Marion Nestle Talks 2012 Farm Bill and What it Means for Everyone

Later this month, Steinhardt’s own Marion Nestle will be participating in Fales Library’s latest panel, “How Would Julia Child Vote on the 2012 Farm Bill: Culinarian Interests and Obligations.” Professor Nestle explains the complexities of this important piece of legislation to At-A-Glance.

1). First and foremost, what is the 2012 Farm Bill?

It’s the latest iteration of legislation first passed in 1933 and reviewed and renegotiated every five years or so.  Congress passed the most recent one in 2008.  The bill governs agricultural policy in the United States–farm supports, rural development, and food aid, among other such things—at a total cost of about $85 billion a year.  Of this amount, the vast majority–$72 billion–goes for food stamp benefits.  What food assistance is doing in the farm bill is a long saga, but it is only one of many irrational aspects.  You might think the farm bill would be a well thought out attempt to meet the nation’s food needs, support farmers, and promote health, but no such luck.  The farm support parts of the bill include literally hundreds of programs that provide handouts to one or another congressional constituency—corporate welfare at its most egregious.

2). In a panel earlier this month titled, “Food Fight,” you and several food experts discussed the evolution of the food bill from its original purpose. Can you outline the changes that have you seen in this bill for the worse and for the better and whom these changes have most affected?

The farm bill started out as a way to protect farmers during the worst years of the Great Depression.  Gradually, farmers grew to view the programs as entitlements.  These were protected by House and Senate Agricultural committee members who mainly came from farm states.  As the number of farms decreased, and the population shifted to urban areas, farm state representatives needed votes to protect support payments.  That’s how food stamps got into the farm bill.  Farm state representatives said they would vote for food stamps if urban representatives would vote for support payments.  That system works well for all concerned and remains unchanged.

3). Your upcoming panel, “How Would Julia Child Vote on the 2012 Farm Bill,” features a number of the panelists that are a bit outside of the policy realm, and seems to be more on the culinary side. How does the Farm Bill affect what chefs are preparing and what people are seeing on their plates?

The farm bill supports commodity crops—corn, soybeans, and cotton, for example.  Not only does it not support production of fruits and vegetables, but it forbids growers who receive payments for commodities to grow what the USDA terms “specialty crops.”  This too has a long history, but it means that the price we pay for fruits and vegetables is likely to be higher than it would be if those crops got support payments.  The farm bill does not require commodity growers to conserve soil or water or grow food sustainably, nor does it demand decent wages for farm workers.

4). In your opinion, and based on your expertise in food studies and public health, if she was alive today, how do you think Julia Child would vote on the Farm Bill?

From what I could tell from our discussions of nutrition issues, Julia Child’s first priority was taste.  She wanted food to taste good.  If food is produced under conditions that are kinder to animals and plants, the foods taste better.  I’m guessing she’d want Congress to revise the farm bill so it supported a healthier and tastier food system.

5). Why should consumers care about this piece of legislation and how can the public better educate themselves on these types food advocacy issues?

The farm bill affects everything we eat, every day.  It also affects farmers, farm workers, and farm animals.  Anyone who cares about them, or about taste, health, and having local farms in a community, should care what happens with this bill.  The farm bill is not easy to fathom—the 2008 bill is 663 pages of very small type—but many advocacy groups are working to improve it and they deserve support.  I posted a list of them on my website, www.foodpolitics.com, at http://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/07/resources-for-advocacy-school-food-and-ag-policy/ and will be adding to these lists regularly.