east new york farmWhile we wait for policy makers to stop playing footsie with industry, projects like Brooklyn’s East New York Farms show the way forward. I think we have seen the scope of the Obama administration’s commitment to food-policy reform: things that don’t cost real money or challenge the structure of the food industry.

I’m thinking of the USDA’s Know Your Farmer initiative, which doesn’t bring new money to the table, but rather packages existing outlays in a way that supports sustainable agriculture. The program is useful and commendable, but it’s dwarfed in size by programs and policies that shore up Big Ag.

Then there are those behind-closed-doors negotiations between Michelle Obama and food-industry execs, which have so far resulted in private companies agreeing to contribute salad bars to public schools and last week’s big Walmart announcement.

There’s nothing wrong with the First Lady applying what the political theorists call “soft power” on behalf of food-system reform, but the approach is obviously quite limited. Even the most generous reading of Walmart’s recent “healthy food initiative” — which I tried to give it last week — has to acknowledge that such informal agreements do little to challenge the food system’s power structure. A handful of large companies own a huge share of the nation’s food system from seed to plate, and, utilizing their lobbying power, essentially dictate that federal ag policy will be geared to the maximum production of corn and soybeans.

Changing that will require more than soft power or a new gloss on old, severely limited programs. Indeed, while Michelle Obama has been diligently chiding industry execs to do a little better, her husband has been quietly appointing industry boosters to top ag-policy posts. The zealously pro-biotech and anti-organic Roger Beachy runs the USDA’s multi-billion-dollar research program. Long-time pesticide-industry lobbyist Isi Siddiqui handles global trade negotiations dealing with food and ag; presumably, he works closely with Nina Fedoroff, the State Department’s chief biotech-industry champion, I mean, science adviser. And so on. Despite Michelle Obama’s exertions, the levers of food policy are firmly gripped by industry-friendly hands. And let’s not even discuss the incoming Congress. Sigh.

Now, I’ve long argued that structural change in the food system cannot come without real change at the national policy level. But that doesn’t mean local and regional efforts to transform food economies are meaningless. Quite the contrary. The food industry may maintain policy capture at the national level, but that doesn’t stop people from collaborating to build and rebuild robust food institutions at the local and regional levels. Such efforts are a testing ground for new ideas that lead to food systems controlled largely by communities, not corporations peddling Happy Meals with sad consequences.

While a nationwide patchwork of successful small and mid-scale grassroots projects may never be sufficient for transforming the food system, such a thing is almost surely necessary. And if I have bad news about immediate prospects for change at the national level, I bring glad tidings about grassroots energy.

What do I mean? Let’s take a look at St. Louis, plunked down in the middle of corn-and-soy country and the hometown of globe-spanning GMO seed and agrochemical giant Monsanto. Check out this St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece about a group of the city’s residents who want to pool their resources together to finance new organic farming projects in the surrounding countryside.

The article opens with a profile of a young couple who launched a successful micro-farm selling “everything from fruit to nuts” to St. Louis chefs … from their own backyard. Having proved their farming chops and marketing skill, the couple wants to spread out to a 53-acre plot outside the city.

But there’s no financing for that. Banks are happy enough to loan to large-scale corn and soy growers to scale up even larger — as long as corn and soy prices are high. But risk cash on someone who plans to grow food for people to eat? That’s a foreign concept. One food entrepreneur quoted in the article puts it like this:

“We came up with a plan and shopped it around,” Wood said. “Out of nine banks, we got turned down nine times. One of them said it was too exotic. Another one said, ‘If it’s not corn, soybeans, beef, or pigs, we don’t know how to do it.’ Conventional banking hasn’t caught up with the new wave of farming.”

So people in St. Louis are trying to figure out how they can take at least some of their cash out of the mutual-fund-industrial complex and invest it in their region’s foodshed. They’re using the “Slow Money” principles developed by Woody Tasch.

Because of tight securities laws designed to eliminate stock-market fraud, it remains extremely complicated to pool individual savings and invest them in local initiatives. That’s why most people’s 401(k)s, including my own modest one, are invested in mutual funds that invest in large companies traded on national stock market changes, not in small initiatives designed to build a robust local food economy. Slow Money is still figuring out how to change that. In St. Louis, the locals are considering ideas like offering microloans, or collectively investing in hard assets that farmers could use as collateral for loans, the Dispatch reports.

“I know there’s strong demand from farmers who need good sources of funding,” one local-food retailer told the paper. “If we can thread the needle and fit the capital with the demand from entrepreneurs, we can fill an important gap. How we do that, I don’t think we know yet. But we will.”

Such energy at the local level, multiplied across the country, is what keeps me more hopeful than ever at this time of policy stasis.

For another example of how resourceful financing helped establish a great local-food business despite a series of noes from conventional banks, see my profile of Chapel Hill restaurant owner Vimala Rajendran.