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On the Front Burner: CA Food & Farming Legislative Action

On January 8, 2014, the growing food movement achieved an important milestone. The California Food Policy Council (CAFPC) released its first report to evaluate California’s legislative record related to food and farms. It is the first state-policy-focused analysis of legislative votes in the nation. This action in California is sure to be followed by similar action throughout the nation. The timing is excellent because I believe 2014 will see even more progress in the intensifying struggle over the future of our nation’s food and farms. Read more

Super Bowl “Farmers” Ad: Heartfelt and Misleading

I grew up in a small town, population 15000 if you counted every cow in the valley. Every morning I’d hear my dad walk in the kitchen, pour his first cup of coffee and turn on the radio. Paul Harvey’s voice wafted into my bedroom regularly, and along with that smell of fresh brewed Folgers, became a thread in the fabric of my childhood. I didn’t know anything about Paul Harvey’s politics, but I loved the way he owned a pregnant pause.

On Sunday, Harvey’s voice was featured on a Super Bowl ad for Dodge Ram trucks featuring imagery of farmers. The audio was condensed from a 1978 speech Harvey made to the Future Farmers of America. I grew up in a rural town, my dad was born on a farm, and he and my mom opened a buffalo ranch when he retired from his career as a university professor. About the time my parents returned to a life on the land, I started working for FoodHub, a project of the nonprofit Ecotrust, which is a platform dedicated to connecting small and medium farmers with chefs, schools and other wholesale food buyers in their area. As a food system reformer and marketing professional, I had a visceral reaction to the ad.  Read more

Faces and Visions of the Food Movement: Leigh Adcock

Leigh Adcock is a powerhouse in the food movement. She has been executive director of Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) since 2008. Prior to that, she was a board member for the organization for 2 years, and served from 2003 – 2008 as executive director of the Iowa Farmers Union. Leigh has been instrumental in expanding WFAN’s scope to a national level, increasing membership more than six-fold, increasing funding from under $30,000 to $250,000 per year, and creating successful programs such as Women Caring for the Land SM,  a conservation program for women farmland owners, and Harvesting Our PotentialSM, the on-farm apprenticeship program which this grant proposal seeks to expand. She is also co-creator of the Plate to Politics project, a collaboration of WFAN, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and The White House Project, designed to recruit and train more rural and farm women all over the U.S. to run for public office at all levels, from the community to the White House. She grew up on a 360-acre conventional grain and beef cattle farm in northwest Iowa, which she currently co-owns with her mother. She and her husband and two teenage sons live on an acreage north of Ames, IA. Read more

What the Food System Needs Now Is More Infrastructure

While the rejection of Prop 37 in California has been held by some as proof of the food movement’s immaturity, a lack of rhetorical and ideological cohesion is not necessarily the food movement’s biggest problem. Grassroots efforts across the country have successfully bolstered independent sections of the food system, from small farm incubators to mobile farm stands, but there’s one piece that still remains glaringly absent: infrastructure. Without well-developed and well-financed networks and institutions to build upon, advocates for strong local and regional food systems find it difficult to connect from one end of the supply chain to the other.

That’s where local governments can come in. Small business owners, farmers, distributors, restaurateurs, and eaters develop innovative strategies to strengthen their respective segments of the local food chain, and municipalities can support this process by creating links down the line and increasing opportunities for food system purveyors to work together.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has developed a comprehensive regional plan that includes resources and tools for local governments to support local food. Hot on the heels of the plan’s adoption, CMAP is eager to make the case that a strong local food system benefits all residents in the seven-county area, particularly from an economic perspective. They are currently in the process of helping governments develop food system-friendly codes and ordinances in order to enable more momentum in the public sector. Read more

Making a Good Farm Bill Program Better: Specialty Crop Grants in California

Compared to the billions that the government pays to subsidize industrial-scale growers of commodity crops such as corn, rice and soybeans, federal farm bill spending to promote cultivation and marketing of healthy fruits, nuts and vegetables is tiny.  The Specialty Crop Block Grant program is one of the more important programs to support these healthy foods, known also as “specialty crops”. Last year the US Department of Agriculture distributed $55 million in these grants to increase “the competitiveness of the specialty crop sector,” more than 30 percent of it in California, the source of nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

Although the money comes from the federal budget, it’s the California Department of Food and Agriculture that manages the grant-making process in the state and sets the program’s priorities. California is a nationwide leader in its efforts to craft a broader state strategy that goes well beyond USDA’s minimal guidelines, focusing its funding in three broad categories: research, marketing and nutrition.

The program is extremely competitive. Grant applications in California in 2009 totaled $65 million, nearly four times the amount available. Because this is such an important source of funding for innovative food and agriculture projects, Environmental Working Group took a close look at three years of grant awards to assess whether they were in line with the state’s top priorities and strategies as defined by the California Agricultural Vision, a strategic plan adopted in 2010 in a broad process involving multiple stakeholders.  Read more

When it Comes to Food, How Does Your Lawmaker Stack Up?

Will the food movement ever really turn political? This question has been much discussed of late, thanks in part to Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times magazine op-ed on California’s GMO labeling referendum (which I discussed here).

And yes, as Pollan argued recently, whether or not California’s Prop 37 passes will be one sign that the movement has come of age (i.e., eaters “voting with votes, not just forks”). But winning one election in one state, however large and trend-setting, would be just the beginning. Every good political movement identifies its allies and its enemies in an attempt to breed more of the former and weed out the latter.

Now we’re seeing signs that the food movement may in fact be starting to grow up. And like learning how to balance a checkbook or making sure bills get paid on time, some of the most crucial rites of passage can seem more like chores than privileges.

So it is with a new organization called Food Policy Action, a lobbying group that intends to grade members of Congress on their voting records on food-related legislation. The group’s board of directors includes several big names in food: Stonyfield Farm’s co-founder Gary Hirshberg and the Humane Society of the United States’ CEO Wayne Pacelle, as well as leaders from Oxfam America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Environmental Working Group—and lest I forget, Top Chef’s head judge Tom Colicchio. Read more

Seeds For Young Farmers

When Jesse Kuhn started Marin Roots Farm at age 28, he already had dirt under his fingernails. He’d studied ag in college, managed a student farm, and worked as a landscaper. But when it came to succeeding financially in the farming business, he had a long way to go. “I was charging up my credit cards like crazy and bouncing balances back and forth,” he says. “I almost had to declare bankruptcy during the first year.”

Almost 10 years and many lessons later, Marin Roots is a well-established organic specialty produce business“It’s a lot of people’s dream to live off the land, but the reality of it is, you have to have a plan for how you’re going to pay the bills,” says Kuhn.

His journey is not unlike that of many beginners who are eager to try their hand at farming but don’t yet have all the necessary skills and resources. In a recent report titled Building a Future with Farmers, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) surveyed 1,000 young and beginning farmers across the US and found that access to land, capital, health care, credit, and business training posed huge challenges. Read more

Michael Pollan on The Farm Bill: New Film From Nourish (VIDEO)

Every five years, we have the chance to influence the way our food is produced, our land is conserved, and our health is protected. The legislation that addresses these issues is known as the Farm Bill, and in 2012, it’s up for renewal. “It isn’t really a bill just for farmers,” says food journalist Michael Pollan, in this video from Nourish Short Films. “It really should be called the food bill because it is the rules for the food system we all eat by.” Read more