RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Change Food Habits, Save the Children

It’s way early to be pessimistic about this Congress and, indeed, this administration, but with peddling on health care and back pedaling on war and peace, it’s clear they need a slam dunk that everyone can feel good about.

And they’ve got the issue, but it’s getting darn little coverage.

The winning story is about agriculture and food, and it’s no lie that local foods are a bright spot in the economy right now. Rural folks can truthfully say the recession started in the 1980s when Wall Street took all the money and put it into the export-import scheme, explaining that we could freely trade our way to a secure future. That’s when taxpayers started the earnest subsidies of big farmers and investors started to expect food companies to turn over cheap food but make the same profits as technology companies.

Suddenly, there was a huge increase in companies that handled food production — not just the cooks, but the traders, bankers, traders, consolidators, traders, truckers. And did I mention the traders?

To put it so any administration official can understand: Take a basketball team that scores points by putting a ball through the hoop. Now add a dozen new players that just pass the ball around, getting paid for each time they touch it. Do we have a better game? Or just a more complex one?

For rural America, the industrialization of the food system has been disastrous. Every university can point to a study that shows while the urban population has gone up, the farm population has fallen. Between 1980 and 2000, the Great Plains lost more than 40% of the young labor force, ages 20 to 34. This won’t surprise folks in rural areas, but if an urban concern lost 109,000 jobs, there’d be a lot of ink spilled.

2000 was nearly a decade ago, and a different political scene. Today, folks are beginning to see that local farm and food issues bring lots of benefits, and it’s all happening on the Obama watch. So let the Obamaniacs push the issue, claim the successes and enjoy the waves of appreciation.

A visit to any local farmers market, once delegated to the edges of parking lots and the shoulders of highways, shows that farmers are getting the rock-star treatment they deserve. People want to meet folks that grow food. While nobody’s taking their veggies to market in a new limo, yet, farmers’ markets count thousands of visitors per hour of business. As one market manager pointed out, that’s more visitors than the big box stores get in an eight-hour day. USDA counted 4,685 farmers’ markets in August 2008, a 6.8% rise in two years, and the numbers for 2009 will be even better.

And, as Congress learned while working on the Child Nutrition Act, states have begun exploring how to bring local foods into the schools. Any time you can put a photo of a little kid and a big red apple on page one, you’ve got a winning media blitz. Indeed, putting local foods into the hands of the young uns guarantees front-page stories coast to coast.

Changing food habits is not only a win-win proposition, it’s desperately needed. The Centers for Disease Control says that one in three children born in the year 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are more vulnerable to diabetes and obesity. For them, the chances are one in two. These numbers are beyond appalling; they are disastrous to society. The only big winners in such a scenario are the companies providing testing kits, care and medicines.

Still, lawmakers are stuck in the old paradigm and we can blame the media. Rescue a bank or an auto builder and you get big coverage. Rescue a generation of kids and the jobs of thousands of farmers and you get zip.

Maybe kids and farmers don’t have the excitement lawmakers crave, but what about the benefits of the local food system for the environment? That’s a winning issue, right?

With all the attention on global climate change — you’d think we’d try to find ways to help. But, one of the big disconnects in the recovery program is the money available for biomass programs. These programs grant funds to pelletize or chop burnable items as fuel for power plants. In one Missouri town, the plan is for grass clippings, tree limbs, food waste and crop residue, to provide fuel for electricity.

Well, I see the point, but nature doesn’t really believe in waste. Left to decompose, the old vegetation becomes food for the next one. And any gardener knows the value of compost.

For years, we’ve known that local food systems can save energy. An estimated 80% of our energy use in the food system goes to processing, packaging, transportation, storage and preparation. Studies have shown that produce travels 1300-2000 miles from farm to consumer, mostly by truck from our NAFTA and CAFTA trading partners. Food from nearby arrives fresher and with less expense.

So, President and Congress, this is your big chance. Take it and run! We’ll love you for it!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2009

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652