If you picked up the most recent Sunday edition of The Oregonian, perhaps you saw Associate Editor David Sarasohn’s op-ed. In his piece, Sarasohn cited the global food riots, rising food costs and the failures of the Farm Bill to argue for the creation of a cabinet-level “Secretary of Food” in the US government. (You can read the full text here.) I must say that I find it encouraging to see the paper’s editorial staff devoting column space to food issues. And yet, while I agree with many of his points, I can’t help but feel that his argument is rooted in a logic indicative of our country’s confused relationship with food.
I like Sarasohn’s premise: we do need to make dramatic changes to American food policy and this could be the first step in making up for the missed opportunities of the most recent Farm Bill. While I won’t begin to wade into all of the intricacies of the Farm Bill (see Ethicurean or Grist for a better analysis), one of the obstacles that prevented widespread reform in this last legislative session was that lawmakers on every side of the issue were involved in a complex set of political compromises. “I’ll support your food stamps program,” they say to one another, “if you back me up on subsidies.” Thus, the many critics of the current, wildly inequitable subsidy system were wan to vote against the bill for fear of losing their hard-bargained-for gains in food security or sustainability. So, I am most certainly in agreement with Sarasohn that we need to divest our future food policy from its political dependency on a system that promotes mono-culture commodity crops. The small, but important victories for the Conservation and Community Food Projects titles should never be jeopardized by the threat of a veto to a subsidy-inflated bill.
However, I take issue with Sarasohn’s contention that, “it’s time to carve food policy out of the Department of Agriculture, which is understandably focused on farming and rural issues.” In my mind, the belief that you can separate food from “farming and rural issues” is part of what set us on our path to the current food crisis. The majority of Sarasohn’s arguments for a Secretary of Food emphasize food security and hunger, but simply put, you can not split “urban” hunger from rural concerns. For one thing, low-income access to food is not an exclusively urban problem: America’s Second Harvest, the food bank network, states that 42.6% of all client households are served by suburban and rural programs. This is an incredibly high number considering that these are the very communities that produce food for the rest of the nation.
In order to remedy domestic and international food insecurity, we need to reconnect food policy with agriculture. Programs that honor food stamps at farmer’s markets or encourage schools to source ingredients from local growers are both examples of “urban” programs that directly rely on rural agriculture. Access to good, clean, and fair food means protection of rural areas and real agriculture in proximity to cities. Farmer Zoe Bradbury recently wrote about one of the most significant factors in the mounting food crisis: we simply have too few farmers. At its most basic level, future food security will depend on improved farmer assistance programs and support for young citizens who choose to go into farming.
Of course, I say all of this not because I am opposed to Sarasohn’s suggestion, but because the potential in his idea is so exciting. Food issues are far too interdisciplinary to merely create a “Department of Homeland Cooking,” as he recommends doing, which implies a singular focus on the end consumption. Our nation’s access to healthy, sustainable foods can be protected through empowering more people to farm, by strengthening rural communities, and by re-connecting those rural economies with the urban areas they support. The U.S. should be a leader on this issue, but first we need to better understand where our food comes from. Perhaps we would be better to call any new bureau the “Department of Healthy Communities.”