“You’re moving where?! Why?!” Steph Larsen on the road in North and South Dakota Photo: ruralaffairs. This response was by far the most common among acquaintances when I told them excitedly that I was leaving my Washington, D.C. job directing the policy program at Community Food Security Coalition to be an organizer in rural Nebraska at the Center for Rural Affairs. Not that I blame them entirely; while I did grow up in Wisconsin, and I am not afraid of the “Midwest fly-over zone” as coastal people like to call it, the smallest town I’d ever lived in for any …
Food is turning up everywhere, and I don't mean on your plate. For the past year, journalists and authors have stuck on the topic like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth, and what's especially notable is the focus on policy solutions and the Farm Bill. Articles are so numerous that as I started to compile them, I realized that I could spend a whole post just linking to them (find a few here). As I contemplate the impact of our farm and food policy on the environment, how to reduce food miles, and the impact of our diet on global warming, I am also aware that local food is often perceived as elitist. Healthy and local food is often more expensive because farmers are taking care of their workers and the land, but it still needs to be accessible to everyone, both in regards to price and where consumers can buy healthy local food. One way that the Farm Bill can impact the ability of all people to eat locally is to fund programs that help connect low-income consumers to farmers, or in some cases to the land itself.
In a recent trip through the small town of Walthill, Nebraska, the phrase "rural revitalization" took on a whole new meaning. In this case, it was the lack of any kind of prosperity that made it obvious to me why rural communities are in need of revitalization. Main Street looked painfully deserted, with two recent arsons adding fresh scars to the once-active storefronts. As we drove around the residential area, most houses looked to be in some state of disrepair -- so much so that it was difficult to really tell which were homes and which had already been abandoned. If ever there was a town that needed some life breathed back into it, this was it.
When the Democrats took control of Congress, a colleague of mine looked at me with a sigh of relief and said, "Isn't it great that we won't have to be playing defense against bad policy anymore?" If only that first impression were the case. In a democracy, we shouldn't have to be constantly vigilant for bad legislative ideas that could hurt the public good. Our legislators are supposed to be the filter that guards against schemes that would strip rights and take choices away from people. Unfortunately, it seems to be the same politics, with the same money trails. JMG's post yesterday touches on a topic I have been thinking a lot about, and I want to address it in more detail. On the House Agriculture Committee website, summaries of all of the parts of the legislation being offered are posted. Under the Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry there is a Title I Section-by-Section analysis. Section 123 is particularly problematic: SEC. 123. EFFECT OF USDA INSPECTION AND DETERMINATION OF NON-REGULATED STATUS. * Prevents a State or locality from prohibiting an article the Secretary of Agriculture has inspected and passed, or an article the Secretary has determined to be of nonregulated status. What does this mean? Also known as "preemption language," this broad statement basically says that if the USDA says something is safe, a state or local government is not allowed to regulate it. For example, there have been a number of counties around the country that have banned genetically modified organisms from being produced within their borders. This preemption-style language, if it's passed in the Farm Bill, would void those local laws.
In a recent post about the timing of the Farm Bill, I talked about when things related to farm and food policy are likely to move in Congress. There is new information available now, and it's becoming increasingly clear that we all could be in serious trouble if we don't act now to voice our opinion about the state of our food system. Though pressure to consider major reforms in the bill is as strong as ever, events of this week are leaving me with much less hope that new leadership will lead to any positive change without a fierce shove in the right direction.
As debate over the 2007 Farm Bill heats up, more people than ever are realizing that the five-year omnibus legislation, due to expire this year, directly influences what crops are produced in this country, who gets paid for them and how much, the manner in which they are produced, what kind of product they become, and who eats what. They're also connecting the dots and realizing that our current farm and food policy is making us overweight and unhealthy while lining the pockets of multinational corporations and polluting the environment. Though the increased attention is exciting, the Farm Bill is a hugely complicated and can be difficult to get a handle on. Even its timeline is confusing and unpredictable. Is it too late to express opinions to representatives? The answer is no -- but now is the time to get busy.