Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Healthy food & farms: How will Congress vote?

I am neither a farmer nor an octogenarian, yet images of the disastrous U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s are forever etched in my memory. What I am is a mom, who is well aware of how children's health is linked to the food our kids eat — in all kinds of ways. And these two things are are inextricably linked through our food system, and the policies that shape it.

How farmers treat the soil and how they grow and market our food determines, in the big picture, the health of our children. The choices farmers have and the decisions they make are strongly influenced by government policies — policies that are being crafted this week as the Farm Bill moves forward on Capitol Hill. 

The Senate Agriculture Committee tackled the Farm Bill this morning, and the House will dive in tomorrow. Check here to see if your representative is on the agriculture committee. If so, visit (and share!) this alert, which outlines simple messages for these representatives, telling them exactly what we want in the 2013 Farm Bill.

Good policy for farmers, bees — & kids health

Protecting soil was the wise and necessary government response to the dust bowl. In 1935 Congress established what was later named the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) — the primary agency responsible for implementing U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs. NRCS provides some excellent resources on good soil management as part of their wise focus on soil:

"As world population and food production demands rise, keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance. So much so that NRCS believes improving the health of our nation’s soil is one of the most important endeavors of our time."

In addition to soil conservation, NRCS in California, for example, supports a wide variety of conservation programs including protection of honey bees and other vital pollinators. Since 2009, California’s innovative landowners have added over 105 miles of hedgerows, more than half the nation’s total and collectively provide habitat for more than 1,500 species of native pollinators and other birds and wildlife.

It’s taken Congress a little longer to realize farm policy's role in protecting and promoting healthy eating. Nothing is more important to kids’good health than a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Yet in recent history our food system and the policies that drive it have not delivered.

Overall, it’s a system in which less nutritious, processed food is ubiquitous and cheaper than healthy, fresh food. And new science indicates that in addition to dietary choices, pesticide exposure is also part of the story and may play a role in increasing rates of childhood diseases and disorders. This needs to change.

A good 2013 Farm Bill is the opportunity to start making this happen. Read on.

Key messages to the House

In 1997 USDA began a comprehensive effort to connect small farms to school meals, a program substantially improved in the 2008 Farm Bill. As a result, although obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases are still rampant, we now know what kinds of food policies Congress should support.

School gardens are among those programs; and as the California Department of Education reports a number of educational and health benefits of school gardens including improvements in cognitive performance and academic achievement.

The 2013 Farm Bill must help make such programs happen. When I make my calls today, I am asking my representative to support two specific amendments, and to strip out two dangerous provisions in the House draft of the Farm Bill:

1. Support Rep. Nolan’s amendments (#58 & #59) that will protect our nation’s air, soil, and water by increasing the enrollment cap for the popular Conservation Stewardship Program and streamlining the program’s ranking process to encourage more efficient conservation practices. 

2. Support Rep. Kuster’s amendment (#28) that will improve the very important Environmental Quality Incentives Program — so that organic and transitioning farmers can better access the program.

3. Strip sections 10012 and 10013 of the current draft, which weaken protections from pesticide harms for waterways and wildlife across the country.

On the issue of food and justice, I'll also urge my representative to support Rep. Negrete-McLeod’s amendment (#4) that will make it easier for shoppers using food stamps (SNAP) to access fresh, healthy food at direct-to-consumer markets including local CSA’s. This is a very good idea.

What's to follow

Today and tomorrow, I'm calling my legislators and telling them to do right by farmers across the country — and by my daughter's health. Please join me, and tell your friends and family to do the same.

After the flurry this week, there will be more coming as the bill goes into joint conference and eventually comes to the floor for a vote. Rest assured we'll call on you again to help out.

In the meantime, you can get up-to-date Farm Bill news by visiting the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition online.

Thanks again for your support and action.

Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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