With many legislative hiccups along the way, Congress is rapidly deciding the fate of America's food supply: what's grown, how it's produced and by whom, and how that food will affect our health and the planet. The roughly $288 billion Farm Bill, covering everything from urban nutrition and food stamp programs to soil conservation and agribusiness subsidies, will dictate much about what we eat and at what price, both at the checkout line and in long-term societal costs. And if agribusiness lobbies keep getting their way, as they've largely done in this year's Farm Bill battles, the 'food bill' we all pay will be astronomical -- not just the cost of the Farm Bill itself, but the hidden costs of a taxpayer-subsidized industrial food system that causes profound harm to public health and the environment, as well as to farmers and workers.
Despite valiant progressive efforts that may bring some change at the margins, the big picture is not pretty: increasingly centralized power over food, abetted by lax antitrust policies and farm subsidies that provide the meat industry and food-processing corporations with cheap raw ingredients; huge subsidies for corn and soy, most of which ends up as auto fuel, livestock feed, and additives for junk food, fattening America's waistlines while soiling the environment; and, despite organic food's rising popularity, a farming system that's still heavily reliant on toxic pesticides (500,000 tons per year), which pollute our waterways and bloodstreams while gobbling up millions of gallons of fossil fuel. As a nation we consume (quite literally) some 100 billion gallons of oil annually in the making and long-distance transport of our food supply.
Closer to home, despite annual crop surpluses and the dumping of cheap excess supplies onto foreign markets, residents in poor urban areas are deprived of fresh, nutritious food. These so-called 'food deserts' - whose only gastronomic oases are fast-food joints and liquor marts - feature entire zip codes devoid of fresh produce. Government studies show this de facto food segregation leads to serious nutritional deficits - such as soaring obesity and diabetes rates - among poor people. And in the countryside, taxpayer subsidies directed mostly to large-scale growers and agribusiness are plowing smaller farmers out of business at a rate of one every half an hour, creating individual misery and community-wide economic havoc.
What's to be done? Congress (particularly the Senate, where debate currently resides) needs to hear Americans - urban and rural alike - demand serious change, to shift our tax dollars ($20 billion to $25 billion a year in farm subsidies alone) toward organic, locally oriented, nutritious food that sustains farming communities and consumer health. Investing our tax dollars in food isn't the problem; instead of commodity subsidies for meat and fattening processed foods produced by a handful of corporations, we need a New Deal for food that reinvests funds in sustainably grown, healthful produce grown by a diversity of farmers. (for news and policy alternatives, I recommend visiting http://www.foodsecurity.org. )
But even as the congressional Farm Bill battles grind toward a mostly disconcerting conclusion, it's not too soon to look beyond this omnivore's omnibus, and begin considering a national movement of progressive urban food bills. Cities and states have enormous purchasing power and are slowly taking the lead: San Francisco's Department of Public Health is devising sustainable procurement policies to buy more local and organic produce; some city and state food policy councils, such as Minnesota's, are helping smaller organic farmers survive by linking them up with urban markets; and the California Assembly last year passed a pilot measure to help develop new fresh produce markets in poor neighborhoods.
Change is coming piecemeal on the local level, and needs a serious booster shot. A movement of progressive urban food bills could help galvanize and expand local efforts and create a new food infrastructure that trult sustains our health, ecologies and economies - and could help buck the trend toward increasingly monopolistic supermarkets that eschew poor districts and shut out small farmers and food companies. For starters, such a measure could include:
*Organic and local-first food-purchasing policies requiring city agencies, local schools, and other public institutions, such as county jails and hospitals, to buy from local organic farms when possible.
*Incentives - backed by public education, expanding markets, and consumption of local organic foods - to encourage nonorganic farmers to transition to sustainable agriculture, while subsidizing affordable prices for consumers. Ultimately this could build momentum for national subsidies for sustainable organic farming.
*Healthy-food-zone programs with carefully targeted grants that encourage small businesses and farmers' markets to expand access to healthy foods in poor neighborhoods identified as deserts. Such measures would simultaneously boost markets for area growers while, over time, radically improving public health.
*City-sponsored education campaigns discouraging obesity-inducing fast food while promoting farmers' markets and other healthful alternatives, such as an accessible directory of stores featuring regional organic products.
*Zoning, targeted water subsidies and other incentives for small-scale urban and suburban farming.
American cities have agencies and budgets for everything from trash collection and wastewater treatment, to public health and the environment -- yet few dedicate serious planning and money toward ensuring that its residents eat well. With Congress predictably poised to sustain the present agribusiness system that's proven so destructive and unhealthful for America's populace, cities and states must keep brewing policy change from below. There will be resistance there, too, as the fast food industry and corporate supermarkets will fight hard to keep their virtual stranglehold on sustenance. But with ample pressure from urban and rural consumers, farmers, public health experts, antihunger activists, environmentalists, and others, cities can create model food bills that build a policy-driven grassroots alternative to our industrial food system. No better time than now to start showing Congress how it ought to be done.
Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His work has appeared in The Nation, Harper's, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor and Mother Jones. (www.christopherdcook.com).