An Iowa Notebook: Food and Politics on My Mind

7184415.jpgAs we head into the Iowa caucus today, the intersection of food and politics couldn’t be more apparent. Is it possible for Federal policy makers to really work to improve our food system?

Last year around this time, I traveled to Iowa to research sustainable farming practices amongst corn and soy farmers. Over 90 percent of the state is in farmland. Ninety percent!—a vast quilt of green fields stitched together by country roads. The state is one of the top agricultural producers in the country. During the winter it’s a beautiful landscape: snow-covered gently rolling farmland sprinkled with barns, homes and the not-so-occasional tractor dealership.  My colleague, a kindred local and seasonal food advocate, and I spent our 10-day trip traveling this land, interviewing its denizens and working up an appetite. The research went really well. The nourishment, however, did not.

As a food allergy sufferer and overall-health obsessed individual, after two days of diners and grease-laden meals, I noticed that exercise was harder, my mind was not as sharp, and my overall mood was dampened. The irony was obvious: in a state that produces so much food, it was nearly impossible to find healthy things to eat.

Now, during a caucus where we look towards Iowa to give us some insights into the political climate of our country, a similar irony confronts us: sure, we’ve got tons of corn and soy, but we are still completely lacking access and availability of good (and good-for-you) food for all of our citizens. Thankfully, change is afoot, and as evidenced in this week’s news.

Steve Holt writes in Civil Eats on why our national focus is so far away from food. In a political arena where energy-costs and and social issues like abortion and gun-control are among the most-galvanizing platforms, candidates are not prone to talk about food. Holt shares a story told by Kurt Michael Friese, an Iowan food activist:

In a state where corporatization and consolidation has dramatically cut into the number of smaller, family-run farms, sustainable agriculture advocates are generally outnumbered when candidates show up in Iowa. Friese remembers cornering then-Senator Barack Obama at a 2007 Earth Day rally in Iowa City and asking him what he would do to transform an industrialized food system. After indicating that he’d been moved by a recent Michael Pollan column in TheNew York Times, Obama followed with a sobering piece of advice: “If you want to do anything in Washington about [the food system], you’ve got to bring me 1 million people. That’s the only thing that will counteract the billions of lobbyist dollars.”

One of the most outspoken advocates of making food a centerpiece of this year’s elections is the group Plate of the Union. A joint effort between Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Food Policy Action, and HEAL Food Alliance, this group pushes for the next president (whoever he or she may be) to take “bold action” to reform our nation’s food system.

Referencing a recently released report published by UCS entitled Growing Economies, Ricardo Salvador argues in his recent blog post that while in Iowa, presidential candidates can promise to support policies that would bolster rural communities and create billions of dollars in economic growth in the state. The trick is creating and supporting policies that focus on local food production: 

We should rework our nation’s food and agriculture policy system to emphasize the goals of improved public health, an enhanced environment, and renewed rural economies. These are the things all Americans can agree are worth the investment of our public dollars. Policies that return midsize farms to the land and connect them with markets will move us closer to those goals. In this political season, presidential candidates should seize the opportunity to improve the nation’s food and farm system for the benefit of us all, and to give Iowans (and all of us) actual lasting solutions.

Given my experience with food in Iowa, I would wholeheartedly support any initiative that would get something other than iceberg lettuce and unfrozen french fries on my plate when I return. It’s also worth noting that appealing to Iowan inclinations towards progressive food system changes that move away from industrialized agriculture has succeeded before. David Murphy of Medium recounts President Barack Obama’s 2007 Iowa speech in which he, believe it or not, promised to stand up to Big Agribusiness, label GMO’s and create rural policies that support rural economies: Here’s a quote, but I highly encourage you to read the article and watch the embedded videos of his speech.

For an expensive steak, a small farmer gets less than a dollar. For a loaf of bread, it’s a dime. That’s what happens when rural policy gets made in backrooms with lobbyists in Washington. That’s what I’ll fight to change from my first day in office. And that’s what my rural agenda is all about. Leadership that finally works for rural Americans, not well-connected lobbyists.”

Obama’s last eight-years may not have been as food-focused as some would have liked to see, but that is not to say that the administration has not had its moments. For instance, the USDA recently announced 27 communities in 22 states selected to be a part of the Local Foods, Local Places initiative which will, among other things, promote childhood wellness by improving access to healthy, local food. While 27 communities represent a drop in the bucket compared to thousands that need support and help, this is an example of how Federal policy can work to support local and healthy food in meaningful ways.

And, yes, it’s true the definition of “healthy food” is difficult to come by, as Michael Ruhlman pointed out in his recent Washington Post article. But we need not necessarily know the optimum amount of daily riboflavin intake to make some general improvements in the way our country approaches food.

For instance, at the end of last year, Tamar Haspel, food columnist for the Washington Post, gave us her 10 Things We Should Do To Fix Our Broken Food System. We’ve seen this list before via our friend Ellen Gustafson and in a Plate of the Union Initiative announcement written by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier DeSchutter. Showing up somewhere on all of these lists is a call to label our food in a way that is fair to consumers.

Legislators and citizens alike are now working towards these measures. Led by Bernie Sanders, Democratic Senators recently wrote a letter to the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) expressing their concern over the GMA’s proposed “Smart Label” technology for food labeling. The Grocery Manufacturer's Association has been working tirelessly to prevent meaningful labeling laws, and the Smart Label is regarded as a confusing tool by many. On a similar note, the group Citizens for Labeling GMOs (CLGMO) recently met with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to express their concerns and try to find some common ground. Though Tara Cook-Littman of CLGMO reported that “there was not enough common ground to emerge from that room with a GMO Labeling proposal agreed upon by leaders from both camps,” the concerted efforts of groups like CLGMO, Just Label It and the Right to Know campaigns show that this is an issue that won’t be abandoned.

And there’s more work and research happening on a daily and weekly basis that supports transitioning our country from an industrialized food economy to a system that is more sustainable for human and planetary health. Chris Hunt of EcoCentric recently highlighted the work of  The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a group working towards placing value on ecosystem services and biodiversity so that policy makers can be better informed when making decisions about land use, agriculture, rural communities and natural resources

After 10 days of traveling through rural Iowa and foraging what I could in line with my various food sensitivities and skepticism (let’s be honest, a filet mignon that costs only $7.50 is concerning for many reasons that I didn’t care to explore), I was not myself—but we left our research trip with tons of great data and a new appreciation for all of the work that needs to be done to improve our food systems. I am immensely privileged to live in an area where I have access to nutritious food, and that I have the time, education, and finances to consume it. That’s the problem—good nutrition and health should not be a privilege afforded to some.


Read all stories by Damon Cory-Watson


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