Time for a New Alliance on Healthy Food and Agriculture | Civil Eats

Time for a New Alliance on Healthy Food and Agriculture

The Agriculture Committee of the US Senate has taken a first big step forward toward President Obama’s call for improved child nutrition by requesting an additional $450 million per year to fund better school lunch. Those seeking a healthy food and agriculture across the nation applaud the Committee’s approval of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, though more will be needed to improve the healthfulness of the food served in our lunchrooms. At the same time, it took one big step backwards by suggesting that over $4 billion dollars needed to fund that Act should be taken out of two existing Farm Bill programs.

The Committee wants to rob Peter to pay Paul and few people seeking healthy food and agriculture have cried foul. This is a mistake. It is the reason why two weeks ago Roots of Change launched an online petition to the House leadership that could stop such a move. We are encouraged by the announcement last week by Colin Peterson, Chairman of the House Ag Committee, that he will protect those Farm Bill programs with backing from many House members. But the fight is not over.

Creating better health in this nation requires a holistic approach. We need to work at the farm and ranch level as well as on the distribution and food manufacturing systems. Piece meal approaches will not cut the mustard.

The Senate Committee proposes to cut the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP). This provides farmers and ranchers with matching funds to do work on their lands to protect environmental quality. Funded projects help to maintain clean water, free of pollutants. Some critics of industrial meat operations complain that factory hog farms use EQIP funds. This is true. But small and mid-sized family farmers who want to be good stewards also use these same funds. As with any fair government program, it is open to all who apply and fit the criteria. If we want to stop mega hog farming, let’s not destroy a program that has environmental benefits. It would be better to change the language in the next Farm Bill.

The Senate also seeks to cut outreach money to public and private agencies that are working in low-income communities to ensure that people know they can receive supplemental nutrition assistance in the form of an electronic balance transfer (EBT) card to help them purchase food, the modern version of food stamps. As a result of the Great Recession, hunger in America is worse. Almost half the people eligible to receive an EBT card don’t know it. In California, the food and farming sector losses nearly $4 billion per year because eligible people don’t have cards. This huge revenue loss could be fixed with better outreach.

So the Senate proposal will make farms less environmentally sound and contribute to hunger in America. Clearly the Senate Agriculture Committee did not consider a holistic approach to the people’s health.

My real concern is that those who seek a healthy food and agriculture have once again split over the funding of good policy. Many of those who want the money to improve school food are afraid to speak up about the cuts because funds will not be found. Let’s not let fear lead to bad decisions.

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There has never been a more opportune time to stand firm and seek real solutions to complex problems. The evidence is overwhelming that change is needed and the conditions are right for making that change. Along with the President and First Lady, the US departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have good leadership that understands the links between farms, food and human health. The good food movement across the nation is growing larger and more influential every day. There are even signs, despite angry rhetoric regarding change, that many conventional agricultural leaders are beginning to see opportunities to improve the plight of farmers and ranchers by aligning on key issues with the good food movement.

Now is the moment to cut a Gordian knot that has long existed and impeded the move to a healthier nation. For over a decade there has been an alliance between those who seek to increase the supply of food to the hungry and the agro-industrial complex (mega food manufactures and factory farms). They have joined hands to shape the Farm Bill and other food legislation. As long as more food was made available to feeding programs, the food access advocates would accept the agro-industrial complex’s efforts to limit needed change. The links between healthy farms and healthier food, and healthy food and healthier people were downplayed. We know this because the food banks increasingly received highly processed food laden with fat, sugar and salt. This dynamic contributed to much higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease for low-income people who receive this food.

To their great credit, many food bank leaders are now focusing on real nutrition rather than calories by increasing delivery of fresh, whole food. This is better for the recipients of food assistance and for the farmers. It also indicates a potential shift in a power alliance that has shaped farm and food policy.

It is my hope that moving forward toward passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act we will get full funding, but the money will come from sources other than the Farm Bill. I propose that we take 1% of the $531 billion base 2010 Department of Defense budget. The rationale is that obese kids today will not make healthy members of the armed forces tomorrow. The US Department of Defense is a stakeholder in the nutrition programs of this nation.

Today’s food system is complex.

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To get it done, the Congress needs to see unity among those seeking a healthy food and agriculture. The food access, nutrition, healthcare, organic, environmental and sustainable agriculture advocates and their public supporters need to come together and demand a holistic strategy underpinning the nation’s food and agriculture policy. All the ducks are in a row. So let’s act. Helping Roots of Change with its campaign is one way.

Michael R. Dimock is president of Roots of Change, a “think and do tank” developing road maps to victory for the California food movement, and the strategic advisor to the California Food Policy Council. Read more >

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  1. This is an excellent piece, Michael. It is deeply problematic that the Senate Ag Committee has chosen such a divisive approach to seeking deeply-needed funding for child nutrition programs. Personally, I find the "military readiness" argument in support of increased food funding specious, but I suppose at this point, we shouldn't turnaway any allies. And especially not fall into the trap of pitting ourselves against farmers in the process.
  2. Lena, thanks for the comment. It is very hard to get the Congressional leadership to break out of the "silo effect," of our budget process. My sense is that we have a real chance to get them to think systemically on this issue. When ROC first began talking to others about the Senate problem, we were always asked to offer an alternate funding source. I then heard about the statement of Navy Officer at a school food conference in NY who framed the link between the problem the military faces now with so many young people suffering from obesity. The DOD has the most money and power of any government department now.
  3. Laura Leigh Ridenour
    Great piece, Michael. It is important for all of us to understand the work each is doing and what we are discovering along the way. Of particular importance is the connection to policy and how it influences and further complicates the complexities of the food system.

    I am a little concerned with your characterization of the anti-hunger advocates because it implies that food banks (which were set up to fill the gap created by an economic downturn and the gutting of the federal emergency food system in the early 1980s) and other anti-hunger efforts are as powerful or influential as the agro-industrial complex.

    The problem isn't that anti-hunger advocates accept limits to change and therefore are in cahoots with agribusiness. The problem is that the change needed hasn't ever been addressed at a whole systems level. Advocates focused on making sure that people have food via food banks and soup kitchens were, until relatively recently, just trying to fill the gap. Like nearly every institution in our society, the particular way that food banks emerged historically has everything to do with the function and role that they play.

    One example of anti-hunger advocates doing good work toward systemic change is the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), who along with nutrition professionals and other agencies, has long been fighting for greater attention and access for nutritious food within the emergency food system. FRAC was the first agency to publish national school lunch report cards on each state's school food nutrition and the barriers to access for breakfast and lunch programs. There are many other examples nation-wide of anti-hunger coalitions and groups fighting for state and regional policy change related to nutrition.

    You mention that the budget process needs to have a systems-based perspective. Each aspect of the food system has been siloed, too. You are correct in your statement that "the links between healthy farms and healthier food, and healthy food and healthier people were downplayed," but my contention is that the business of consolidating and distributing food to the hungry wasn't based on changing the system, and therefore we cannot blame the food bank representatives for trying to increase the amount of donations by working with large food corporations that produce processed high fat foods. Until we had common use and understanding of the term "community food security", it was hard - if not impossible- to integrate an understanding that the solution to ending hunger isn't about feeding people, it is about poverty. We know that a community of practice is based on common knowledge and language and agreement on common goals. America's Second Harvest may still be focused on getting more food (in whatever form) to the food banks, but they, as much as any of the other food system stakeholders, need education about the role they can grow into as part of a new alliance on healthy food and agriculture.

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