Like hundreds of others across the country, my neighborhood in Brooklyn got a farmers market a few years ago. Now, with summer in full swing, I can spend any Saturday morning wandering in fresh-food bliss. But I am certainly not taking a single Bing cherry for granted. I know that for most of us, including many millions here in New York City, it's a lot easier to find a Colt 45 than a farmers market.
Presidential candidate John Edwards likes to point out that we have two Americas when it comes to health care: one for the rich and one for everybody else.
Well, we have two Americas of food, too. For the rich and well-located -- often, though not always, synonymous -- we have the booming local foods movement, with more than 4,000 farmers markets now dotting the country. For the rest, we've got the wilted lettuce of bodegas and the high-calorie time-bombs of fast food.
This "other" America of food has led to a health epidemic of diet-related illnesses, costing us one in ten health care dollars, and to widespread hunger, too. Today, 36 million Americans don't know where their next meal is coming from -- that's a figure nearly the size of the entire population of Canada.
So, how do we close this food gap? One answer is immediately before us, embodied in two little words: the Farm Bill, and Congress is debating it right now.
Policies set in the Farm Bill largely determine what food we produce, who has access to it, and whose health we prioritize as a nation. Renegotiated every five years, the Farm Bill shapes much about food system, determining how $90 billion in taxpayers' money is spent every year.
Because of policies in past Farm Bills most of our farmland isn't used to grow organic kale, it's used to raise commodity crops, like soy and corn for processed foods or concentrated animal feeding operations. Thanks to priorities in the Bill (or missing from it), today, nearly 100 percent of our meat is factory-farmed, hooked on antibiotics and hormones, and our fields are blanketed with manmade chemicals that poison thousands of farm workers annually and contribute to untold illnesses among us eaters.
With Farm Bill renegotiations in full swing, we have a small window -- shutting fast -- to bring the fairness we expect from our economy into the food chain. Hundreds of organizations -- from big environmental players to community food groups -- have been working on strategies to do just that. Here are some of their bright ideas:
* Support All Farmers: While the nation's largest farms get billions in Farm Bill subsidies, most farmers are left out completely. Currently, only four in ten farmers and ranchers get even a penny in subsidies. Virtually no fruit and vegetable farmers receive support. African-American, Hispanic and Native American farmers have also been historically sidelined, with devastating results. Since the 1920s, 97 percent of black farmers have lost their farms. The proposed New Farmer Development Program would provide grants, low-interest loans, and training to help these disadvantaged farmers start and expand farm businesses.
* Support Organic Research and Farming: Despite the skyrocketing demand for organic foods, just 3 percent of fruit and 2 percent of vegetables raised in the United States are grown organically and less than one percent of the federal agricultural research budget goes toward studying organic practices. Among other policies, advocates are pushing for mandatory allocations of a fair share of research dollars to organic research projects.
* Support Rural America: Every year, we lose more than one million acres of prime farmland as small- and medium-size farmers go out of business. The Healthy Food Enterprise Development Program would provide $25 million in new funding to repair and reinvigorate America's agricultural infrastructure. With this funding, small-scale farmers would have greater capacity not only to grow food, but also to store it, process it, and transport it, too, so they don't become one of thousands of farmers who lose their businesses every year.
* Support the Hungry: For the millions of food insecure Americans -- most of whom are women, children, and the elderly -- the Farm Bill's Food Stamps are a vital tool for fighting hunger. Yet, at current levels, Food Stamps only provide about $3 per person per day. Try getting three solid meals a day on that budget! Additional funding has been proposed not only to strengthen the Food Stamp Program, but also to make it easier for food stamp recipients to buy fresh food at farmers markets.
* Support Community Food Projects: Since legislation was introduced in the 1996 Farm Bill, more than 250 organizations have received funding to develop community-based solutions to their local food and farm problems. With only $5 million a year, these Community Food Projects have helped hundreds of communities make enormous strides in closing the food gap. Organizations like the Community Food Security Coalition are now asking for an increase to $60 million a year to extend this program's proven positive impact.
* Support Healthy School Meals: As local school-food heros across the country are showing us, school food doesn't need to be crummy. Several proposals now before Congress would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for our public schools, in many cases sourced directly from area farmers.
The 2007 Farm Bill can either continue to divide our country or it can ensure that farmers promoting sustainability and wellbeing get the support they need, and that all of us eaters -- no matter where we live or how much we make -- have access to healthy, local food. Our elected officials in Washington, DC, and those closer to home, should show us they have the wisdom to build one America where we no longer have a healthy food system for the few, but a healthy one for all.
Anna Lappé is the co-author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen and serves on the board of the Community Food Security Coalition.