>Food in Washington: Two important new developments

>John Adams did it. Eleanor Roosevelt did it. The Clintons even had a few pots of it on the White House roof. Now, though, the Obamas are promoting the plants in a bigger way than ever before: a 1100 square foot vegetable garden just outside their back door.

A class of third-graders helped Michelle Obama break ground for the new garden on March 20th, creating an oasis of potential food in the otherwise immaculate house lawn (I commend her budget-minded use of free child labor). The entire Obama family plans on pitching in to keep the organic garden going through the growing season.
Why vegetables and why now? The plan didn’t come from thin air – food policy activists have lobbied the president for months to set this example for Americans, although Ms. Obama has cites her motivations as desire to increase the freshness of the produce her family consumes. Of course, there’ s more to it than that. Home gardens like this one are a simple, direct way to localize the food system and have the added benefit of educating the neighbors about diet and maybe even food politics. Although the idea is gaining momentum among the general public, it still has elite and/or west-coast-hippie-weirdo connotations, fears that will likely be alleviated by the sight of the Obamas getting their hands dirty and eating arugula.
The plan is not without historical precedent. Sixty years ago, Victory Gardens – as popularized by Eleanor Roosevelt – were incredibly successful in alleviating hunger and freeing up cash to fight a war. Today, hunger is still a concern, the underlying cause being that suddenly none of us have any more cash. The article about the presidential garden in the New York Times noted that the total cost of seeds, mulch and other supplies was $200 – a start-up cost that will be greatly reduced in future years.

This development demonstrates that the Obamas and others in Washington clearly have food system sustainability on their minds, even if they may not point directly to it for political reasons. That’s why I was surprised to get an email this week that cried out alarmingly from my inbox with the subject heading “Government may forbid organic farming!”
Well, it grabs your attention way more than “A House bill that is still in committee proposes reorganizing the FDA and placing greater surveillance on food production and processing,” but that’s really what the email was about. The scare was focused on H.R. 875, which is similar to another proposed bill, H.R. 759. The bills were written in response to the peanut scare and other recent food safety problems. H.R. 875, the “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009” seems to be overkill, creating a Food Safety Administration under the Department of Health and allowing the FDA to mandate recalls (currently they can only “recommend” them, which they recently did for the salmonella-tainted peanuts). However, it says nothing specific about organics and in no way bans private vegetable gardens or seed saving, as the Ron Paul diehards who probably inspired the email I received are proclaiming.
Still, any legislation that requires small, organic farmers to undergo more inspections and fill out more paperwork will certainly hurt those businesses. Here’s what Oregon Representative Peter Defazio has to say on the matter:
“I am certainly mindful of the impact on small farmers this bill could have. My district is home to many wonderful specialty crops with small-scale producers, and I have been a backyard gardener for years. Routine inspections of farms would still remain under the jurisdiction of states. FDA officials will not be showing up on farms to inspect it on a regular basis. There is no language in the bill that would penalize or shut down backyard farmers.” (From a form email response to one I sent him.)

That pretty much resolved my qualms, though I still question why there is no legislation, at least none that I’ve heard of, that actually addresses the underlying problem of our industrialized food system that led to the peanut problem and countless other food safety issues over the years. One need only recall the name “Peanut Corporation of America” to be reminded of the enormous scale and complexity of the processing pathways that typically lead from the peanut field to a package of Nut Butters at the corner store. It wasn’t the “Peanut Company of Alabama” or the “Nut Processing Cooperative of Skippy County” that was running the rat-infested, leaky factory. We should know by now that having a huge, centralized processing facility run by a single entity makes it impossible to track and monitor food processing – be it for tomatoes, beef, spinach or Mr. Peanut. The system is simply too vast humans to control it. And the Ron Paulians, of all people, should recognize that.

Despite the false starts, there are good signs here that food policy is moving in the right direction in this country at last. If the Obamas have a vegetable garden and people are at least recognizing that the FDA is dysfunctional, it’s a good start. Get out there and play in the dirt, lawmakers, and let’s see what else we can uproot and change.


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