitudes towards lawns. Too many people are disassociated from how food is grown, and we should be encouraging people to use “edible landscaping”.