Forget the Farm Bill: Where We Should Set Our Sights This Year For Real Change
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Given that there is momentum and resources to work for a more sustainable food system at the moment, why not use it where there will be the most bang for the buck? When small groups of people mobilize on local initiatives, big changes can happen in a short period of time.
San Diego provides an excellent example. A few years ago, after the International Rescue Committee spent $40,000 and nine months to jump the regulatory hurdles required to create a community garden in the city, a small group of citizens took action to change the regulatory requirements. Calling themselves the 1 in 10 Coalition, representing a hope that someday one out of every 10 meals eaten in San Diego would be local food, they worked with the city government to change the law. With the recent changes, the municipal fees for new community gardens have been reduced to zero and residents can keep small numbers of backyard chickens, miniature goats and bees.
A delicious way locals in Wisconsin take action is by enjoying a "Taste of the Market" breakfast at the Dane County farmers' market all winter long. The winter market lacks the festive atmosphere the market takes on during the warmer months, when it stretches around the Capitol Square and offers a larger variety of foods, but it makes up for it with its spectacular breakfasts. Each week market-goers can enjoy breakfast made from a sampling of local seasonal foods, which might tempt them to buy those same products from the market's vendors. Eating breakfast is hardly radical, but it's a gentle and fun way to introduce more Americans to the joys of eating local and sustainable foods and getting to meet the farmers who produced them.
One local action happening simultaneously in several places is the effort to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Theoretically, this should be done by the U.S. government, whether by Congress or the FDA, but we've been eating unlabeled GMOs since 1996 and so far the federal government thinks that's fine. But Californians are now collecting signatures to put a measure to label GMOs on their state ballot in the next election. There have also been recent state efforts to label GMOs in Washington, Vermont, and Connecticut. Although Mendocino County, CA became the first county to ban the growing of GMOs within the country altogether back in 2004. And in some states, instead of waiting for bills or ballot initiatives to pass, some consumers are taking matters into their own hands by printing off GMO labels from the internet and putting them on products in the grocery store.
By investing in local action -- whether working toward regulatory changes or simply growing a garden and sharing your harvest with friends and neighbors -- the movement will grow. Then, when the farm bill comes before Congress again in five or 10 years, there will be more citizens with an interest in sustainable food and agriculture. Changing our food system will no longer be an abstract idea for them, because they've felt soil in their hands, collected eggs from their own chickens, and eaten fresh-picked tomatoes from their own garden. With luck, Congress will be better positioned to make changes at that time, too.
A Long-Term Goal
Passing reforms to the food system through the farm bill is not a bad idea. While many things can be regulated by federal agencies like the EPA, thus bypassing Congress altogether, or can be passed separate from the farm bill, certain core elements that shape our food system can only be passed in the farm bill. These include subsidies, conservation programs, and SNAP (the program formerly known as food stamps).