On Monday, I asked my neighbors in San Diego County: “How do we think splitting the Farm Bill would affect our ability to find common ground across shared interests in food and agriculture policy?” Gridlock in Congress, fissures in the Republican party, and a variety of other splits threaten to sink more than the Farm Bill, so posing the right question for the local conversation is challenging. Over the last few days, national news outlets took this inquiry in at least two directions. The AP article re-printed and discussed widely, proposed that agriculture is waning in influence (1), while others highlighted an urban/rural divide (2). Thus, C-span’s Washington Journal opened its phone lines this morning to ask folks across the country, “who gets more of Congress’s attention, urban or rural communities?” The first ten minutes from the video archive here are instructive, especially the interview with Amy Mayer. (3)
Here in San Diego, I think we might refine the question again:
Have urban communities ceased to feel connected to farmers and rural communities?
You still may be wondering why I think finding a local answer to this question is so important. In short, I believe that one–if not the–bridge across food aid and agricultural interests in our region is the growing local food movement. Many of us have embraced a localized food system as a real path toward food security, longterm sustainability, improved health, revitalized neighborhoods, jobs and more robust economic activity, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and healing.
Is the desire to heal our local food system naive or misguided?
An editorial in the Globe today promotes severing the connection between SNAP and ag subsidies by splitting the Farm Bill, concluding that “the debate about SNAP’s efficacy is tied to the lobbying interests of major agribusinesses fighting to keep farm subsides intact” (4). The rationale emphasizes that most agricultural entitlements meant to provide a safety net for individual farmers, actually favor large-scale farm corporations:
- In 2010, 10 percent of farmers received 75 percent of the money allocated to the agricultural sector such as direct payments.
- Last year, the smallest 80 percent of farmers received an average $5,000 of government aid, compared to the millions received by industrial farming operations. (4)
The critique of farm subsidies to corporations is sound on many counts, however, it doesn’t touch on how either small farmers or 5o million SNAP recipients would fare if we split the bill. It seems that most of these groups are very wary. For the record, many larger farm interests also oppose splitting the bill, but here is where the Globe writer hints at a possible answer: “the first farm bill — passed in 1933 to help small farmowners struggling during the Great Depression — included a nutrition program. Later, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 banned using the stamps to buy imported foods as a way of encouraging growth in the agricultural sector.”
In 1964, domestic produce was local food! Wenonah Hauter has a great chapter on California in her book, Foodopoly, which breaks down how over the past three decades small, local produce growers have been driven out of the “fresh” and “organic” global food supply chain by large packers, shippers, distributors and grocery chains. In 2006, Walmart announced its commitment to locally grown produce, but by 2011, when Michelle Obama worked with Walmart to “make food healthier, and healthy food more affordable,” the corporation was well on its way to defining local food as “food consumed in the state in which it was grown” and “affordable” as squeezing out the small producer, who cannot absorb the high costs of packing, shipping, refrigeration and transport. (5)
The USDA’s ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food‘ initiative emphasizes the need for “a fundamental and critical reconnection between producers and consumers.” The effort builds on the 2008 Farm Bill, which provides increases and flexibility to USDA programs in an effort to revitalize rural economies through the promotion of local food systems. Aimed at strengthening the connection between farmers and consumers, the initiative also increases local market access for farmers, and expands access to healthy food for all Americans.
Clearly, we have so many fronts if our fight is simply against industrial food and corporations, but I say let our shared interest in LOCAL FOOD be our guide. Let local food be the vanguard for re-connecting rural communities to urban communities, eaters to producers, the hard working lower and middle classes to each other and to the needy, food to agriculture, and people to the land, water and air.
(See also Fair Food’s info-graphic on the economic impacts of the shift toward local purchasing!)
1) See “Farm Bill Defeat Shows Agriculture’s Waning Power” in the New York Times, July 3, 2013. At: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/03/us/politics/farm-bill-defeat-shows-agricultures-waning-power.html?emc=tnt&tntemail0=y&_r=0
2) See, Thomas Beaumont’s “Farm Bill Vote Breaks Down Urban-Rural Alliance’ in US NEWS & WORLD REPORT July 2, 2013 at http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2013/07/02/urban-rural-alliance-breaks-down-on-farm-bill-vote
3) “Urban Vs Rural: Who Gets More Attention From Congress?” on CSPAN, Washington Journal for July 5, 2013 at: http://www.c-span.org/Journal/#
4) See ” Why Hold US Nutrition Aid Hostage to Farm Subsidies?” in the Boston Globe July 4, 2013. At: http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2013/07/04/failure-farm-bill-blessing-disguise/m7xZU2z6ylYBTv4nlvILBP/story.html
5) Hauter, Wenonah. Foodopoly. (The New Press.) 2012.
6) See USDA’s Know Your Farmer program website: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/knowyourfarmer?navid=KNOWYOURFARMER
7) Bonus. Here’s a video of Mr. Cantor’s fight with Mr. Hoyer about who’s fault the farm bill failure in the House was, as mentioned in one of my early entries. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/02/farm-bill-vote_n_3532791.html