Looking for Jobs? Check Under That Hay Bale

08/11/2011 05:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2011

Another day, another pathetic sputter from our stalling economy. July's jobs report found that only 18,000 jobs were added to our national roster in June, down from several hundred thousand per month in the first three months of this year. In her aptly titled "Below the Beltway" blog for the Chronicle, Carolyn Lochead pours salt on the wound by noting that the people who are working must work far more hours now than they did a generation ago -- 26 percent more than in 1975 -- in order to maintain the same standard of living.

If Obama is looking for a win next November, this doesn't sound like a recipe for success.

But recipes, as it turn out, may hold one key to success. More specifically, the stuff that goes into recipes. I'm talking about food. And not about using it to expand our waistlines, but to expand employment.

Here in the Bay Area, we like our food. We're especially big fans of all things local, sustainable, and -- if we're lucky -- sourced from farmers that we actually know. But if you've ever searched the supermarket for a grass-fed steak, greens that weren't bagged on a conveyor belt by a robot, or eggs that didn't come from a factory farm, you know that they're not always easy to find. Even our beloved Berkeley Bowl looks a little less bountiful when you learn that one company is behind four of the egg brands the store offers, and that "cage free" only means they are free to roam around a giant factory barn with thousands of their brethren.

So when it comes to demand for local foods in the Bay Area, there's no shortage. What about supply? That's where things get a little weird. Despite the growing interest in, say, grass-fed beef, California has lost half of its small and midsized family cattle ranches in the last 20 years. Gone under. Kaput. Mid-sized farms -- those that grow enough to supply a supermarket or a school but that aren't doing it industrial-style -- are similarly absent from the scene. Our food landscape looks a lot like an upside-down bell curve, with a whole lot of tiny farms selling to CSAs or farmers markets and a whole lot of massive farms producing on a large scale and exporting many of their products. In the middle, there's nothing.

That's the hole that innovative policymakers should try to fill with jobs.

Starting with California native Walter Goldschmidt's groundbreaking work in the 1940s, studies have repeatedly shown that communities with many small and midsized farms are better off in terms of education levels, poverty rates, wages and other socioeconomic indicators than are communities dominated by industrial farms. (Here's a 2002 Missouri study with the same conclusion.)

The state of our food system looks particularly terrible in light of those findings.

The midsized family farms that used to dominate U.S. agriculture are disappearing, and with them, the jobs they once brought on and off the farm. That's largely a consequence of the fact that over the last few decades, the number of companies that buy food from farmers, process it, and distribute it to consumers has shrunk while the size of the few left has grown dramatically.

The handful of massive companies that remain -- think Tyson, Kraft, Cargill -- have gone all Wal-Mart on family farmers, pushing down the prices that farmers get for their products and signing preferential contracts with the biggest producers. Hey family farmer, can't make a living selling your crop for a loss? Tough luck.

That's why farm families get most of their income from off-farm jobs. According to the research of Tufts University's Timothy Wise (report here, or watch a great short video on the research here), the average midsized family farmer in the United States makes a mere $19,000 a year from farming full time. And nearly half of that $19,000 is government payments! Yes, as much as we may dislike subsidies, without them those family farmers are looking at $10k a year from a full-time farm job. Talk about having to work hard to make a decent living.

That sucks for consumers too, who want to be supporting family farmers when we plunk down our money at the store. Unfortunately, the share of our food buck that makes it back to the farm is at an all-time low -- only 15 cents out of every dollar. The rest goes to giant processors, marketers, and retail chains.

Ok, so a few things are clear. Bay Area eaters want more local, sustainable and healthy food. The producers best positioned to provide it are scraping by or going under, unable to get their hands on enough revenue. And standing between these two groups is a tiny number of very large companies that are having a pretty darn good year.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that government has a responsibility to step in when the market is clearly not working. This is not a problem that we can shop our way out of -- that's just the point. But given the challenges to getting the government to do the right thing these days, it's going to take a politically organized California to tell our policymakers what we want, and make it clear that their reelection depends on getting it done.

We've got our work cut out for us. Strong new rules to scale back the power of giant meatpacking companies and help keep California's family ranchers in business are now stalled at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (I go off on this issue in more detail here), and our congressional delegation should be putting the pressure on to get them finalized. The House's devastating 2012 budget cuts programs that finance local and regional food infrastructure -- I'm talking about local meat processing, cold storage for small and midsized farmers' crops, and distribution hubs -- and will make it all the harder to rebuild alternatives to the industrial food chain. Senators Boxer and Feinstein should defend these programs and others like them this summer when the Senate crafts its budget proposal.

Our members of Congress should do this because it's right, but they should also do it because it's smart. California has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation. We have cities full of folks wanting more local and sustainable food. We know, thanks to 70 years of research, that midsized farms are the best source of community economic development among all farm types because they generate significant local jobs both on and off the farm and keep profits in the community. So what are we waiting for?

Finding the solution to our job crisis shouldn't take a rocket scientist. We just need to look down at our plates.

Elanor Starmer is the Western Region Director of Food & Water Watch, based in San Francisco. Learn more and join their campaign for fair food policy here.