Melanie Wyne

“There is no connection between food and health.
We are fed by a food industry which pays no attention to health, and healed
by a health industry that pays no attention to food.” —Wendell Berry

In my last post, I talked a little bit about a health industry that pays no attention to food. This month, I’ll turn my attention to the food industry that pays no attention to health. I’ll start all the way back at the beginning of the food chain with farming and agriculture. Fair warning: we are going to get a little wonky and talk about the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill Matters to Your Health

The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation running more than 600 pages and containing 15 different titles. All told the bill directs $84 billion worth of taxpayer spending on everything from crop insurance, nutrition, forestry and livestock. Because the bill is so large and reaches into so many areas, it is nearly impossible for most lawmakers to fully comprehend what is actually in the bill, making it extremely vulnerable to lobbying by special interests.

The Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization every five years. It was due for reauthorization in 2012 but thanks to complex “fiscal cliff” machinations, the five year timeline got kicked over so that this year a whole new Farm Bill will need to be passed. A temporary extension was passed in January. That extension is set to expire in September 2013.

The direct link between healthy food and nutritional health has not always been acknowledged. Fortunately, things are beginning to change. With an obesity crisis sweeping a number of countries, many people from all walks of life now see food—how it is produced, how it is prepared, how accessible it is, etc.—as a primary indicator of a country’s health. From the amounts of vitamins and minerals available in fresh fruits and vegetables, to the health risks of ongoing exposure to agricultural chemicals, to the importance of sound dietary habits, our attitudes about health, food, farming, and nutrition are starting to change. In the US, there is a growing recognition that Farm Bill programs can play an important role in the creation and maintenance of a healthy food system. The challenge is to update this decades old legislation to shift our food system to incent farmers to grow fewer inputs for processed food (i.e. corn, soy and wheat) and more healthful foods like fruits and vegetables.

The Farm Bill Determines What We Eat

Many advocates believe that there is little logical connection between the current Farm Bill and the food and health policies that should be on a national healthy food agenda. The current Farm Bill contains too many incentives for producing unhealthy food and not enough for healthful foods. Agricultural policies such as price supports and crop insurance for large crops like corn, wheat and soy have encouraged an agribusiness system that produces an overabundance of calories and processed foods that are ultimately connected to our obesity crisis.

Can the Farm Bill Encourage Healthy Food Production?

Public health advocates suggest that there are many ways the Farm Bill could be shifted to encourage a healthier population. It could support research into ways to increase commodities of scale for organic fruit and vegetable (known in the Farm Bill as “specialty crop”) farming; make marketing funds available for farmers markets and community food programs; and protect and enlarge a pilot program that provides incentives to purchase more fruits and vegetables with SNAP (formerly known as “food stamp”) funds.

For a small farmer’s perspective on the Farm Bill, I spoke to my friend and farmer’s wife Dru Peters. Dru and her husband Homer Walden run Sunnyside Farm, a pasture based, intensive grazed family farm in Dover, PA. Homer and Dru are working to reduce emissions by only using people and animal power on their property. The cows mow the grass, the chickens and turkeys follow behind and the pigs rototill their garden plots. They do not own a tractor.

In Dru’s opinion, if the artificial supports of the federal government (in the form of payments to farmers, now couched as “insurance”) came to an end, the growth of corn, soy and wheat crops would be reduced and there would be fewer incentives to produce processed foods.

“As a ‘specialty crop’ grower we have a few federally funded programs available to us. There are small programs for Hoop houses, fencing and a few other options. Expanding federal programs that require
public school cafeterias to purchase some amount of fresh and local food might help our farm, provided we can grow during the months students are in the schools.”

What You Can Do

As consumes and voters we can play a role in shaping a new Farm Bill that will impact our food system for the next five years. You can:

  • Call or email your Senators and your Representative and tell them: “It is important to me that a full five year Farm Bill is passed in 2013. We need a Farm Bill that makes healthy food available to all Americans, supports family farms and creates needed reforms to our outdated food system.”
  • Check out the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) website for legislative updates and more ways to take action for a healthier Farm Bill.

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