THE BLOG
05/15/2008 11:32 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who'll Cure Our Kids, Big Pharma Or Small Farmers?

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Isn't it kind of odd for a culture that trumpets its 'family values' to treat its children like cattle, fattening them up on corn and soy by-products? We love our kids so much we've let Big Food turn them into cash cows for Big Pharma. A just-released study estimates that "about 1.2 million American children now are taking pills for Type 2 diabetes, sleeping troubles and gastrointestinal problems such as heartburn."

Of course, they're just aping their elders; as the study shows, we're the most medicated people on the planet. Apparently, our blessed way of life is a risk factor for depression, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, and any other malady for which Madison Avenue can find a market. Are parents counting on pills to compensate for their children's lousy diet and lack of exercise? As Dr. Daniel W. Jones, president of the American Heart Association, told the AP:

"Unless we do things to change the way we're managing health in this country...things will get worse instead of getting better." Jones noted that "body weights are so much higher in children in general, and so we're going to have larger numbers of adults who develop high blood pressure or abnormal cholesterol or diabetes at an earlier age."

Conservatives and liberals can't agree on how to tackle this impending catastrophe. Remember Hillary Clinton's book It Takes A Village? Its premise--that we have a collective stake in the well-being of every child--raised the hackles of the Let 'Em Eat TastyKakes contingent and inspired a rebuttal from Republican Senator Rick Santorum entitled It Takes A Family.

What it really takes, though, is a family farmer to provide us with fresh, healthy produce. The more fresh fruits and vegetables we pile on our plates, the less pills we need from the medicine cabinet, as the New York Times noted on Tuesday in an article entitled Eating Your Way To A Sturdy Heart. And a study released last month by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy confirmed that people who lack access to fresh produce face "a significantly higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes regardless of individual or community income."

But we haven't got enough family farmers to keep our fridges filled, as chef Dan Barber noted in a Sunday New York Times op-ed:

As demand for fresh, local food rises, we cannot continue to rely entirely on farmers' markets. Asking every farmer to plant, harvest, drive his pickup truck to a market and sell his goods there is like asking me to cook, take reservations, serve and wash the dishes.

We now need to support a system of well-coordinated regional farm networks, each suited to the food it can best grow...

But regional systems will work only if there is enough small-scale farming going on to make them viable.

Sadly, support for family farmers hasn't exactly been a cornerstone of any of our presidential candidates' campaigns.

But there's another Hilary who's made it her mission to champion local agriculture--Hilary Baum. Hilary's the president of Public Market Partners, a non-profit whose goals include putting real food back in our school cafeterias and supporting the small family farmers who grow that food.

Unlike the other Hillary--who's banking on bigotry to prop up her presidential prospects--my Hilary's a community builder, not a coalition crusher. Admittedly, she does belong to a dynasty, and one with ties to the CIA. The Culinary Institute of America inducted her father, Joe Baum, the legendary restaurateur who founded The Four Seasons and Windows on the World, and restored The Rainbow Room, into its Hall of Fame.

He could have rested on his laurels, but to borrow a Clinton theme song, Joe Baum never stopped thinking about tomorrow. So he founded the Joe Baum Forum of the Future, a seminar series that focused on the future of the food industry.

When he died in 1998, Hilary continued his legacy, organizing a series of historic conferences now known simply as the Baum Forum. These conferences bring together nutritionists, farmers, educators, public health advocates, chefs, community gardeners, greenmarket leaders, activists, and high-profile folks devoted to revitalizing our local food systems and feeding our children well, including Michael Pollan, Frances and Anna Lappé, Dr. Marion Nestle, Dr. Andrew Weil, and Alice Waters.

But the good food movement's got a tough row to hoe when the food industry spends some $15 billion annually to market unhealthy foods to kids. And the latest version of that $300 billion bit of legislation we bucolically call the Farm Bill--which the House just passed Wednesday afternoon with enough votes to override President Bush's threatened veto--continues to favor industrial agriculture while doing little to help small farmers.

This year's Baum Forum, entitled Schools, Food & Community, was held last month at Teachers College Columbia University and kicked off with a discussion of the need to teach our children media literacy. As one of the speakers, Melinda Hemmelgarn, a nutrition and communications consultant, noted, the food industry has a positively predatory relationship to our kids, using every trick under the sun to make kids crave their crappy products. We need to teach our kids how to dissect these messages instead of swallowing them whole.

Hilary Baum's prescription for our sedentary, overstuffed little spuds is to get 'em while they're young--put the garden back in kindergarden and instill a lifelong appreciation of fresh fruits and vegetables and the gardeners and farmers who grow them.

At last year's Baum Forum, I heard several stories about kids who were utterly disconnected from nature; one community gardener talked about instructing a child to locate a tomato plant where it would get full sun, only to discover that the kid had never realized that the light changes depending on the time of day. Another urban ag advocate talked about how he had to provide kids with plastic bags to protect their precious sneakers before they'd deign to set foot in the garden.

At this year's Baum Forum, Jane S. Park, a curriculum specialist with Sesame Street, announced that the venerable kids' show is devoting its next two seasons to reconnecting kids with nature. I'm not sure how powerful Big Bird is compared to Big Ag, but I'm glad to see someone in the mainstream media--even if it's only the Muppets--doing something to save a generation of kids who don't know how food is grown and think that dirt is, well, dirty. Because that's a really unnatural state of affairs. Almost as unnatural as putting your kids on drugs in the name of making them healthy.