Is A Sustainable Food Strategy on Obama's Menu?

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The Boston Globe

Is A Sustainable Food Strategy on Obama's Menu?

A PRIUS in every garage and a farmers market in every neighborhood! This is our moment! This is our time for slow food! Or so, people hope from President-elect Obama.

Obama has raised hopes he will inspire Americans away from fool's gold-en arches and toward farmers markets and community supported agriculture (where people buy a share in a farm's annual harvest). Obama is the most healthy eater to enter the White House in a long time, unlike George H.W. Bush who castigated broccoli as he craved pork rinds, unlike ravenous Bill Clinton, who gained 30 pounds in his first presidential campaign, and unlike the junior George W. Bush, who, pun intended, butchered the meat of his message on food. He once said, "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."

Obama purchased peaches, pears, apples and nectarines from farmers markets on the campaign trail. Grass-roots organizing in farmers markets helped him turn Indiana from a red state to a blue state and cruise to victory in Wisconsin. Physician Rob Stone told the Los Angeles Times, "Obama's played Bloomington like a violin. Last summer, his people put out a table at the local farmers market and they've been showing up every weekend."

In Madison, the Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal featured Joe Melloy, Jim Witkins and their Obama table at the farmers market, where they gave out $1,000 worth of Obama buttons and bumper stickers they paid for themselves. "You don't wait for the cavalry to arrive," Melloy said. "You are the cavalry."

The grass-roots cavalry as well as wealthy food gurus want to see Barack and Michelle Obama become American Gothic, even creating a symbolic White House farm. Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling "In Defense of Food," wrote an open letter to the next president in The New York Times magazine decrying fossil-fuel-sucking, disease-promoting agribusiness, and calling for more support of local foods and farming that relies more on the sun than "Sunoco."

Obama told Time magazine he read Pollan's analysis that "our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil . . . contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector . . . creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity."

But Obama could not withstand the blowback from agribusiness. His campaign issued a statement that he "was simply paraphrasing" Pollan and did not "blame farmers" for obesity. He calculated he could not risk being framed again as an elitist, this time about bitter farmers clinging to corn and combines. In 2007, Obama complained at an Iowa farm stop about the price of arugula at Whole Foods when there was not a single Whole Foods in the whole state of Iowa.

Obama's nomination of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack for Agriculture secretary further leaves unclear if he has a food strategy. Vilsack is a relatively open-minded farm-belt politician on alternative energy. But Monsanto's vice president of global plant breeding, Ted Crosbie, said Vilsack has "a very balanced view of agriculture."

The problem is that agribusiness is grossly unbalanced, flooding Capitol Hill with $1 billion of lobbying efforts the last 11 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, reaping $177 billion in subsidies the last 12, according to the Environmental Working Group. There is so little accountability in farm payment programs that the Government Accountability Office reported in October that the United States Department of Agriculture paid out a total of $49 million to 2,702 potentially ineligible people whose adjusted gross income was more than $2.5 million and derived less than 75 percent of their income from farming, ranching, or forestry.

The result is government waste and grossly unbalanced supermarket shelves, full of sugars, starches, and fats that are cheap to produce but costly to our bodies and our healthcare system. Can a community organizer from Chicago support community supported agriculture? First, he must display the courage to defend what the likes of Michael Pollan have to say, without apology.

Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe and can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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