GMOs, trans-fats, and buying local. Food retail in underserved communities, farmland protection, and kicking soda out of public schools. That’s just a partial list of the cutting edge food and agriculture issues seizing the attention of lawmakers and advocates across the country. While hot policy topics like these are heating up everywhere, the places where they are currently burning the brightest are in the nation’s state capitols.

Though the federal government passes mega-legislation like the farm and child nutrition bills once every five years, the spirit of local innovation and the relative flexibility of state governments – to say nothing of the incessant tug of war between Washington and the states – means there’s always something daring being cooked up in state policy kitchens. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state food and farm legislation, 41 states enacted 77 laws during the 2009 and 2010 sessions related to school nutrition, food access, and direct marketing. If one were to add in a host of legislation related to food security, food safety, and farmland protection, the numbers would be far into the hundreds every year. Read more

I accepted an invitation from Derrick Kiyabu recently to visit MA’O Organic Farm where the path out of poverty starts with a walk down the farm’s vegetable rows. On the west side of the island of Oahu, just past Honolulu’s ocean view condos and the Pearl Harbor Naval Base I found myself on Highway 93 where a sign saying “Now Leaving Paradise, Welcome to Poverty” would be placed if tourist officials chose to acknowledge such things. But lacking what many vacationers are looking for in a tropical getaway, the Wai’anae Coast, as it is commonly known, can only offer fast-food joints, scruffy commercial buildings, and residential housing that rivals the worst of third-world Asia. Perhaps this is why the Lonely Planet guidebook refers to the region, almost quaintly, as “a little bit of Appalachia by the sea.” Read more

Dan and Isabelle sit patiently on the folding metal chairs in the tastefully decorated waiting room of Seattle’s Ballard Food Bank. Intelligent, soft-spoken, and in his late 50s, Dan is a chronically underemployed architectural draftsman who barely managed to eke out three days of temporary work over the past week. His unemployment benefits have long since evaporated and he’s thinking about applying for food stamps, although he cringes as the words leave his mouth. With his shrunken income dedicated to keeping a roof over his head, he and Isabelle are two among 1,200 or so neighborhood residents who will request a shopping cart-full of food this week at the food bank. Read more

Highland Hills is one of those down-and-out communities that’s allowed a glimpse of prosperity but never gets to taste it. The Dallas skyline looms large across the hazy north Texas horizon and is linked to this poverty-plagued neighborhood by a seven-mile ribbon of light-rail steel. Ledbetter Avenue crosses the train line passing vacant buildings, empty parking lots, and a dizzying array of “For Sale” and “For Jesus” signs. Named for the renowned guitar picker Lead Belly who did time in these parts–both in and out of prison–the Avenue speaks little in the way of promise, but wails the blues of poverty loud and clear. Read more

Picture this: three long-haired college kids are unloading crates of food from the bed of a battered pick-up truck. It’s parked curbside at the Androscoggin Food Co-op located in the equally battered mill town of Lewiston, Maine. The year is 1971 and these kids are, unbeknownst to them, the vanguard of the local food movement.

They’ve spent the day rounding up goods directly from local farms and food processors, not because they’re devout locavores (the word wouldn’t be invented for another 35 years) but because sourcing locally was the cheapest way to get food for a co-op whose members were largely lower income. Some crates are full of apples from a nearby orchard; others contain 12-pound wheels of a so-so cheddar from a small cheese plant; and one cardboard box contains 30 dozen eggs from a chicken farm only 10 miles down the road. That box is labeled DeCoster Farms. Read more

I chose the lusty month of May to visit Great Britain and my first granddaughter, the 10-week old Zoe. While there’s nothing more exciting than holding your grandchild in your arms for the first time, I was worried that being a doting grandpa for two weeks would have its limits. So taking a little breather from diaper changing, I caught up on the state of the British food system with visits to food projects in Oxford, London, and Cardiff. Read more

At a recent Saturday market, Hilton Graham was doing brisk business in just-picked organic produce from his nearby Telfair County farm outside of Savannah, Georgia. Dressed in an old polo shirt and well-worn jeans, he was assisted by two sheepish teenage boys whose baggy shorts and designer sweatshirts gave them a decidedly un-farmer like appearance. While one hand was fluffing up bunches of greens and the other pointing his helpers in the direction of a waiting customer, he told me with a big wide grin that, “It’s a great day for a market, and as crazy as this place gets, it still gives me peace of mind being here.”

Forsyth Park is an idyllic place – Spanish moss drips from the trees; the park’s open space is filled with frisbee-chasing dogs and laughing children. But the experience for Graham and other African-American farmers of selling organic produce in this park at this time is not just another farmer’s market story. Excluded for decades after World War II from public funds that helped white farmers prosper, black farmers have also been left out of the growing ranks of organic farming, a movement that is giving small farmers across the country a chance at success. As recently as 1963, segregation still ruled the South and Forsyth Park was for whites only. Read more

Early in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010) former Texas Agriculture Secretary Susan Coombs declares that, “it will take 2 million angry moms to change school food.” Based on what we now know of the dreary state of our children’s cafeteria fare, there must be at least that many mamas, as well as a good number of papas who are ready to storm the barricades. Fortunately for them and America’s 55 million students who gulp down something resembling a meal every school day, they’ve been joined by Hunter College sociologist Janet Poppendieck who gives us the best reasons yet for unconditional school food reform. Read more

Let me say from the outset that I eat well. Not well in a maternal, “please finish your broccoli, dear” sense. I mean very well. I cultivate a large organic garden, buy grass-fed beef from a local rancher, and when I’m feeling particularly flush with cash, frequent my local Whole Foods. Read more

How ironic that we must even ask our national policy makers to make the nutritional health and well-being of their people the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first priority. But due to the sheer weight of the marketplace and poor government policies, local and regional food systems of the early 20th century yielded to highly concentrated, chemically intensive systems of the post-World War II era. Now disparagingly known as the industrial food system, its voice was always the first to be heard in the corridors of power; its phone calls always the first to be returned by the Secretary of Agriculture. Read more