FMC Book Review- Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Next Farm Bill

      Posted On: April 18, 2012

By Natalie Roper, FMC Research & Education Intern

In Michael Pollan’s foreword to Food Fight: A Citizens Guide to the Next Farm Bill, he writes, “Today, because so few realize that we citizens have a dog in this fight, our legislators feel free to leave the debate over the Farm Bill to the farm states, very often trading their votes on agricultural policy for votes on issues that matter more to their constituents.” Pollan continues with a proposed solution to this problem: “nothing could do more to reform America’s food system, and by doing so, improve the condition of America’s environment and public health, than if the rest of us were to weigh in.”

Weighing in on such overarching legislation is a daunting task. And it doesn’t help that it seems littered with jargon and created through a confusing process that allows the Bill to hide behind its obscurity. Daniel Imhoff’s Food Fight, like a breath of fresh air, finally unmasks this beast in this updated version tailored to the 2012 Farm Bill debate, weeding through the issues, digging into the history, and even harvesting ideas about how eaters and sustainable food system advocates can get involved.

During the Dustbowl and the Great Depression, when many farmers were facing unemployment and poverty, the Farm Bill was seen as emergency bailout. Today, representing a conglomeration of policies that have gone beyond supporting suffering farmers, the Farm Bill’s reach extends to school lunches, commodity support (AKA subsidies), land conservation, and federal nutrition programs. If you still don’t feel like you have “a dog in this fight,” as Pollan would say, Imhoff lists some of the overarching trends in our world that the Farm Bill could play a role in either preventing, ignoring,  or supporting:

  • The twilight of the cheap oil age and onset of unpredictable climatic conditions;
  • Looming water shortages and crashing fish populations;
  • Broken rural economies;
  • Euphoria over corn and soybean expansion for biofuels;
  • Escalating medical and economic costs of child and adult obesity;
  • Record payouts to corporate farms that aren’t even losing money;
  • More than 35 million Americans, half of them children, who don’t get enough to eat.

As these staggering statistics show, it just might be worth it for us to try to translate the jargon of this Farm Bill and get comfortable with speaking up. As longtime North Dakota organic farmer and food activist Fred Kirschenmann says in the introduction to Food Fight, “an enlightened food and farm policy is of considerable consequence to every citizen on the planet.”

One of the great strengths of Food Fight is its ability to connect the dots between so many issues and begin to unpack for readers the reality of how interconnected our issues surrounding food, health, and economy are. According the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, 44.6 million Americans benefited from food stamps in an average month in 2011. Because not all eligible individuals actually register for and receive food stamps, this number is itself not even fully representative of the hunger crisis we face. Given this, it makes sense that nutrition spending makes up over 70% of total USDA spending. Here’s the paradox: while millions of Americans are having trouble finding the money to eat well, we see that 68% of Americans were overweight or obese in 2008.   The obesity rate in children since tripled since the late seventies.

Consumers with limited means are victims of this nutritional paradox as the subsidized, (and thus cheapest) foods are the poorest in nutrition and most widely available in food deserts. In Wendell Berry’s observation, “There is no connection between food and health. We are fed by a food industry which pays no attention to health, and healed by a health industry that pays no attention to food.” Further, these subsidies present high barriers to beginning and smaller-scale farmers. According to one 2006 USDA study, if Americans increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables to mirror the suggested amount, the US would fall 13 million acres short of being able to provide the population with the appropriate amount of “specialty crops.”

Data from USDA Economic Research Service.

Over the next two decades, it’s estimated that 400 million acres of agricultural lands will be transferred to new owners as principal farm operators over the age of 65 now outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of seven to one.  Are there enough new farmers to operate these farms, and can they afford the high land prices of today?

Imhoff says it well when he says “The Farm Bill is one of those topics where once you start pulling the string, you find the whole world attached.” While something that breeches barriers between so many disciplines can seem overwhelming, this book comes to the rescue by leaving us with hope for a healthier future if we start working now.

FMC is grateful to our friends at Watershed Media for donating a copy of the book to our staff, and encourages farmers markets to visit their web site, where they have a handy guide to setting up a Farm Bill education table at farmers markets.  Let’s start the season off right by fulfilling our responsibility to keep our communities informed about important policies impacting their food, their health, and their economic futures.