The USDA Farm Bill is up for renewal this year. It is such a misnomer given that 74% of the projected total budget is allocated to the various nutrition programs for schools, supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), women, infant, children’s program (WIC) and others. The connection to farming is that those programs become a built-in dumping ground for all of the crops that are over produced. In fact, given that just the name “Department of Agriculture” denotes prioritization of the few thousand farmers over the 310 million consumers of food in the U.S. indicates that a paradigm shift in our strategies related to food production is needed. As has been suggested by many academics concerned with public health and persistently high obesity rates, a Department of Food would be a much more productive use of government resources to promote the general welfare. The budget should be used to get healthy foods into these programs rather than the government subsidized commodity foods that have limited nutritional value (some such as oats, wheat and barley have more than others). Food policy advocacy groups are working to make monumental changes to the 2012 Farm Bill but they are up against some well-entrenched forces that are resistant to changes. The USDA has been known to have a revolving door between Big Ag and its own executives. Small farmers are not faring well under the existing policies that favor mega-farmers either. Retail food prices have gradually increased over the years but the farmers’ share has been dropping. Food advocacy groups are trying hard to get a seat at the Farm Bill negotiation table in order to help develop a food system - one that provides healthy and sustainable food for both the U.S. population and also gives the global population the kind of food assistance that enables them to build self-sustenance rather than dependence on handouts of nutritionally bereft grains months after they are needed. Right now we are not doing this. Farm bills of the past subsidize crops such as sugar, corn and soybeans that don’t promote health but leave the healthiest produce crops to fend for themselves. If there is any type of subsidization it should be for the food that is recommended on the USDA’s own website choosemyplate.gov. As pointed out by Bon Secours Health System, “In its current form, commodity producers growing corn and soy - mainly used for high fructose corn syrup, fillers and animal feed – receive nearly 95% of the Farm Bill’s $41.6 billion in payments to growers. Farmers growing the foods that nourish the community receive only 5%.” This payment structure is completely out of whack. Perhaps if farmers weren’t paid to grow the commodity crops they would consider healthier alternatives. The last Farm Bill did offer some block grants to states for their produce growers but large-scale interests managed to obtain the majority of funds for public relations programs that did little to increase and improve fruit and vegetable production.
Change to this broken system is going to have to come from the grassroots level and real change has a large number of components in addition to ending commodity subsidies. It means supporting local growing and increasing access to healthy foods while protecting our natural resources. We are talking about what we put in our bodies and our children’s bodies multiple times a day so it is significant enough to care about. Concerned citizens and activists stopped a closed door negotiation of the Farm Bill in 2011 with their letters and calls and now it looks like it may not even get completed this year because so many parties other than the farming conglomerates are demanding a voice in policy development. Change can be made. Take the time to contact your legislators ( links to some of Indiana’s are provided below) and let them know that healthy food matters to you and that you will hope they keep that in mind when updating the Farm Bill. You can get some great talking points from a report produced by Food and Water Watch on the subject to spread the message. On a national scale, a couple of petitions asking for a new kind of Farm Bill are linked here too. Take a few minutes to let your voice be heard – in a respectful way. Your input matters.
Senator Richard Lugar - www.lugar.senate.gov/contact/
Senator Dan Coats - www.coats.senate.gov/contact/
Congressman Pete Visclosky - http://visclosky.house.gov/contact/email-me.shtml