10/24/2011 11:10 am ET | Updated Nov 05, 2014

Celebrate Food Day by Telling Congress to Support Local Food


In June, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree (left) met with farmers in her state, including Jack and Ellen McAdam, the owners of McDougal Orchards in Sanford. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Pingree)


Two months ago I wrote about National Farmers Market Week. Today I want to tell you about the first annual Food Day, which happens to be, you guessed it, today. The message is similar, and it's simple: Phood is not food, and fat is definitely not phat.

"The American diet is contributing to weight gain, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and other diet-related diseases," says Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the nonprofit that organized Food Day. "Plus, our food is often produced in a way that's harmful to the environment, food and farm workers, and animals. We hope Food Day inspires Americans to change their diets for the better, and to push for positive changes in food and farm policy."

To that end, CSPI and its 125 partners are hosting thousands of events across the country, from a celebration in New York City's Union Square with Grow NYC's Greenmarket to the Denver Botanical Gardens' food conference to an Eat Local Now! dinner in Seattle. To find out what's going on in your area, go to the Food Day website.

Jacobson correctly points out that it isn't enough for Americans to change their diets--although given that about a third of U.S. adults are obese, that would be a good start. The other half of the equation is that as citizens, we need to get more involved in the decisions our elected officials make across the board. Unfortunately, those decisions are too often swayed by corporate lobbyists, leading to such perverse policies as prohibiting federally supported farmers who grow commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat, from growing fruits and vegetables.

The fact is, if most Americans followed the advice of the new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food icon for personal nutrition, MyPlate (or better yet, the Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy Eating Plate) by eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat, there wouldn't be enough U.S.-grown produce to meet the demand.

A 2008 Michigan study in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition tells the national story in microcosm. To meet the recommendations of MyPlate's less-user-friendly predecessor, the USDA's food pyramid, the study found that Michigan residents would have to eat more than twice as much fruit and nearly twice as many vegetables. If all of that produce were grown in the state, Michigan farmers would have to increase their annual production of fruit and vegetables by 145.8 million pounds and 538.5 million pounds respectively. That would require switching 10,209 acres currently dedicated to commodity crops to fruit and another 27,244 acres to vegetables.

Not only would doubling the demand for fruits and vegetables in Michigan make state residents healthier, the study found that it would generate 1,780 new jobs in the state and boost the local economy by $211 million annually.

A more recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), "Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems," came to a similar conclusion: Locally grown food not only provides better choices for local residents, it creates jobs, keeps money circulating in local economies, promotes community development, and reduces the environmental and public health costs of food.

So it's one thing for the USDA to tell Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, but quite another to ensure that federal agriculture policy encourages farmers to grow more. This week, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) will introduce the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act to promote organic farming, local and regional farmers, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture networks, and assist schools and low-income Americans to buy healthy food at local markets. One of its key provisions would allow commodity crop farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. Although Rep. Pingree and Sen. Brown are introducing the proposal as a stand-alone bill, with enough support, it could become part of the upcoming Farm Bill.

"We need a smarter federal food policy that fosters economic growth and healthier food choices," says Jeff O'Hara, an economist with UCS's Food and Environment Program and author of the "Market Forces" report. "The bill Representative Pingree and Senator Brown are introducing this week is a shining example of what I'm talking about. The most important thing Americans can do on Food Day is tell Congress to support this new, job-creating local food bill."

So after you fill yourself up with fruits and vegetables at a Food Day event, why not contact your representative and senators and tell them to support the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act? UCS makes it easy to do that. All you have to do is go to our website and fill out the form.

Elliott Negin is the director of news & commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists.