I have never self-identified as a geek. This is most likely due to the fact that my classmates labeled me as a geek – and laughed about it – in elementary and middle school which traumatized me for years to come. Well, maybe traumatized is a bit harsh. But diving into what I love most and unabashedly sharing that with the world has taken a few years and a healthy dose of confidence. I was recently reminded of this journey when reading Colleen’s article on being a better geek and devoting oneself to a particular interest.
Here in the Politics & Society section we’re more apt to describe ourselves as policy wonks or cultural gurus, but we are really just labeling our inner geek and defining our hopeless devotion to politics, economics, and culture with a different word.
I am a self-identified foodie – a food geek who enjoys exploring new tastes, preparing new dishes, and presenting food in new ways. I love learning about food and frequently ask farmers, butchers, bakers, coffee roasters, brewers, and chefs about the products they prepare. I love cooking food and often challenge myself to try new food varieties, recipes, and techniques for fun. (I consider my local farmers’ market, Pinterest, and the Alton Brown pivotal sources of inspiration.) And I love sharing food with friends and family.
Clean Up in the Politics Aisle
While I can gab on and on about my geeky love of food, the fact of the matter is that there are some serious political challenges on the food front that also deserve just as much attention, especially given the authorization of the 2012 Farm Bill in the coming months – a battle that started last week.
I gathered last week with fellow foodies to watch Food Fight – a brief documentary on American agricultural policy and food culture in the 20th century. While I highly suggest taking an hour of your time to watch it, here’s a short synopsis. Following World War II, farmers began using newly-developed fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides on their crops; combined with the use of large farm machinery, farm fertility and harvest increased six-fold. Given the increase agricultural product, farms turned to food processors to package food (SPAM, anyone?) for the growing American family and transport it across the nations’ new highway system. The documentary explained that “a new food paradigm arose that valued shipping and shelf life over taste and nutrition. For the big growers and the even bigger food processing conglomerates, growing food became all about growing dollars, and taste and nutrition did not contribute to the bottom line.”
Local farm infrastructure was essentially demolished during this time; between 1945 and 1970, the number of American farms decreased from 6 million to 2 million. As the federal government deregulated agricultural policies in the 1980s and 1990s, larger conglomerates outcompeted and undercut the smaller- and medium-sized diversified farms. The 1996 “Freedom to Farm” Bill eliminated the restrictions on planting and encouraged farmers to harvest as much as they could; this eventually drove down grain prices, ousting many of the remaining family farms and requiring massive government assistance for those just making it. Each year following the failed bill, Congress authorized emergency payments to farmers upwards of $20 billion. In 2002, Congress voted to make these payments permanent, solidifying overproduction as the new norm in the farming community.
Many blame the commodity subsidies for the continued demise of the American food system.
Every five years, the federal government authorizes a Farm Bill – the policies and government support for U.S. agriculture. While the most substantial portion of the Farm Bill funds the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), other funded programs include rural economic development programs, agricultural research, and crop subsidies.
And for my foodie friends, this is where my beef (pun intended) lies.
Of the 2002 Farm Bill subsidies, over 90% of all crop subsidies went to harvesting five “commodity crops”: corn, soybean, wheat, cotton, and rice. Moltzen points out in her paper that “It comes as no surprise, then, that two-thirds of calories consumed in the U.S. come from just four crops which happen to the four crops with the highest subsidy level.” Indeed, these subsidy levels make inputs to processed food products – cereals, white-bread and pasta, packaged cookies and cakes, and soda pop – cheaper for producers and consumers. No wonder the American population is increasingly suffering from chronic illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Meanwhile, “specialty crops,” including vegetables, fruits, and nuts, are subject to strict federal government planting regulations if subsidized under the current system and are fined if they overproduce these healthy, vitamin-rich, life sustaining products. This directly correlates to far fewer acres of specialized crops and far higher prices for quality food. Indeed, the American Farmland Trust estimates that we need at least an additional 13 million acres of farmland devoted strictly to fruit and vegetable harvest in order to meet the minimum daily requirement of fruits and vegetables established by the USDA. As for prices, famed foodie Michael Pollan states in the New York Times Magazine that “the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (aka liquid corn) declined by 23 percent.”
(For those political wonks reading, check out crop subsidies by congressional district published by the Environmental Working Group.)
Fighting for Better Food
The produce, pasta, meat, dairy, and bakery items wrapped up and placed on the shelves of our local supermarkets is not the healthy, fresh, flavorful food we should be eating. While we can run to the local farmers’ market or seek out local butchers and bakers for these items, everyone has the right to access such healthy food.
Food-geeks-turned-food activists have been fighting for this right since the 1970s with the establishment of local farmers’ markets and guerilla gardens. We can continue that fight today not only by lobbying for federal policy changes, but also by frequenting farmers’ markets (find yours here), purchasing organic produce, avoiding meat and packaged meals. Food fight ends on this note, which I find a most fitting close as well:
“We get three votes a day, and they don’t all have to be perfect. But if just one meal is made with a mind to the small farmer, the land, and the environment, then we can all make a huge difference, one meal at a time.”
(Note: The 2012 Farm Bill is only in its infant stages and is bound to change before final adoption, but shows promise for the growth of specialized crops, increased access to local farmers markets, and the expansion of incentives that encourage low income consumers to purchase more fruits and vegetables.)