Food, farms and a bill

To write your congressperson, go to and follow the links; for more information about the farm bill and sustainable-farming practices, go to or

The awakening about food started for many Americans in 2001 with a stunned read of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. In this best-selling book, the author argues that the fast-food industry wields powerful and far-reaching economic and political influence in America (with its staple foods sky high in fat and sugar) at the expense of public health.

Others picked up where Schlosser left off. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma transformed the UC Berkeley professor into a guru for a sustainable-food movement that actually had been building at small farms, co-ops and farmers’ markets across the country for decades. Alice Waters, founder of the famed Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café, became a national spokesperson for the principal that Americans deserve high-quality, fresh foods that promote local food systems. Food-policy writer Daniel Imhoff wrote Food Fight, a call to arms for consumers to insist that Congress radically reinterpret how it funds farms, food stamps and crop subsidies.

Does all this signal a national trend toward more sustainable, health-conscious eating? Yeah, you bet. What’s the all-important piece of legislation that’s moving now through Congress that can either acknowledge this movement or maintain the status quo when it comes to food and farm subsidies?

The 2007 farm bill.

The bill, which only comes around every five to seven years, is crucial because it sets the table for American food consumers for the next decade in its choice of which crops to subsidize with billions of taxpayer dollars. In the past, the farm bill has favored five crops: corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat. The choice explains why cheap high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats are so available and, incidentally, why the price of soft drinks and high-fat foods actually declined by as much as 20 percent between 1985 and 2000. No one doubts the connection: We’re using taxpayer dollars (about $165 billion a decade) to subsidize foods that feed the childhood-obesity and diabetes epidemic we now face in America.

Meanwhile, the price of fruits and vegetables increased 40 percent during that same period. That’s partly because the farm bill historically has offered almost nothing to California farmers who grow almost half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Attempts to lobby in D.C. for a farm bill that promotes healthful foods and sustainable farm practices have been underway and right now, a bill that includes some very modest reforms has left the House Agriculture Committee and will come before a full vote of Congress. It includes at least some more funds for healthy food crops and for buying fruits and vegetables for the federal school lunch program. That’s a start. But it’s not nearly enough. Congress needs to take a stand and pass a bill that fits the times. We urge you to contact your representatives about a new approach to this all-important legislation. As Pollan has said, it is crucial that America put food back into its farm bill.