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McCain, Roberts, and Chambliss: Wrong, Wrong, and WrongPrint

Food & Farming | May 3, 2010 | By Diane Conners

Three U.S. senators are criticizing a federal local food and farming program for helping “small, hobbyist and organic producers” reach “affluent patrons.”

I just spent five days in Phoenix, Ariz., with 650 farmers, researchers, health professionals, young people, and community advocates from across the country who are working on new markets for farms, economic development for communities, and healthy diets for children-based largely on buying, selling, and eating locally grown foods.

But while I was at the gathering, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 10th Annual Food & Community Networking Meeting, something happened in Washington, D.C., that felt absolutely surreal.

Three senators-including Senator John McCain, of Arizona-wrote a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture stating their “serious misgivings” regarding the USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative.

The initiative is, according to USDA, an agency-wide effort “to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers.” USDA has, for example, explained in common, everyday language on its Web site how farmers, schools, and community groups can apply for existing USDA grant funds to develop these economic opportunities.

To the senators, however, the program is “aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.” The letter, dated April 27, 2010, was from McCain and two fellow Republicans, Senators Pat Roberts, of Kansas and Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia.

So, is helping farmers hook up with affluent customers a bad thing? Even if it is, the letter’s suggestion that the local food movement is just about affluent customers and hobby farmers is plain wrong.

At the Arizona conference, farmers told us success stories about the new markets they’ve secured by selling more of their products to local schools. Experts talked about a new poll from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation showing that most Americans see childhood obesity as a problem-or even a crisis. They also see improving school food with more fresh fruits and vegetables, along with exercise, as a priority.

Inner city youth told us about turning blighted urban lots into community gardens and urban farms-a huge accomplishment that brings fresh fruit and vegetables to neighborhoods that would otherwise have none, no matter anyone’s income, because the only “food” stores there sell nothing but highly processed junk.

And I heard from community advocates who are helping farmers get their food into stores that serve low-income families-and watched a powerful video of those families talking about how pleased they are to be able to buy such good food for their children when it’s in season, at peak flavor.

Farming as a hobby? Wrong again: The farmers I met in Arizona, just like the ones I work with all of the time in northwest Lower Michigan, are working mightily to make a living.

Certainly, large-scale farms are a part of the agricultural scene. But just as diversity makes for a stronger eco-system or investment portfolio, it also makes for a stronger agricultural system.

Just look to Sen. Roberts’ state of Kansas for a prime example of success-Good Natured Family Farms. Highlighted at the Arizona conference, this cooperative of about 100 small and mid-size family farms from Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska is making millions of dollars in annual retail sales through a strong marketing effort with a local grocery chain.

And here’s another example of just how far off base the letter the senators sent to Tom Vilsack, head of USDA, is:

The USDA, Senators McCain, Roberts, and Chambliss said, should not spend federal funds on “feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture.”

Those realities, of course, include spending billions of dollars on subsidies for large-scale agricultural producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. Meanwhile, the “feel good” grants the senators criticize are in the millions.

In rural northwest Lower Michigan, where the Michigan Land Use Institute works with farmers, retailers, schools, and officials to promote local food markets, we know of a school that’s considering applying for one of those grants. The school is thinking it would use the funds to equip one of its kitchens to process local fruit purchased from farmers when it’s in season, in the summer, so students can enjoy it-and feed themselves well with it-during the school year.

Hey, that does feel good! At least the senators are right about that.

And if you’d like to let them know your thoughts about their letter, you can contact Senator McCain here, Senator Roberts here, and Senator Chambliss here.

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist in food and farming at the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she leads the organization’s farm-to-school programming and other efforts to connect kids, families, health programs, and community institutions to locally grown food. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.