July 12, 2007
It's tempting to take the rush of the season's first cherries, blueberries and strawberries for granted. But if you eat — and I suspect you do — consider the path your food takes before it ends up on your table. In fact, consider the federal farm bill.
Like certain comets, farm bills come around only once every five or six years. But make no mistake: The farm bill is the most important food and farm legislation that Congress enacts. It affects the food on your dinner plate and will for years to come. For the first time in the history of farm bills, the 2007 version could be as good for consumers as it is for farmers — that is, if all of us eaters speak up as food citizens.
One problem with previous farm bills has been their historical lack of balance. For example, only 39 percent of all U.S. farmers and ranchers typically receive crop subsidies. Very few of them are fruit or vegetable farmers. These inequities have consequences for eaters as well. Between 1985 and 2000 the real price of fruits and vegetables increased by 40 percent, while the price of soft drinks and other sugary and high-fat foods declined by as much as 20 percent.
If our farm bills had been healthy food bills, we would have distributed government support more equitably to make nutritious food more affordable. Because, in part, of this imbalance we now pay more than $100 billion a year in obesity-related medical costs.
Congress has an opportunity this year to craft a farm bill that makes our food system healthier. One proposal for a healthier farm bill would supplement school meal programs with hundreds of millions of dollars of additional fresh fruits and vegetables, opening up new markets for local and regional farmers. The stumbling block is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has told local school districts that they cannot give a preference to Oregon farmers and food producers.
This restriction is making it difficult for Oregon's bounty to find its way into the 77 million meals we serve our children every year. In its most recent session, the Oregon Legislature began addressing the issue by creating a position within the Oregon Department of Agriculture to work with farmers interested in selling products to schools, but the federal government needs to remove restrictions on local sourcing as well.
Food comes from farms. Without farms, there is no food. Federal funds must be directed toward stemming the national annual loss of more than 1 million acres of prime farmland and strengthening regional systems for storing, processing and transporting regionally produced foods.
The 2007 farm bill can take us down the road to healthy food and farms — or not. It will be up to us, the eaters, to decide. Next time you pick up a fork, consider also picking up the phone. Who knows, you could catch one of your elected representatives just as he or she sits down at the table.
Deborah Kane is a vice president at Ecotrust, a nonprofit conservation group based in Portland, and a fellow at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.