Waiting on Washington: Food

November 3, 2010

It’s come and gone. Election day didn’t bring the end of the world. For us regular ol’ Americans, life goes on about the same.
 
Washington is bound to be just about the same as it was last week, but that doesn’t have to slow us down. Let’s talk about food. I’ve blogged about food before. We’ve talked about voting with our food dollars, and that’s very important. I don’t want be redundant here, so if you want to read more, visit some of my older posts.
 
As far as legislation goes, The Farm Bill is set to expire in 2012, and Congress is currently discussing food safety legislation. The Farm Bill largely dictates what farmers grow–currently, the subsidies we dole out ($56 billion for corn over a decade) provide huge incentives to grow “corn and beans.” The current Farm Bill makes processed foods cheap, since they’re loaded with various forms of corn and soy beans, but shouldn’t such a bill make produce cheap? Our USDA food pyramid reads one way, towards produce, but our subsidies read another, towards sugary, fatty, processed foodish stuff. Food safety is a joke, because as we’ve seen recently, not all food is safe. Our eggs make us sick, our celery is tainted, and we get free frogs in our bags of frozen veggies, but the current regulations (or lack of enforcement) are almost begging for such issues. Like most other action in Washington, I don’t expect the end products of either of these to be ideal, but I still think it’s worth our time to call our representatives. We can also act on our own.
 
Luckily for us, there’s something afoot. It’s called the Food Movement. This movement is already responsible for many changes we’re seeing. Marion Nestle, renowned nutritionist, says the Food Movement that we see sweeping across the country is democracy. I love this! At a time when our democracy seems to represent anything but the voices of the people, our voices are being heard because of what we put in our mouths. I realize it’s a bit dramatic to talk of our democracy as if it’s crumbling–we’re still free, and I am still mostly proud to be American–but it sure is good to see democracy working.
 
We don’t need a bill to dictate what foods are important for our tables, and we don’t need safety regulations to tell us that foods not processed in massive facilities are probably safer for our families. Because of lobbying efforts from some large companies, our tax dollars are propping up some unsustainable choices, but our dollars are just that: our dollars. Unfortunately, for those without the time or resources to educate themselves about smart, sustainable food choices or without the financial means to do anything about it, they are subject to Washington’s decisions. Democracy may be guiding this Food Movement, but is it true democracy if it doesn’t afford healthy and safe options to all Americans?
 
40% of children’s calories come from junk food. Yeah, read that again. I trust that parents want bright futures for these children. They don’t dream of their children developing diabetes, or living with health issues exacerbated by obesity. I don’t know how you’d rank affordable access to healthy food with other justice issues: women’s rights, slavery, civil rights, gay rights. Those are big issues. But I think this is another great social justice issue. It’s a great social injustice that there are Americans who cannot make the best food decisions for their families. Even if these individuals knew which food choices were most beneficial to them and to the environment, do they have the financial resources to make those choices? Well, I don’t have an easy answer to that, but I think at least part of the answer involves changing our priorities.

In the 1930s the average American household spent 22% of its income on food.  Now it’s 10%. Food, as you might imagine, is pretty important. We kind of need food to survive. But it only makes up 10% of our budgets! What things have filled in the gaps? Cell phones, cable TV, car payments. There are many more, but the common denominator in these is that they’re unnecessary. I don’t mean to come down on those of us who spend money on these things. Fortunately for many, we can afford these things plus food that’s good for us and the environment. This is where our values come in.
 
Large companies recognize a desire among Americans for cheap food (especially cheap meat), and in order to make it cheap they’ve got to skimp on doing things the right way. If animals are butchered properly, the bacteria naturally present in their digestive systems should not find it’s way into our peanut butter. Do we understand that we get what we pay for? I recognize that money isn’t growing on trees, but if we value food that’s good for us and good for our environment, then we should expect extra costs.
 
While I would love to see sweeping changes overnight, I realize that neither Washington nor consumers have that kind of power. But I’m very encouraged by movements I’ve seen. Corporations such as Wal-Mart see that we want locally grown produce, so they’re responding. I’m not Wal-Mart’s biggest fan, but their commitment to green practices continues to grow. And another thing: Wal-Mart has a knack for makin’ stuff cheap. If larger corporations continue to see the movement toward a sustainable food future, we can only hope that this will make healthy decisions possible for more Americans. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that we’re a country of trend-followers. At least with the Food Movement, it’s a trend that benefits our land, our food producers, our animals, and our consumers.
 
When it comes to food, our grassroots democracy seems to be working, and we owe ourselves a pat on the back. So what can we do now? Celebrate with a home-cooked meal made from local products and some green beer. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, and let’s each take a step or two more. Lend your informed voice to push for local school lunch reform, shop at your local farmer’s market, join a CSA or a community garden. It’s encouraging to see our progress, but we still have work to do.

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