Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The State of Our Food.

2012 Farm Bill

A few years ago, if I would have heard the words "2012 Farm Bill" on the news, I would have zoned out. I'm not a farmer...why would I care about things like crop subsidies? I'll tell you why you should care about the 2012 Farm Bill--because it is about so much more than just crop subsidies. In fact, I think it probably should be named "The Food Bill" instead. In short, the Farm Bill directly affects what Americans eat. And consequently, this is one of the most important posts I'll write all year. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that every single American is affected by one of the many, many issues that fall under the umbrella of the Farm Bill (which comes up to be reviewed by the house and the senate once every five years).

In the interest of keeping this post relatively short, you can read a great post from NPR on the history of the Farm Bill here, and you can also read an explanation of all the areas included in the farm bill here. I know that the issues associated with the Farm Bill are a bit "heavy". They're not typical blog-reading material. But I think the Farm Bill is such an important issue that I feel compelled to write about it--and I promise I'll try to keep this post from getting too pedantic!

Anyway, in my humble opinion, the two most important aspects of the Farm Bill to be aware of are:

1. Nutrition: This includes areas of public assistance such as SNAP (Food Stamps), WIC, school lunch programs, etc. Many people familiar with the Farm Bill suspect that this portion of the program is likely to be cut by 50% or more this year, if not cut entirely.

Mario Batalli has been highlighting this portion of the Farm Bill on The Chew for the past week by deciding that he and his family would live on the typical food stamps allotment for their size family for one week ($31 per person, per week). Now, my goal in writing about this isn't to start a debate about government assistance. It's simply to challenge you to take the Food Stamps Challenge for one week before making a decision about whether or not you support the budget reduction for such programs. I think it's important to really understand what we're starting with before we decide whether or not it needs to be changed. Besides, it's a great opportunity for everyone to take a good hard look at their grocery budget, which in my opinion is always a good thing. We actually have a smaller food budget than the typical food stamps budget (usually $200 per month for our family compared to $496 per month as a family of four on food stamps would likely receive--and I believe since I'm pregnant, we'd be considered a family of four), so I guess you could say we participate in the food stamps challenge every week, but I tentatively plan to blog about our weekly food budget more formally in the first week of June. I'd love it if you were so inclined to take the challenge with me during that time--and please let me know in the comments if you do.

2. Food Subsidies: Currently, the Farm Bill subsidizes major commodities like meat, corn (not all of which is actually edible), cotton, rice, wheat, and soybeans. Fruits and vegetables are considered "specialty crops" and are subsidized at a much lower rate. To quote from Lunch Wars by Amy Kalafa (a book that I TOTALLY recommend and completely changed our family's approach to food and food policy),

"[F]rom 1995 to 2005, our Farm Bill allotted 74 percent of governmental agriculture subsidies to meat and dairy outfits, 13 percent for grains, 10 percent for sugar, oil, starch, and alcohol production, 1.9 percent for grains and legumes, and a mere 0.37 percent went to subsidize fruits and vegetables. This inverse subsidy pyramid explains why it's cheaper to buy a burger than a salad at most fast food restaurants," (p 127).
It also explains why it's less expensive to buy Twinkies than it is to buy carrots:

And one more video from Michael Pollan more specifically about the Farm Bill:

If that above quote and videos make you mad, then you need to care about the 2012 Farm Bill...because that's where the subsidy rates come from. That's what determines which food-related issues our government and our tax dollars fund. And which they don't fund.

It's not a lost cause. There are some great success stories out there--for example, at times, farmers who usually grow a particular crop instead receive a government subsidy not to grow in order to help control the supply and demand. However, some states like Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina have begun to instead offer that same subsidy rate to farmers in order to grow produce for their local school system instead of not growing anything at all. It's sort of a no-brainer--it saves the states money, and keeps what money they are spending in their own state rather than outsourcing elsewhere to buy school food.  It's a really good program, and my understanding is that it's similar to what's being advocated for in HR3286 (The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act) which is a current piece of legislation designed to reform the farm bill, including allowing states to spend a portion of their budget allocated for school lunches at local farms, which is in essence, another way to subsidize those farmers who do grow fruits and vegetables... but the government needs to hear it from you if that's what you want (if you are supportive of such a piece of legislation, you can send a form letter to your senator and representative by clicking here).

And guess what? Your senator and representatives need to hear from you even if that's not what you want. Otherwise, our politicians will know what the major food conglomerates in America want, but not what your average citizens across the nation want...and I have this little gut feeling that what your average mom and dad (or  in America might want when it comes to food policy is drastically different than what some of the big manufacturers of food in this country want.

So.  My understanding is that both the House and the Senate are currently working on the Farm Bill for 2012. It's so important that you contact them now, because it won't come up again for another 5 years.

Get involved: 

Tell them if there are any Farm Bill issues that are important to you and your family. 

If you feel like you need a bit more information about the Farm Bill and/or American Food Policy in general, may I suggest the following resources in addition to what's been linked in this article:


  1. Now that I have some coffee in me, I've come back to re-read this. With our current food budget, we're already spending below what we would receive on food stamps, and I'm looking to lower that by $35 for next month.

    I've watched part of the King Corn documentary, and recently watched all of Dive!, which isn't about production of food, but waste. It definitely has me thinking about how I value my food. No Impact Man also touches on the use, waste and value of food (that's not the focus of the documentary necessarily, but the entire thing is really, really thought-provoking and inspiring, I think).

    Thank you so much for bringing this up - I'm going to try to spend some time this week reading more about the Farm Bill and writing my representative.

  2. Thank you for writing this. My husband is a farmer, and yet I STILL don't understand most of what the Farm Bill entails. This broke it down and now I get it. I will be coming back to re-read!

  3. Thanks for writing this. My husband is a farmer, yet I STILL don't understand what most of this means. This broke it down- I will be coming back to re-read, and write my representative.


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