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How Can the Farm Bill Become a Healthier Food Bill?

June 8, 2012

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As the Farm Bill undergoes review in Congress this week, leading food writers, chefs, farmers, and educators are joining together to make their voices heard.

On behalf of the IIN blog team, I joined in the debate, attending at a panel discussion at New York University with esteemed leaders in the fields of food and nutrition. Paraphrased below are their insights into the far-reaching effects of the Farm Bill and its impact on the health of Americans.

Access to Healthy Food and Culinary Education
Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating

  • We have made junk food systemically accessible, supporting commodity crops such as corn and soy, while making healthy foods less available.
  • Only 50% of the produce needed to meet the FDA’s daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables are grown in this country., 
  • SNAP matching programs have shown (by allowing food stamps to be used at greenmarkets) that if you make healthy food accessible and cheap, people will purchase it instead of processed, unhealthy foods.
  • Teaching cooking is the key to improving people’s self-sufficiency within the food system. You cannot care about the quality of ingredients if you don’t know how to cook.

Making Food a Political Conversation
Eddie Gehman KohanEddie Gehman Kohan, Founder, Obama Foodorama

  • The First Lady’s work, in particular the “Let’s Move” initiative, has opened the door for political conversation about food. For example, Mayor Bloomberg’s “Soda Ban” would never have happened without Michelle Obama shedding light on these issues in Washington.
  • The focus I am seeing in the White House is on transforming the younger generations. But also, Michelle has made it clear that, in the discussion about improving our food systems, everyone has a “seat at the table” – from small farmers and activists to big agriculture.

The Challenge of Sustainability for Restaurants
Ginevra IversonGinevra Iverson, Chef and Farmer – Calliope, NYC

  • As a chef, I have always focused on buying products from small farms. In California, purveyors only offered seasonal produce, so that is what went on the menu. But in New York, you have access to everything and customers expect consistency from restaurants. Under those circumstances, it becomes difficult for chefs to source everything from the greenmarket, and many turn to larger distributors and away from local, seasonal products.
  • People are also stuck in their eating patterns – they ask, “Why don’t you have a hamburger on your menu?” But I would rather cook a nice fish for someone, as the seafood restaurants get wholesale is far superior to the fish available in retail shops.

Promoting Seasonal Eating and Better Ingredients
Adam RapoportAdam Rapoport, Editor-in-Chief, Bon Appétit

  • In Italy and France, seasonality is self-evident. But in the US, supporting seasonal or local eating has become a political statement. Bon Appétit is not a political publication, but we have moved toward questions of seasonality, health and nutrition, due to the interest of our readers.
  • One of the big changes I see is that people are now more willing to spend money on better ingredients – money they would have previously spent on table settings or flowers.
  • Unlike other major social issues, public opinion alone cannot force changes to the Farm Bill – it has huge financial and economic repercussions. What I wonder is, in a capitalist country, how can we get these changes passed?

Working Together to Preserve Our Freedom of Choice
Marion NestleMarion Nestle, NYU Professor and Author of Food Politics

  • We are dealing issues of freedom of choice. For example, if smaller portions were made widely available at cheaper prices, it would provide an incentive for people to eat better.
  • There are so many different groups doing food activist work. I once tried to create a directory of these organizations in New York, and it was overwhelming. The interest is out there, but these groups have not organized themselves to create a unified political force.

What aspects of the bill and its effects on our food system are of most concern to you?

(Thumbnail Photo Credit: Andrew Stawarz)