Can Public Health Unite the Good Food Movement? | Civil Eats

Can Public Health Unite the Good Food Movement?


stethoscope_Mike_Blackburn“The appropriate measure of farming then is the world’s health and our health, and this is inescapably one measure.”  —Wendell Berry

In July, I argued that the House’s decision to split out the gargantuan Nutrition Title from the Farm Bill might signal a new era for those of us seeking fundamental reform of agriculture and food systems. This is the second in a three-part series where I lay the groundwork for why unification is crucial for the food movement and how public health can tip the balance of power to ensure the good food movement will prevail in the struggle over the future of our food system.

As I said then, this Farm Bill schism may reveal a fracturing of a longstanding alliance that has stymied needed policy change. Now, I’d like to highlight the most powerful framing the food movement is using to create a food and agriculture system that solves problems rather than creates them. This frame is emerging steadily but merits more focus and amplification. It promises to attract enough public support to overcome growing resistance from industrial food corporations and the legislators they control.

Although the Farm Bill comes before Congress every five years, fundamental changes to the legislation emerge only in response to crisis. Food Fight, Dan Imhoff’s excellent book on the Farm Bill, reveals this history of crisis management. Born in the 1930s, the first Farm Bill was a response to two crises: The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. It established three core activities that remain to this day: Farm revenue stabilization, conservation, and hunger relief.

Truly fundamental changes to the bill did not occur until after 1996, when, with the Freedom to Farm Act, Congress had sought to end supply management systems and subsidies that had helped to stabilize farm revenue for half a century. Without supply management, farmers over-produced and prices crashed. Congress backtracked and created today’s complex and lopsided subsidy programs, which were written by lobbyists working for corporations benefiting from the public investment. That response to crisis has not served the nation well.

Part of what makes us human is our ability to think ahead to avoid or reduce the magnitude of crises. Today’s food movement is a manifestation of that kind of forward thinking. But it’s also a confluence of many interests tactically responding to related problems.

The anti-hunger, food justice, environmental justice, buy-local and labor communities are responding to bad fiscal, economic, and social policy (including structural racism) that has allowed persistent poverty and is now quickly shrinking the middle class. The environmental and sustainable agriculture communities are responding to degradations caused by industrial farming, fossil fuel production, and consumption.

The anti-obesity, school food, locavore, animal welfare, Slow Food communities, natural food entrepreneurs, and sustainable farmers and ranchers are responding to the effects of industrial agricultural production and industrial (fast) food consumption, but for different reasons.

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For the food movement to place unstoppable pressure on policymakers and industrial food producers, it needs a very focused set of goals that emerge from a single root crisis that binds us all. Public health is that crisis.

I believe that all strands of the movement are, at their core, responding to current or potential health threats. Through a strategic focus on improved health, we can lower resistance from those in control of the industrial system (because they want to be healthy too) and motivate action from the millions of people we need with us.

In recent years the public health sector has moved into food system reform because of chronic disease related to toxics and poor nutrition. More recently, public health leaders have began to see the impact of climate change on food and agriculture and the overuse of antibiotics in factory farms as critical threats. Public health advocates are the food movement’s most important allies.

Evidence of the cross-sector synergy between public health and sustainable food can be seen in the founding document of the California Food Policy Council. Several of its members are employees of county departments of public health or public health advocacy groups focused on chronic disease prevention. Local and organic farmers in cooperation with food justice groups, public health advocates and USDA are implementing amazing food hub projects throughout the nation to improve healthy food access.

Michigan’s Fair Food Network is elegantly tying healthy food access projects to local food system development through its Double Up Food Bucks program. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a stellar video that beautifully clarifies the links between public health and the policy goals of the food movement.

The more the movement focuses on health, the more we strategize, message and act in concert with the public health community, the more resonant and powerful our efforts will become. If we want better federal, state, and local policies that are as fundamentally transformative as the first Farm Bill was, we must frame our work as the basis of national health and resilience.

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With that frame in place, I believe the food movement can strategically coordinate actions to take our fight to boardrooms and legislative halls with a clarity and vigor that will hugely expand public support throughout the nation. My next post will explore further the potential for coordinated campaigns within the movement.

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. An excellent piece. That "we must frame our work as the basis of national health and resilience" is to the point and ever so important at this time.
  2. Mattie
    Public health educators were cashing fat paychecks all the while we were becoming obese on their watch. What makes you think those same public health educators can succeed in "teaching" us how to pick at our food? Public health once meant something but lately it is little more than a bullhorn for urban myths and orthorexic evangelism. We would benefit from less intrusion by public health "leaders" if they can do no better than they have this past decade.
  3. Shepherd Bliss
    I appreciate the positive outlook that Michael Dimock offers, especially during this time of so much bad news on so many fronts. His analysis that we are entering a "new era" and that "unification is crucial" strikes a resonate cord within me and other members of the California Grange, which works toward those objectives.

    Michael's historical perspective on the Farm Bill positions his argument well as he looks forward to a better future that we can help create by working together. His description of how a dozen related food efforts can unite around public health is persuasive. Both our current food system and health system are indeed in crisis.

    Members of the California Grange look forward to working with other groups and individuals on these common interests. We are glad that Michael has agreed to speak at this year's State Grange Convention here in our small town of Sebastopol on Oct. 10.
  4. We've been trying to make those links for more than a decade in Waterloo Region, Ontario! See
  5. LizNOLA
    "Public health educators were cashing fat paychecks all the while we were becoming obese on their watch."

    Public health educators rarely have fat paychecks and there were many who were working towards community solutions for healthy foods for many years. People became fat on processed food products that were marketed with sophisticated messaging - and carefully developed to reach inside of human responses.
  6. Michael Dimock's series of essays about the unraveling consensus that once propelled agricultural policy forward sheds light upon the train wreck that is the state of food policy circa 2013. With train cars (that once were attached) now scattered, Dimock reminds us how this is a pretty good moment to revisit the social and historical context that created the age of national food policy planning in the 1930s and how it's dismantling reveals both old and new power cleavages, cries out for fresh thinking about means and ends. Many working creatively on the ground yearn for the courage to push forward with recent innovations (i.e., SNAP incentive campaigns) that are poised for wider deployment and to consider the prospects for new kinds of alliances that a generation ago would have been unthinkable -- between urban, rural, rich and poor, black and white, land-owning and land-working, and so forth. This is not the time to simply cling to old lines that have since become well-worn and thread bare. There are alternatives and I applaud Dimock for recognizing them.
    Richard McCarthy
    Executive Director
    Slow Food USA
  7. The real opportunity here is if the health insurers recognize that their self-interest is in actually preserving the health of their subscribers. They are the only ones with the clout to take on Big Food. Their incentive to do so is if their profits start stemming from us maintaining our own health. Kaiser already does this, they are actually very good at training people to take care of themselves, and they have put farmers markets into many of their parking lots on a weekly basis. They make more money if their subscribers stay healthy.

    Don Berwick said it nicely, "we don't want health care, we want health. Shining health."
  8. Andrea Lawson Gray
    I don't disagree with any of this very sane thinking, I but I do think you are overlooking the drug companies as stake-holders in the health crisis. Our ever-growing dependence on live-saving medications is their bread and butter. Diabetes is extremely profitable for Eli Lilly. This political lobby is every bit as powerful and Monsanto's and will slow or stop the vision you have, as much I wish this weren't the case.
  9. I appreciate the thoughtful comments. I want to respond the latest, which refer to the health care industry. I am glad I saw them because just last night I dined with a mentor, Oran Hesterman, CEO of Fair Food Network. Oran pointed out that in focus my piece on public health I missed the entire health insurance industry, which Michael Sieverts points out. It is absolutely true that the insures have much to gain and are in fact moving into the food fight in several innovative ways. Roots of Change held a summit in 2010 where an executive of United Health pointed out that they could literally crash as a company if the worst case scenarios around diabetes rates were realized. So we are in this strange world in which companies seeking to treat and companies seeking to prevent are at odds. Could be a war of the Titans, particularly when you throw in the industrial food industry on one side and the public health sector, good food/social justice/sustainable ag movement on the other. It will be an interesting and perhaps increasingly dynamic few years ahead in the food movement as the comments by Richard McCarthy, Shepherd Bliss and others might hint.
  10. kkb
    Absolutely. If food is the 'what,' health and well-being are the 'why.' The purpose, the motivation for this food revolution. Agriculture, farming methods, good cooking, GMO, the food industry -- all represent some of the many 'hows.'

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