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Small Family Farming

More than four decades have passed since Frances Moore Lappé published her seminal book, Diet for a Small Planet. This groundbreaking book highlighted the relationship between our food choices and the consequences of those choices, transforming the way we think about our all-American hamburgers and hot dogs. But did it do anything beyond shifting how we think about food? Has the movement that grew out of her important literary work done anything substantial to shift the food landscape?

Since the 1970s, our all-American diet has only gotten worse. In 40 years, obesity rates have more than doubled. Currently, nearly seven out of ten American adults are either overweight or obese, and four of the six leading causes of death are diet-related  (e.g. heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes).

Only 20 percent of Americans are getting the recommended level of exercise – a statistic that has not changed much in the past 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet the food we consume has undergone a notable shift.

Stroll down the aisles of your favorite grocery store and what you’ll see is a colorful array of what looks like variety: different kinds of crackers, cookies and cereals, all made from essentially the same ingredients. It’s usually corn or enriched wheat flour (enriched because the wheat germ has been removed, leaving the flour low in naturally occurring vitamins and minerals). Both of these crops are subsidized by the government, meaning food companies like Kraft – which is owned by Philip Morris Companies Inc. (now known as Altria Group) – buy corn and wheat at artificially low prices, increasing the profit margins on the artificially-flavored food-like projects that contribute to obesity.

This isn’t news to many of us. Four of the previous presidents, despite their political differences, all agreed that subsidies built into the U.S. Farm Bill needed to change. So far none has been successful at fighting Big-Ag.

Changing the American Diet at the Local Level

Americans are known to be hardy, pulling together in times of crisis. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, President Roosevelt quickly convinced General Motors to halt all car production, and workers immediately began to assemble lines that could build planes, tanks and machine guns for the war. Everyone pitched in to defeat the fascists.

Labor shortages during the World Wars left no workers available to harvest fruits and vegetables for the markets. On the lookout for the nation’s health, the government encouraged the planting of “Victory Gardens” so that citizens could provide their own fruits and vegetables. Twenty million Americans answered the call, converting backyards and empty lots into edible food forests. Communities formed cooperatives, all in the name of patriotism.

And now, across the country, Americans have been pulling together to take back control of their food system. In Los Angeles, the L.A. Food Policy Council has worked with organizations to implement “Farm-to-Schoolprograms that connect schools and students to local and regional farms, providing thousands of children with healthy lunch options.

The recently passed Food and Flowers Freedom Act permits backyard gardeners to sell their harvests to restaurants and in farmers markets. In addition, the California Homemade Food Act  gives home cooks the opportunity to sell many of their wares directly to consumers without the need to pay for an expensive commercial kitchen space.

More than 30 states have some type of “Cottage Food Act,” helping to build a local food economy.

  We Need a “Clean Food Act”

But while cities and states are doing their parts to increase the availability of local, healthy food that supports small farmers and businesses, the food movement cannot yet point to legislative achievements on the federal level that are on par with the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes dietary recommendations while funding agribusiness, a total conflict of interest, leaving us with little faith that they will do much to transform the food landscape in a substantial way.

Our food is literally killing us. Americans deserve more support. Cities and states should receive more funding to support healthy food than the feds dole out to agribusiness to create unhealthy food. The only way this will happen is if the food movement is supported federally with something akin to the Environmental Protection Administration.

We need a Clean Food Act. We needed it forty years ago.

It is worth pointing out that it took decades to change tobacco regulations, and we’re finally seeing the effects of those changes on health. Science had made a clear case against smoking by the mid-1930s, but the surgeon general didn’t listen until 1964. In California, smoking rates now hover around 10 percent, down from more than 40 percent in 1965.

According to a recent report by the surgeon general, “our success in reducing tobacco use during the last 40 years has led to a reversal in the epidemic of lung cancer among men; nationwide, rates of lung cancer deaths among men have declined since the early 1990s.”  Policy changes have been hugely successful.

There is a substantial scientific body of evidence to suggest that agricultural chemicals are toxic, they are known endocrine disruptors and have been attributed to increased rates of kidney disease and prostate cancer among farm workers.

How long is it going to take our federal government to do its primary job: Protect its citizens? Americans are ready for a Clean Food Act.

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