Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Show me the movement

I have come into contact with a lot of inspirational people so far in my journey to learn about food. Many have been the farmers who have chosen to devote their lives to sustainable agriculture, to growing good food for others in their community because they feel it's the right thing to do. Some are folks I have read about for some time, who have emerged as voices speaking powerfully on behalf of the movement toward better food in our country, those changing the way we interact with food. There's Michael Pollan, whose books and articles continue to examine the bizarre animal that is the American consumer of foodlike substances in an effort to inform and advocate for a food system overhaul. (I really did get kind of giddy listening to him speak, and found myself entirely too shy to introduce myself when I was within 3 feet of him during the book signing at the Food For Thought festival back in Madison.) There's Will Allen who is fostering relationships within his local community and beyond while he produces massive amounts of chemical-free food and teaches folks how to grow their own. (I was also too awestruck to introduce myself to him when he gave a talk at the local community center during my time in Madison.) And there's Dave Murphy, the food activist I finally worked up the nerve to try and contact and subsequently had the pleasure of meeting at the recent conference on food security in Des Moines.

Dave, who founded Food Democracy Now in an effort to promote more sustainability-minded Secretary of Agriculture candidates for appointment under the new White House administration, comes to food from an entirely different angle than many at the conference. Some folks work on community organizing, some on food production, some on establishing connections between farms and buyers, some on nutrition education. Dave works on policy. It's important for folks to know how to produce and consume food responsibly, he conceded, but for real change to happen on a larger scale, what he argues for is a change at the policy level. In short, we need legislation that shifts state and federal funds to encourage more sound agricultural practices, and which ceases funding to programs that are destroying farmers and their livelihoods (not to mention the planet and our national health).

While he casually references the ridiculous number of miles he's put on his car going around to talk with farmers all over the state, it's evident that he really does his homework: talking with people who make the policies and those affected by them to get a real understanding of what's going on. (And talk about smart. I swear he eats those indecipherable proposed House bills and regulation documents for breakfast.) From Dave, I learned about the horrific state of large-scale animal food production in our country, and in Iowa in particular. There are more humane ways to raise animals for food than on confined animal feedlots (or as they are known in the business, CAFOs) -- I have visited farms all around the eastern half of the country, so I know there are alternatives. Dave told me of a pending proposal to give millions of dollars to perpetuate a failing (and, in my opinion, ethically reprehensible in its treatment of animals) factory farm system to stem the farmers' record losses resulting from high feed costs and massive overproduction. Another bailout?? Rather than amending their practices, these farms who are sitting low on the hog (for a change) are asking for more government money to continue (subsidized) business as usual. What will be done with all of the excess pork that can't be sold? Most likely it will end up in some fried pork foodlike substance on your kid's styrofoam school lunch tray.

"Show me the movement": I've heard the now famous instance of President Obama -- well, it's famous in the local food movement world, anyway, since Pollan has bandied it about in a few of his talks by now -- claiming that in order for the White House to get behind the relatively small but growing call for sustainable, regional food systems, people were going to have to get louder about it. There needs to be a public outcry against the current system that is slowly but surely making us poorer and then killing us earlier. Our current food system, like our healthcare system, is broken. (And you thought I could make it a whole post without ranting about healthcare, which, incidentally, was another hot topic at the food security conference. Well, as I've said, they're related.) The fact that Ag Secretary Vilsack gave a talk at breakfast during the final morning of the food security conference means that Washington may be starting to listen. But we're not loud enough yet.

Change. Michael Pollan may write about it, but it's people like Dave who will make it happen. Right now, he is part of a campaign that is gathering signatures to protest the pork bailout package. You can add your voice to the petition here. It is a small but important step toward the long overdue overhaul of our country's food system.

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