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Food Politics

Politics of the Plate: Talking the Talk on Sustainable Food

The USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is a nice symbol, but will it actually change anything?

On issues related to local, sustainable agriculture, is the Obama administration really going to walk the walk?

Addressing the national summit of the Chefs Collaborative, an organization of chefs dedicated to using local, sustainable food, the USDA’s Ann Wright unveiled details of the government’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, a program that seeks to better connect consumers with local producers.

It was telling that Wright made her remarks in a Chicago culinary school at the very spot where, a few hours earlier, Greg Higgins, Chef/owner of Higgins restaurant in Portland, OR, deftly broke down an entire hog before a rapt audience of cooks who wanted to learn the butchering craft because pork from small farmers often arrives at the kitchen door intact, not neatly cut into serving portions and hermetically sealed.

The Chefs Collaborative gathering was an intense, practical event dedicated to helping the roughly 150 cooks in attendance source their food from neighboring producers. Discussions ranged from how to get your fish provider to tell you exactly where the seafood he sells comes from and when it was caught (“Tell him you won’t buy from him if he doesn’t,” said Polly Legendre of the San Francisco sustainable seafood distributor CleanFish; “you’d be surprised how quickly he’ll get you the information.”) to how to coax timid guests to try unconventional meats such as goat and cockscombs (“People come up to me and say, ‘My customers would never buy that,” said Tony Maws of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA; “my answer is, ‘That’s crap. They will eat it if it’s good.’”).

By contrast, the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative seemed a bit wishy-washy. The backbone of the program is a new website for the USDA’s existing 20-odd local-food support programs for local producers. The agency will contribute $50 million on school lunch programs to get more local produce into cafeterias. State-inspected meat and poultry slaughterhouses with 25 or fewer employees will now be allowed to ship products across state lines without the hassle and expense of USDA inspection. A farmers market will open near the White House.

“It’s a real symbol to the rest of the country that we care,” said Wright.

After the Bush era, I’m happy to hear federal bureaucrats uttering encouraging words (or any words, for that matter) about sustainable and local agriculture. So at the risk of sounding grumpy, I have to wonder if Wright inadvertently got to the heart of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food when she used the word “symbol.”

If the Obama crew really wants to help small farmers, what is it going to do about about the recently passed Food Safety Bill that will impose $500 annual fees and an enormous amount of expensive red tape on the small producers that Wright says she supports so strongly? What about the administration’s ongoing legal battle with seedsmen, environmental groups, and small, organic West Coast farmers who are suing to stop neighboring larger farmers from contaminating their crops with genetically modified sugar beets? Why hasn’t Wright’s agency stepped in to fix the National Organic Program, which was rendered dysfunctional under the Bush administration?

I’m all in favor of a $50 million school lunch program. The $4.8 million in grants that the USDA will spend to spur job growth in rural communities is perfectly fine. But the fact is that most of the programs Wright touted were made law in the 2008 Farm Bill, which was passed under the previous administration. And let’s keep this all in perspective: The money going to know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a joke. The Farm Bill will dole out $35 BILLION in subsidies to the huge agribusiness companies that produce most of our corn, wheat, and soybeans. And as Wright told a questioner after her address, that isn’t going to change.

Until it does, the administration’s talk is just that—talk.