The food we eat

In the three-plus years we’ve written this column we’ve been struck by the incredible diversity of the food scene both locally and around the world. But we never thought one of the most genuine articles we’d come across would be a piece of legislation. The soon-to-be-proposed 2007 Farm Bill is just that piece of legislation. And it might prove to be genuinely good. Or genuinely bad. One thing is certain it will affect nearly everything else we write about in this column for years to come. The bill will be a rewrite of the 2002 version that expires this year. It is a sprawling package of subsidies, regulations, mandates and incentives. And it is a testament to the growing interest we have in our health, the quality of our food, the preservation of our farmland, the conservation of our energy resources, and the safety of our water and air that a piece of federal legislation dealing with farms is getting so much attention and scrutiny. Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl said recently that most Americans tend to think of the bill as something that has to do only with farmers. But, she told a group of editorial writers, “It behooves people like you and me to open our fellow citizens’ eyes to the fact that this might be the single piece of legislation with the greatest impact on our lives that Congress is likely to consider (this) year.” The bill, says Reichl, “will affect everything we put in our mouths in the next few years.” That’s because how much we pay when we sit down to eat is dictated by which foods and which farmers get subsidies, she says. “If we have a crisis of obesity and diabetes—and we do—it is largely a function of the fact that we, taxpayers, are subsidizing the wrong kinds of foods.” For decades, our farm policies in this country have been focused on encouraging and rewarding yield. Science helped create corn and soy plants that produced yields beyond our wildest dreams. Those grains were then turned into low-cost livestock feed and into the basic ingredients for widely popular products like soft drinks and convenience foods. Arguments can be made for low-cost food. But not when we are risking our health, destroying our land, discouraging (some would say wiping out) family farms, and creating a system where only the wealthy can afford clean, healthy and tasty food. Because of the scope of the bill, it will engender fierce debate and lengthy negotiations. It will affect our trade relationships around the world, and it will affect whether or not a pastured chicken can be butchered and sold in the community in which it is raised. Some of the solutions will require new spending. Some will require new political backbones to stand up to the demands of giant agricultural corporations created and nurtured by farm bills past. But it is absolutely essential that the rewrite of this legislation be viewed in the context of the greatest impact on our everyday lives, and for us that’s the quality of the food served to our kids in their schools, the ability of local farmers to make a living by supplying our community markets and restaurants, the attention to the land those farmers inevitably pay as a necessary component of diverse, sustainable agricultural practices, and the elimination of the food-borne diseases that have plagued us over the last few years. And we don’t believe anyone has to apologize for wanting food that tastes good. It is unconscionable that federal policies would restrict consumer access to fresh, carefully grown, and local goods. But most importantly, a thoughtful, visionary, responsible farm bill would refocus this nation’s attention to our food and our land by emphasizing quality over quantity, more efficient local production over heavily subsidized, distant factory production, and sustainability over the flawed and manufactured demand for more, bigger and faster. The 2007 farm bill may not have the same taste appeal as other genuine articles around us. But it could. It must.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to Genuine Articles Archive >>

Madison Magazine - March 2007
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