Monday, May 02, 2011

A West Coast Healthy Food Uprising

The West Coast is a place where, on a rainy winter night, hundreds of people turn out to discuss food policy. People understand the connection between healthy food and community health. They see local and regional food as an engine to revitalize economies. Still I am often asked what audience members can do to affect change in the food system.

To my mind, individual action takes place in radiating circles, starting with the personal and moving out to the local, regional, state, national and global. I am increasingly drawn to the personal and local, where influence and outcomes are most powerful and tangible. Raise your own fruits, vegetables, or chickens and you know exactly what goes into the entire process. Work on a campaign to protect open space or build a school garden and you can have personal contact and investment.

Things are not so clear or accessible at the national level. The Farm Bill, driver of federal food policy, is so complex that it is hard to know where to begin. Absent campaign finance reform, you are swimming with the sharks: grain monopolies, corn growers, farm bureaus, livestock associations, sugar lobbies, ethanol processers that pour billions of dollars into the political process.

We can’t let this intimidate us from righting a broken food system. By pulling back to the regional level, it might be possible to form an alliance of concerned eaters with political power at the national level. In January 2011, the City of Seattle approved a Farm Bill platform. Given the growing awareness of the importance of food and farm policy on the West Coast, it is reasonable to expect that city councils in Olympia, Portland, Eugene, Ashland, Ukiah, Santa Rosa, San Francisco, Los Angeles and all the way down to San Diego may carefully consider and eventually sign on to a similar document. Its main tenets share a lot in common with a Farm Bill platform drafted by Roots of Change in Los Angeles in November 2010:

• a health centered food system;

• sustainable agriculture practices;

• community and regional prosperity and resilience;

• equitable access to healthy food;

• social justice and equity;

• systems approach to policy making.

While the Farm Bill is the Big Kahuna in the food and agriculture system, there are other forceful unifying levers. In 2008 California passed Proposition 2, an animal welfare initiative that will ban three forms of egregious confinement systems: cages for laying hens; confinement stalls for pregnant sows; and veal crates for male dairy calves. Proposition 2 can’t be dismissed as a purely California phenomenon. It passed with 63 percent of the vote. Seven states have now banned certain animal confinement systems, and the Humane Society of the United States has introduced similar initiatives in two more key states: Washington and Oregon.

In addition to unified Farm Bill platforms, imagine the entire West Coast agreeing on advanced animal welfare standards. Most citizens believe that food animals deserve humane treatment while they are alive, yet there are no laws at the national level to protect livestock during their production cycles. Intervention is still possible at the state level.

Health practitioners are also joining the food policy reform movement, concerned about the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other nutritionally related ailments ravaging adults and children in their communities. They are following the lead of innovative programs like the California Farmers’ Market Consortium that links the food stamp program (SNAP) with regional growers of fruits and vegetables in 60 farmers markets, from Santa Rosa to San Diego. In key markets, SNAP recipients can receive up to double the value of their purchases of fruits and vegetables—money that goes right into the hands of farmers. They can also watch demonstrations on how to cook and eat more healthfully. Doctors are collecting data on the medical benefits of such programs to analyze their effectiveness.

Coastal livestock producers and consumers interested in high quality, pasture-raised animal food products are united around a common concern: a lack of slaughter facilities within reasonable driving distances from production centers. In years past, each large town had some sort of slaughter facility. But decades of massive consolidation have devastated local processing capabilities. Small-scale slaughter facilities are one of the crucial missing links in local food system capabilities. In California, for example, only a handful remain. Just as Farm Bill dollars once built the giant monoculture farming infrastructures and Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operation industry that dominate today’s food system, it can do the same for the modern pastured livestock movement. Assistance can come in the form of value added producer grants, loans, important research, regulations tailored to small-scale facilities—to complement necessary private investment. Reformers could ask for 10 new West Coast processing facilities, for example, in the upcoming Farm Bill as a pilot project.

In a relatively short amount of time Washington, Oregon, and California could become a regional force in the national dialog leading up to the next Farm Bill. If we citizens don’t impact policy at the national level, there are plenty of agribusinesses and food manufacturers already working to set the rules and spend taxpayer money for us. As the old adage says, we reap what we sow. The West Coast can set its own table.

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