March 31, 2012 New Haven, CT -- “Most people would rather have a root canal than hear about the Farm Bill.” That’s what Annie Cheatham, Executive Director of New England Farmers Union [NEFU], said jokingly the other day when she visited folks at The Grove in New Haven, Connecticut to talk about the upcoming Farm Bill.
But Cheatham went on to explain why we should all listen up. “For the past 80 years, white men in a room about the size of this one have been making all the decisions. But now we are here. The urban agriculturalists are here. The women are here. The SNAP population is here. And believe me, the commodity guys don’t know what to do with us. They are struggling with us being in this room and would love us to just go away. But we’re not.”
And here’s why we shouldn’t go away. 75% of the Farm Bill is centered around nutrition issues, when translated, this means urban/suburban health issues like obesity and diabetes, hunger-alleviation, school lunch and SNAP expansion. Developing local food systems are getting a lot of attention these days as the antidote to these problems. Which is why, in early March the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee committee held a “Healthy Food Initiatives, Local Production and Nutrition" hearing where Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) announced that regional food hubs and local food systems were being considered in helping to create jobs and re-introduce agriculture to young and beginning farmers.
According to Agri-Pulse, Stabenow said that local food programs, while representing only a very small percentage of the Farm Bill, “make a very big impact in our communities, creating jobs and improving access to locally-grown foods.”
NEFU also supports regional economic development -- community-supported agriculture, community supported fisheries, local feed supplies and farmers markets, just to name a few – and is also a big supporter of the Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act, introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH). The Act will expand market opportunities for farmers, create new jobs and increase access to fresh and local fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products for Northeast consumers. It is comprehensive legislation that includes many crucial reforms to federal food and farm policy necessary to strengthen local and regional food systems.
The perception for most people is that the Farm Bill is for all those subsidized, commodity farmers out there who want to play a part in the big business of feeding the world at large. But as Annie says, we are part of the big business of feeding the world. Our world. Our city, our neighbors, our children. We are just wanting to be in business of making food healthier and more accessible to all.
As Cheatham says, we don’t need to really understand all the intricacies of the Farm Bill, that’s what NEFU is for. “We have Annette Higby as our Policy Director and she is our trusted advisor. She understands all this so you don’t have to. What we really need you to do is to become a member and support our work.”
NEFU was founded in 2006 as a charter member of the National Farmers Union, an agricultural advocacy organization, and is growing strong in membership every day. NEFU is hard at work, strengthening New England’s agricultural communities by having impact on policies such in areas such as dairy, direct sales, sustainability, conservation, energy and food security.
But for us masochists out there who like to dig knee-deep into Farm Bill details [and I am one of those people], you can read Daniel Imhoff’s super helpful and easy to understand new book, "FOOD FIGHT: The Citizen’s Guide to the NEXT Food and Farm Bill," published by Watershed Media, a non-profit based in Healdsburg, California.
Imhoff writes: “This book is specifically designed to demystify the incredibly complex Farm Bill into easily digestible chapters. It is a view of the Bill from 10,000 feet. Hopefully it will inspire citizens to take back programs that are so essential for public health, job creation, land stewardship, and even national security.” A nifty activist tool kit included in the book simplifes for the process for all people who want to have a voice in the next go around.
And Imhoff, in his chapter on Pubic Health and Nutrition, also advocates for a local food perspective on this upcoming bill as an antidote to better health of citizens throughout the country: "There is no reason a healthy food movement could not radiate through all levels of society. Farmers markets could serve as hubs of nutrition and culinary education and healthy food distribution."
And for those Northeasterners who really want to get down and dirty, the American Farmland Trust, Wholesome Wave, Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and New England Farmers Union have put together the Northeast Farm Bill Agenda that explains the need to know facts about what’s at stake for USDA programs that protect farmland, address environmental challenges, improve food access, and revitalize local and regional food systems in the Northeast.
“North Dakota may have the Chair and the Vice Chair and the Vice Vice Chair of the Agriculture Committee in Congress,” says Cheatham, “but they only have 3 members of Congress! 3! The Northeast has 35 members of Congress, we have tremendous energy here in the Northeast, a lot of will power. A lot of people care about this here. Let’s make it a People’s Food Bill!”