A Food Day for all

Daily Hampshire Gazette
Phil Korman and Margaret Christie
Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wednesday is the second annual Food Day, billed as a “nationwide celebration and a movement for healthy, affordable, and sustainable food.” Events are being held at libraries, farmers markets and over 200 schools in the state. It provides an opportunity to review where we can go as a community to ensure that family farms thrive and all residents have access to local food.

It is sobering to realize how big a hole our country has dug over the last 60 years as local and regional food systems have been dismantled and food and farm policies have favored the largest farms to the detriment of small and medium-sized family farms. President Eisenhower’s agriculture secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, told farmers in the 1950s to, “Get big or get out.” Two decades later, President Nixon’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, was still sounding this call. By 2007, less than 2 percent of farms accounted for 50 percent of total sales of farm products.

Big farms have delivered on the promise of cheap commodity food. In 1950, food was 30 percent of our household budget and by 2003, it had dropped to 13 percent. And families, in the short-term, seem to benefit from this drop, especially since household income has stagnated or fallen. In 2011,the top 1 percent of household incomes has benefited from the recovery while household income fell for the bottom 80 percent. The gap between the rich and poor is now the greatest in more than 40 years. According to Census data, our income inequality is even greater than that of Uganda and Kazakhstan.

Unfortunately, the delivery of cheap food from industrial farms bears additional costs to our health, our environment and our local economies. Our national policies have favored and abetted both a concentration of huge corporate farms and a concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer households.

What can we do?

First, we need to recognize that these problems are related. Our local food movement will stall if we don’t ensure that healthy, locally grown food is available to all residents of our region. It is not morally supportable or, in the long-term, economically feasible to base a change in our food system on a shrinking consumer base.

Second, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, we need to eat the change we want to become. We’ve started this work in the Valley: more farms, managed by savvy farmers, are raising more kinds of farm products for local residents, including meat, yogurt and grain. CISA’s Local Hero program, the first “buy local” campaign in the nation, helps consumers find locally grown items, which are available at more and more farmers’ markets, CSA farms and retail outlets. Since 2007 the number of farmers markets has doubled and the number of CSAs has tripled.

As residents, we are lucky that our role in this endeavor is to eat better by buying more of the great food grown here, to eat more seasonally by enjoying ingredients at their best, and to try new locally grown products. The daily act of purchasing is a way to build our connections to community and land, while providing resources to strengthen local agriculture and our local economy.

Third, we need to raise these issues with family, friends and colleagues. Just this month, at the fall meeting of the Pioneer Valley GROWS network, more than 150 people discussed the citizen effort to open a supermarket in Springfield’s Mason Square; new partnerships that bring CSA farm shares to low-income communities; and shifting public funds for school meals to food purveyors who are committed to healthy and local food. All over the region, individuals, businesses, and organizations are working to increase the purchasing power of low-income households, neighborhoods and school systems to provide access to fresh, local food for all residents.

Fourth, we need to engage our elected officials at all levels of government. Sadly neither candidate for Senate has been asked a question in the debates or media interviews about how they will support Massachusetts farmers. Nor has Congress taken action to prevent the lapse of our five-year farm bill that covers farm policy and SNAP/food stamps. Let’s make this the last campaign in which either of these failures occurs.

At the state level, however, we are about to embark on a comprehensive strategic food system planning process to improve the state’s “food and farm resiliency, and nutritional health.” As citizens, we can work with the state Food Policy Council to create a plan that will shift public funds and policies toward the world we want to live in.

Community must be created in all of our efforts. It is rare that a movement that wants to bring change can taste so good. We need to open up our homes, hearts and wallets to share the food we grow, buy, cook and serve. Have a meal or a potluck, invite someone from your work or neighborhood, keep a seat open at your table and literally nurture your community. A community that feeds each other is resilient and has a belly that is full of food and a heart full of hope.

Philip Korman is executive director and Margaret Christie is special projects director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.