Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Kari Hamerschlag | Civil Eats

Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Kari Hamerschlag

Kari Hamerschlag is a passionate advocate for healthy food policy and political action in the United States. She’s also a champion of a fair and just Federal Farm Bill. As the Senior Food and Agriculture Analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), her work focuses on food and agriculture policy for local, healthy, organic, and sustainable options.

She started her career 20 years ago as an organizer, researcher, and advocate for socially and environmentally sound development policy, mostly focused in Latin America. The agriculture branch of the EWG is best known for its extensive farm subsidy database and its voice for strong environmental health standards within agricultural policy.

What issues have you been focused on?

The number one thing I’ve been working on the past year is the Federal Farm Bill. I’ve worked over the last year to make a very bad bill a little better. My specific focus in California is to get the California delegation to step up and oppose cuts to conservation funding, support better conservation policy and crop insurance reform and increase funding for local, regional and organic agriculture programs. Right now, I’m finishing a report looking at how Farm Bill conservation program dollars are spent to address the nutrient and pesticide pollution that’s affecting California rivers and lakes. Locally, another focus of mine is the Oakland Food Policy Council. I also participate in the California Food Policy Council. That’s a new entity that brings together 20 or so food policy councils to share strategies and push for change at the state policy level.

What inspires you to do this work?

It changes day to day. I’m passionate about healthy and sustainable food. I’m inspired by the farmers that do the incredibly hard work to grow great tasting organic food and all the wonderful people in the food movement who are working so hard to improve our food system. Right now, fast food workers demanding the doubling of their wages is inspiring to me. The massive and growing movement to demand GE labeling is also incredibly inspiring to me. Two years ago, this movement barely existed.

What motivates you to do this work?

My outrage at how agribusiness and industrial farms are damaging the environment and public health with the crap they are putting in our food. I’m also appalled at their terrible treatment of workers and animals. I’m motivated because I know we can do so much better and that a shift to healthy and sustainable food production can solve so many problems at the same time. I want to be a part of the solution and want others to feel that way too.

What’s your overall vision?

A world where food is produced with fewer toxic chemicals, where farmers who grow food in a way that protects our natural resources are compensated fairly, and where healthy and sustainable food is accessible to all, which means workers need to be paid a living wage. In my vision of a healthy food system, people attach a much higher value to food that is produced in a better way. And people and policy makers are connecting the dots between eating healthy, feeling better and reducing rates of costly diet related illnesses. And everyone is consuming much less meat and processed food, and more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. I also have a vision of better polices that require companies and mega-farms to bear the cost of the harm they cause to the planet and people rather than the status quo where citizen’s are subsidizing these terrible practices.

What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?

I wish I had more time for books. I read Tom Philpott at Mother Jones; he’s such a great researcher and writer and so good with policy issues. I also love Twilight Greenaway, Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle, and Michele Simon. I read Civil Eats, Alternet, and US Food Policy and always read what NSAC puts out on food and farm policy. For my ag news, I read Chris Clayton at Progressive Farmer, the Hagstrom Report, and AgriPulse.  And of course EWG’s Ag Mag.

Who’s in your community?

Cultivating community has always been important to me, in both my professional and personal life. I helped start a network of fabulous women working in food and ag in the Bay Area that has been incredibly rewarding and nurturing. I’m on the Oakland Food Policy Council and I have a great community of food justice activists there as well as around the state. I’m also connected with great colleagues around the country and a great community of friends in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. where I used to live. I’m blessed to have so many awesome people in my life!

What are your commitments?

To stay engaged and keep the faith that we really can make the profound changes in our food system that are so necessary for the well-being of the planet. I’m committed to building stronger alliances and cultivating more unity in our food movement. I’m committed to helping young people get involved in this work because we need more warriors in the policy and political work.

What are your goals?

My goals are similar to my vision and commitments. To do all I can to make our food system healthier, more sustainable and fair. To help people get more involved at the policy and political level in order to create the transformative change we need in our food system.

What does change look like to you?

More democracy and less corporate influence in policy. More diversified farms growing food for local communities. A huge increase in the amount of land under organic production. Better working conditions for food sector workers, especially farm workers. Change is cleaner water that isn’t polluted by pesticides and chemical fertilizer. It’s a major reduction in corn production for ethanol. It’s the adoption of GE labeling laws and a ban on the next generation of herbicide tolerant GE crops. It’s tighter regulations and new requirements for independent studies on the safety of GE crops. It’s a farm bill that stops subsidizing environmental destruction.

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Change is a major reduction in meat consumption and the banning of subtherapuetic antibiotics in meat production; Its more grassfed meat in the market and greater consumption of fruit and vegetables.

At the market level, change is a major shift in the buying and selling practices of the big companies like Walmart, Kellogg’s, and many others. I feel like it’s the large buyers who will have the biggest impact on how fast our food system shifts—and that depends on how fast consumers and shareholders step up and demand that change.

Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

We all need to get more political and step up our engagement with institutions, policy makers, and companies.  We need to demand more and maybe even feel uncomfortable in that process. We need to be better organized, with more communication and unity of purpose. We need to identify more iconic campaigns—like GE labeling–that can mobilize and motivate a lot of people. These campaigns need to be winnable so that politicians and companies recognize our power, and we can build on our wins. Hopefully this will happen with the GE labeling initiative in Washington.

We need to keep doing outreach and education—and continue to mobilize consumers to demand healthy and sustainable food wherever they are; whether that’s in schools, stores, or with representatives in Congress. We need more people to pick up the phone and demand policies that will advance sustainable agriculture. We just had a big win getting the Monsanto Protection Act out of the Senate Bill, which really shows what happens when people act.

What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?

There are so many people doing great work that it’s hard to choose.

On the Farm Bill, I love the work that National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is doing to keep everyone informed and activated on the Farm Bill. Also, the Rural Coalition and the Community Food and Justice Coalition have done a great job bringing lots of groups together into a coalition called GOAT (Getting Our Act Together).

In the GE space, I’m grateful for the organizing work Dave Murphy and Lisa Stokke are doing at Food Democracy Now, supporting GE state initiatives and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people on GE issues nationally. Also, the Center for Food Safety gets huge credit for working on this issue for almost two decades now.

I have to highlight Anna Lappé who is such a great voice for our movement and so supportive of so many people’s efforts around food system work. She has done a phenomenal job educating people about the benefits of sustainable agriculture and debunking agribusiness talking points through her project Food Myth Busters.

Another is Food Policy Action, a new organization that scores legislators on their food votes. Ken Cook EWG President gets a lot of credit for making it happen.

I’m very excited about the California Food Policy Council—and Tiffany Nurrenbern and Michael Dimock at Roots of Change get a lot of credit for bringing so many councils together across the state.

I’m inspired by the work that Food Chain Workers Alliance is doing to pass a new minimum wage bill in Congress.

Ann Cooper’s work around changing school food so all kids can eat healthy is inspiring as well. She more than almost anyone I know is willing to tell it like it is. She’s really one of my heroes.

John and Ocean Robbins at Food Revolution Network. I could go on and on …

Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility? 

I do believe real policy change is possible. But given the dysfunction in Congress, I think there is more hope at the Administration level. Since we only have two more years left of this administration we need to step up the pressure, with many lines of attack.

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I think the next big win will be on the GE labeling issue. It’s just a matter of time before we have a federal policy in place. But we need to stay vigilant because big food will try to water it down. I think we can make progress around stronger regulation of antibiotic use in animals, but only if there’s more market pressure. Policy will follow the market on this one. I’m hopeful we will see better regulation around GE crops as the negative impacts of herbicide tolerant GE crops becomes even more apparent.

As for farm bill or other policies that require Congressional action, I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think we’ll see much change given the deep dysfunction of that body. But we still must plug away to defend our wins, stop horrendous policy and change the terrible crop insurance subsidy policies that are sending billions of taxpayer dollars to big farms and crop insurance companies.

In the next 5-10 years, I think we’ll see a sea change in the private sector around purchasing. As we step up market campaigns and unleash the power of consumers, I am certain we will see major shifts in purchasing practices by restaurants, institutions, large grocers, and food companies. Companies are already under increased pressure on many fronts to deliver healthier ingredients, improve their environmental and social policies, increase their non-GE food sourcing, and provide healthier meat options. This is where the big change will occur. Government policy will follow the market. It’s not to say we should give up on government. We have to hold them accountable. But we need to act where we can have the biggest impact.

What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?

In order to wage these successful campaigns we need big money.  We need foundations and wealthy individuals to fund longer-term three to five-year campaigns that bring together like-minded groups so that there’s less competition among groups for funding. The only way we are going to beat the formidable power of big food and big ag is to work together in a smart way. We can all play different roles, with complementary strategies but we need more coordination and unity of purpose. We need money to do that.

We need to keep exposing the lies coming out of the big ag front groups like the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. We need to get more political—which likely means we need a lot more focus on building capacity in the food movement around how to engage in the political process. Many lack the skills, the political literacy. So we need to provide more tools and training for people to get engaged.

We need to make food a political issue. When was the last time you heard a food question in a presidential debate or on a political survey? We’ve made progress in the past few years getting food into the national debate and we need to keep building on this. One way to raise the food profile—and get politicians to care about our issues is to get more political groups like Move On and Democracy for America more engaged in food. Or create our own Food PACs. This is beginning to happen and we need to do more of that.

We also need to broaden our reach and connect with other movements that are fighting against many of the same corporate interests on similar but different issues, like chemical reform and climate change. But that will take time. For now, we need to unite the many disparate parts of our own movement.

What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

In honor of my Mom it would have to be a traditional Norwegian meal because that’s what we always eat on special occasions. Wild caught salmon, grilled, cucumber salad, potatoes, and green beans. Plus a glass of California Chardonnay … with a sip of tequila afterwards!

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Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

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  1. Charity Kenyon
    We're delighted to have Kari on the Slow Food California Policy Committee. Thank you for this great profile.
  2. It should also be mentioned that Kari has played a leading role in a crucial dialogue that has been taking place through the GOAT process (see GOAT, above). It's a dialogue between representatives of the Food (Environmental, Hunger, etc.) movement and the Farm Justice Movement (ie. National Family Farm Coalition, and in part, Rural Coalition), in order to better unify us as a whole Farm and Food Movement. Kari has been very willing to respond in detailed ways to specifics from the other side of the dialogue, and she has a great capacity to see the interconnectedness of issues, so her input is a major aid to placing the key issues on the table, where the divisions can be clearly discussed. And, of course, behind all of that is a capacity to listen (in order to know what details should be put forth, in that they represent important Food Movement viewpoints held by many who are listening on the sidelines). As someone working directly on these divisions over the past 28 years, but especially over the past 6 years, it has been the most productive dialogue, (in front of the leaders in major coalitions, in person and online,) that I've yet seen. Kari has been the leading participant from the Food/Consumer side, and her willingness and ability to contribute has been crucial.
  3. Sophie 0'shaughnessy
    This is great. Says so much about the state of the movement, and the areas that are flourishing as well as the challenges. When's the last time I heard a question about food to a politician?: 2007, alice waters to then primary candidate Obama: "what part do yOu see the obesity epidemic playing in the destiny of our nation?" To which he replied " if you want to see the answer to that question keep on eye on farm bills-- urban voters often don't " Well it looks like the urban focus has changed considerably since that time thanks to people like Kari, the editors of Civil Eats, and the thousands of leaders, consumers, and other stakeholders who are moving the market forward while the politicians continue to make bad sausage at a snails pace! Thanks Kari and thank you all.

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