Change We Can Believe In: Obama's Food Agenda

04/24/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Food Policy Has Really Moved Up the Obama "To Do" List

Will food be the new New Deal? The new Great Society? Could it be the new focal point for the Obama administration?

No, of course -- I know, "It's the economy," and these days you don't even have to add the suffix, "stupid." Obama is focused on that and foreign policy issues, as he should be now. But still, it is clear that food policy may have moved into a position of national prominence unlike one it has ever held before. Food policy may distinguish the Obama administration in surprising ways.

How? It's what Senator Diane Feinstein told me, just after the inauguration.

(Truth be told, she also mentioned this to the 40 million or so other Americans who were watching this on TV when she gave the welcome remarks at the inaugural luncheon.) She said, "The recipe page was the most visited page of the inaugural web site."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made noises about being open to this kind of change, and his February installation of an organic garden outside the Agriculture Dept. is pretty demonstrative. He also seems open to improving the school nutrition programs in ways that will truly bring fresh and whole foods to schools, leading us away from a dependence on less nutritious surplus and industrially produced foods. And his recent appointment of Tufts University's Kathleen Merrigan, a sustainable agriculture guru, speaks volumes, considering Vilsack's connections to Iowa's agribusiness. That's impressive.

The administration seems like it will go beyond merely applauding writers like Michael Pollan and activists like Alice Waters, or the immensely satisfying creation of an organic garden in the White House -- thank you, Michelle Obama and all those who pushed for this. It has to go well beyond setting an example, important as that may be. All this warmth and awareness and enthusiasm needs to be channeled to support Vilsack now as he creates an innovative food policy.

Food policy is a positive movement, not a reactive one like those policies we need to develop for economic and security problems, though the peanut butter salmonella issue may inspire focus on the dangers of widely distributed processed food, which is food with a very long and hard-to-identify supply chain. With the director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety saying they can't determine how many more products might contain salmonella, and Kellogg's recalling 7 million cases of food, government must step in and find a way to prevent this kind of problem from recurring.

We may not all be foodies, but there is hope that this current profound interest in food signals that the tipping point has been reached -- and now is the time to get the government and the general population in sync to reform what has been called agricultural policy.

That means the next Farm Bill will be written in ways that vastly improve food quality, safety, price, and availability, and that the bulk of us may begin to understand how seemingly different concerns (farm subsidies, industrial farming, meat-based diets, national security, foreign relations, general health, nutrition, poverty, and so on) all have direct impact or are affected by the general area of food policy.

If the Obama administration deals well with this, it will impact so positively on all the usual areas of policy that it could become one of the enduring descriptors of the next four years.

A good food policy incorporates so many other policies that it is a kind of string theory for life. If food isn't central to life, what is?

Let's take inspiration from the public's interest in the food details on the inaugural web page and the hoopla around the new gardens and build on the momentum. Moving food policy up a notch is a lot of change we can believe in.