Disappointed With Farm Bill Subsidies, Reformers To Step Up Fight
"I think we had a chance to make it a really great farm bill, and it turned out to be the same old pork-belly politics," said Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District.
Cooper has been a vocal part of a broad coalition of nutrition, food, farm and environmental interests that mounted a national crusade this year, for the first time, to try to alter the direction of the nation's farm policy.
They argued that traditional crop subsidies, the heart of the bill, are as much about food as farming and have led to industrialized agriculture, pollution and widespread obesity and diabetes.
Now, with the Senate ready to vote next week on a bill that basically keeps the subsidies intact, responses by advocates for change range from disappointment to fury, plus a few faint cheers for extra money dispensed to California produce farmers, organic farming, conservation, and fruits and vegetables for schoolchildren.
"I'm not a happy camper. We didn't get a food and farm bill, we got a fat bill," said Dan Imhoff, a Sonoma County author whose book "Food Fight" advocates farm bill reform. "It's agribusiness as usual. It's high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil for all, and it's at the expense of the land and the people and the taxpayers."
A handful of key advocates for change said Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, all Northern California Democrats, have proved disappointments, at least so far.
"I don't understand why they have so far failed to support serious reform for the (subsidies), which could be of enormous benefit to California farmers and more importantly to California eaters," said UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan. His best-selling book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," laid out the case against subsidies and made Pollan the reform movement's de facto leader.
The bill does contain a record $1.6 billion to $2 billion for California's fruit and vegetable growers. But, compared with $42 billion for corn and other commodity subsidies, Pollan said, "That's not going to make fruits and vegetables as available as fast food."
Pollan and others are keeping up the pressure, hoping that a Senate floor fight might yield last-minute changes next week and that Pelosi would use her power to make them stick with a House-Senate conference committee.
"That's why I spoke in her district on Friday night," said Pollan, who appeared at a dinner at Fort Mason sponsored by the nonprofit group Food From the Parks and urged the 160 people present to keep the phone calls and e-mails coming.
Some Bay Area leaders in the movement for change, like Kari Hamerschlag, until recently policy director of the California Coalition for Food and Farming, choose to emphasize the bright spots in the farm bill: $10 million for community food programs over five years, $80 million for organic farm research (plus more for farmers going organic) and a new policy encouraging federal nutrition programs to buy locally produced foods.
"These programs are important," if small, models for the future, she said.
School lunches will get more money under a fruit and vegetable snack program that's been expanded to $1 billion. That sounds like a lot, Cooper said, but spread over 30 million school lunches served in the United States, 180 days a year, "it means I could give each child four-fifths of an apple a day more."
The subsidies, she said, are "a big part of why school lunches are so bad." That Congress left them intact, she added, is "to the detriment of our children, and it's not OK."
Whatever happens in the Senate next week, the Northern California reformers intend to keep fighting, although the next farm bill won't come before Congress for five years, and Americans have notoriously short attention spans.
Cooper said the country can't afford to wait five years.
"We could double the number of kids with diabetes by the time of the next farm bill," she said. "If middle America started making this an issue in the presidential campaign, we could make some progress."
The silver lining of the 2007 debate is that more Americans are aware of the issues at stake, Imhoff said.
Pollan said people ask him about it all the time, "and this is the least sexy issue in America. A year ago, who would have thought it?"
He thinks all the activism has put Congress on the defensive and that the old system is "very close to falling apart."
Cooper, though, thinks it needs a bigger push to engage mainstream America.
"It might take Oprah getting involved," she said.
E-mail Carol Ness at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle