Click here to read my piece in the fall issue of Edible DC on the politics of the State Dinner menu.


This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Now that the Farm Bill baton has been handed from the Senate to the House of Representatives, it’s worth pausing for a moment to examine the bill’s major features from the perspective of small farmers and the sustainable agriculture movement.

Commodity Reform

Good: From a policy perspective, the bill’s most significant provision relates to reform of the system of payments and subsidies designed to protect producers against the vagaries of the market. For the past fifteen years, this system has been based in part on subsidies that have limited or no relation to actual market conditions. The Senate-passed bill eliminates the most controversial of those subsidies in favor of an insurance-based system more closely linked with market conditions. Amendments approved during the Senate debate further modified the program to place limits on subsidies flowing to the largest farms, and to subject recipients to certain conservation requirements.

The move away from direct and counter-cyclical payments toward a market-based system, coupled with payment limits and conditions, are a welcome development in the government’s approach to farming. Given the influence and political savvy of the large commodity advocacy groups, major changes to subsidies don’t come around very often, and they should be recognized when they do.

Bad: Despite these encouraging steps, government support for agriculture remains oriented toward the staple crops produced by large farms. While the bill expands dedicated funding to support research and promotion of fruits and vegetables, the support comes in the form of block grants to states, which means the money will eventually dry up. In contrast, subsidies for staple crops will continue to flow as long as farmers are eligible. This effectively creates a two-tiered system, with more consistent and reliable support for staple crops than for fruits, vegetables, and other crops.

Food Stamps

Almost three-quarters of the money in the 2012 Farm bill is contained in its nutrition title,  and the bulk of that funding goes to the federal food stamp program (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). In addition to the importance of SNAP in providing nutritious food choices for all Americans, the issue of food stamps at farmers’ markets has received a good deal of attention in recent years.

Good: The bill includes a separate pot of funding that increases the value of SNAP dollars when they’re used at farmers’ markets, based on the successful and popular Double-Up Food Bucks program in Michigan, as well as money for a farmers’ market program aimed at improving access to fresh produce for seniors, and for promoting farmers’ markets across the country.

Bad: Due to increased influence by Tea Party sympathizers in Congress, the bill’s authors were forced to agree to make significant spending cuts, and SNAP was among the hardest hit programs. The Senate bill cut the program by about $4.5 billion over ten years. This is money that could have been used to strengthen measures to incentivize healthy choices, or to provide additional assistance to those in need.

Other Sustainable Priorities

Despite some of the structural disadvantages organic and sustainable farmers face under the proposal, the Senate bill continues or expands funding for several programs dedicated to supporting those causes in a variety of ways. Some examples include:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: As mentioned above, the bill increases funding for state block grants and other, smaller initiatives intended to support the research and promotion of fruits and vegetables (known as “specialty crops” in the agriculture policy arena).
  • Organic Farming: Funding for assistance to organic farmers, farmers transitioning to organics, and research and data collection is continued at approximately the same levels as in the previous farm bill.
  • Local and Regional Food Systems: As mentioned above, the bill increases funding to support and promote farmers markets in a variety of ways, and, with varying degrees of aggressiveness, it seeks to support local food projects like community gardens.
  • Access to Healthy, Affordable Food: The bill makes a number of changes to existing programs, including the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and SNAP, to help address “food deserts” and incentivize the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g., by allowing the use of food stamps for Community Support Agriculture operations).
  • Beginning Farmers: The bill includes a number of provisions designed to support new farmers, including by continuing the existing Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (offering education and training for new farmers) and improving access to loans and insurance.

While the bill is far from perfect form the sustainable perspective, and while not all sustainable-minded groups support the bill, it is notable that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition–the movement’s most connected advocacy organization–came out in support of the bill at the conclusion of the Senate debate, even after grumbling audibly about the measure that came out of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Now, the action moves to the House of Representatives, where the Agriculture Committee approved its own bill earlier this week. While there are significant differences between the Senate-passed version and the House measure (primarily on the issue of SNAP funding), the main stumbling block in the lower chamber is related to internal Republican Party politics, which may prevent the bill from ever seeing the light of the House floor. With August recess only three weeks away, and with a September 30 deadline for passing a bill, that means the path forward for the 2012 Farm Bill remains uncertain, to say the least.

For now, supporters of sustainable agriculture can settle in for the House proceedings with the knowledge that the effort put forward by the Senate addressed many–if not all–of the movement’s priorities to an encouraging extent.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The Mount Lemmon Marathon–an annual race held outside Tuscon, Arizona–starts in the desert floor and ends in the village of Summerhaven near the top of the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountain range. From start to finish, the course’s elevation increases 6,000 feet, all uphill.

Two thousand miles to the east, in Washington, DC, the effort to pass major legislation through Congress is often compared to a marathon. This week, the 2012 Farm Bill officially passed the halfway point.

After several weeks of uncertainty, the Senate passed its version of the bill on Thursday on a bipartisan vote of 64-35. The breakthrough came on Monday night, when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that an agreement had been reached to vote on 73 amendments (out of the over 300 that had originally been filed), followed by a vote on final passage.

The victory represented a major victory for Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who (along with Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, her Republican counterpart on the Committee) kept hope alive during a sometimes chaotic Senate debate, and managed to push, coax, and barter her way to an agreement that her colleagues could live with, and a final bill that a ragtag faction of legislators could support.

Here are some of the main take-aways from this month’s Senate debate:

  • The fact that bill supporters were able to secure unanimous consent for the agreement (a requisite for nearly all Senate actions) suggests that senators on all sides of the debate viewed the 73 amendments as largely reflective of the main issues at stake. But since the bill’s opponents could have easily blocked the agreement, it is also indicative of the power of the Farm Bill’s constituencies in a difficult political environment.
  • Senators who voted against the bill on final passage fell into three camps: (1) southerners concerned that the bill’s new insurance-based subsidy system skewed its benefits toward midwestern crops and away from southern ones; (2) Tea Party sympathizers on the Republican side opposed in principle to large spending programs; and (3) liberal Democrats who were against the measure’s cuts to the food stamp program.
  • From a political perspective, it may have helped that Chairwoman Stabenow consistently sought to frame the bill in terms of its impact on jobs, is fiscal restraint, and its move away from some of the most controversial agriculture subsidies.
  • While most of the 73 amendments included in the agreement were more about putting senators on record with respect to certain issues than about actually amending the bill (as expected, a large majority of the amendments were voted down), two amendments making relatively significant policy changes passed: an amendment to limit crop insurance subsidies going to the largest farms, and one to require crop insurance program participants to comply with certain conservation requirements.

The debate now shifts to the House of Representatives, where Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has been posturing to increase the odds that his version of the bill can get an airing before the full House. On substance, the deepest divide between the Senate and House versions of the bill center on the food stamp program, to which the House bill would make significantly larger cuts.

More generally, while the bill’s relatively bloodless Senate passage gives it momentum, the dynamic is far more complicated in the House, whose rules heavily tilt the playing field toward a Republican majority with a large contingent of Tea Party-backed spending hawks.

Should negotiations stall as we get closer to September 30–the expiration date on the last Farm Bill–the debate is likely to take on added urgency as legislators face up to another daunting scenario: the prospect of having to pass a temporary extension of current programs to avoid reverting to outdated and potentially draconian policies of the 30s and 40s.

For now, the bill steps back from center stage, and its proponents can take a breather before gearing up for the next leg of the race. And as the finish line gets closer, the course seems to only be getting steeper.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The road ahead is increasingly bumpy, but the Farm Bill continues to lurch forward, one pothole at a time.

After clearing a procedural hurdle last week, the Senate officially began consideration of the bill on Monday, setting the stage for a time-honored Senate practice–the filing, consideration, and disposition of amendments.

Under normal Senate rules, senators are free to offer as many amendments as they wish on any topic under the sun, and to demand a vote on them. Since disposing of amendments this way would be impractical–debating and voting on the hundreds of amendments offered to most Senate measures could take months–party leaders and bill managers attempt to negotiate a more efficient path forward. Some amendments are modified and incorporated into the legislation, some are set aside to be addressed at a later date, and many are withdrawn altogether, all in the interest of comity and compromise.

If a few senators put up a fight (nearly everything in the Senate requires the unanimous consent of all 100 members), 60 senators can vote to invoke “cloture,” limiting remaining debate and amendments, and forcing an eventual up-or-down vote on the measure.

Such is the procedural backdrop against which the Senate is currently debating the Farm Bill. Here are a few things you should know about the current state of play, and how things might develop in the coming days and weeks:

  • Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 amendments have been filed to the bill so far. Some of these relate to substantive concerns about the legislation, but many do not .
  • Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas)–Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee–are working with their respective party leaders and members to reach an agreement on which amendments require votes, which can be accommodated without a vote, and which can be set aside.
  • By far the toughest nut to crack is on the Republican side, where it has been reported that certain senators–e.g., Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky)–are demanding votes on problematic amendments in return for their consent to move the process forward.
  • Should those negotiations fail, it will be up to Majority Leader Harry Reid to determine whether he can secure the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and bring debate to a close. Attempting to do so without being sure of the outcome is a risky gambit, because a failed vote would likely signal the bill’s demise.
  • Internal Republican politics are casting a shadow over the entire debate. With the prospect of the bill’s passage in the House even less certain, many Senate Republicans would just as soon avoid creating a political problem for themselves and their House brethren by taking a tough vote to leave yet another thorny piece of legislation on House Speaker John Boehner’s doorstep.

Despite these complicated dynamics and daunting challenges, the Farm Bill has lived to fight another week. And in a political environment where the assumption is that no significant legislation has a chance of passage, that simple fact proves the bill’s odd resilience.

Built on unorthodox regional and political alliances and propelled by a desire in both parties to champion the cause of rural communities, the rickety legislative wagon rolls on, hoping to stay ahead of the gathering storm.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The Standing Rules of the United States Senate officially consist of 44 rules, each with their own sub-rules, caveats, and conditions. They cover everything from the appointment of a presiding officer (Rule I), to the filibuster (Rule XXII), to the jurisdiction and make-up of Committees (Rules XXIV-XXVII); their reach extends even to practices like franking and the use of Senate television and radio studios.

Unfortunately for legislators, the list does not include rules for how to actually get things done in the Senate. Those rules exist in unwritten form, of course, and include the time-honored tactics of coalition-building, horse-trading, and back-slapping–the humours of the body politic.

Both sets of rules will be on full display this week as the Farm Bill hits the Senate floor, five weeks after the five-year, roughly $500 billion measure was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Here are a few things you should know as the Senate begins debate on the bill:

  • The first hurdle in the debate is something called the “motion to proceed” to the bill, which is expected to take place Thursday. The bill’s supporters have asserted that they have the 60 votes required to proceed to the bill, should a vote even be necessary.
  • Because the bill will eventually be required to overcome another 60-vote hurdle to bring debate to a close (the infamous “cloture” vote), Thursday’s vote on the motion to proceed will be a rough gauge of the level of support for the bill, and the likelihood of its passing the Senate should it remain relatively intact.
  • The debate is likely to consume most of the month of June, during which there will be a veritable onslaught of amendments offered on a range of issues (including many not actually covered in the bill). Some of the amendments will reflect legitimate member priorities, while many others will be thinly veiled attempts at forcing a vote on a politically sensitive issue in an election year.
  • Because this bill–like any Farm Bill–represents a delicately crafted balance between competing regional and political interests, amendments that significantly affect the bill’s distribution of money or alter core provisions are a threat to final passage.
  • The biggest threat to the bill’s survival will not be senators and/or interest groups that believe the bill doesn’t do enough to address their specific agriculture priorities, but rather Tea Party sympathizers looking to make a high-profile statement about their opposition to “wasteful” spending.
  • The House of Representatives is working on its own, very different bill, and the differences between versions will eventually be negotiated by representatives of both chambers. In an effort to stave off potentially problematic amendments, proponents of the Senate bill will attempt to assure members that their concerns will ultimately be addressed in that forum.
  • Above all, the debate will be less a substantive back-and-forth than a political and procedural chess match to determine whether or not the bill can advance to the next stage. And even if it does, the process will be far from over; the House needs to act on its bill, outstanding differences need to be reconciled, and both chambers must vote–again–on the final product.

If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. But understanding the procedural tools legislators will have to use to shoehorn the bill through to final passage and the bald-faced political dynamics at play is essential if food reformers want to be taken seriously by the powerful few who actually write the Farm Bill.

And that’s why an “open letter to Congress” sent this week by celebrity chefs and prominent members of the sustainable food intelligentsia may not have been the best way for the movement to get its point across. At this late stage, high-profile “shaming” tactics are likely only to be resented–particularly by senators and staff who believe they’ve already done a lot for sustainable agriculture by moving away from market-distorting subsidies and directing additional funding to programs that support fruits and vegetables, organics, and research.

Food reformers would be well-served to pay close attention to the mechanics of the floor debate beginning this week, both because a Farm Bill resembling the Senate version is likely the best they can hope for this time around, and because the knowledge they glean will position them to have an even greater impact five years from now.

UPDATE: On Thursday, the Senate invoked cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill on a vote of 90-8, clearing the way to begin formal debate by no later than Tuesday.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Bookstores don’t usually have a “Food” section. Most stores reserve a good deal of shelf space for cookbooks, and, perhaps nearby, there are sections dedicated to books about gardening and nutrition. Farther away, one might find a cluster of more rigorous works analyzing American food culture and the downfall thereof, probably by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, or their disciples.

Despite its title, Michelle Obama’s new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, doesn’t fit neatly into any of the standard categories. That’s because it touches on nearly all of them.

Released on Tuesday, the First Lady’s book is many things–it’s a reflection on Mrs. Obama’s early relationship with food and gardening; it’s a brief overview of the history of gardening at the White House; and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of the current White House “kitchen garden” that Mrs. Obama started after her husband was elected President.

Like the White House garden before it, the book’s stated goal is to encourage “a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how that affects our children.” That objective underlies much of Mrs. Obama’s work in her three-and-a-half years as First Lady, represented most publicly by her signature Let’s Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity by promoting healthy eating habits and exercise.

More than anything, American Grown is a message piece–a publication designed to reduce Mrs. Obama’s work on healthy living into a series of easily digestible concepts and goals, and to provide a platform she can use as she hits the campaign trail over the next five months on behalf of her husband’s reelection campaign.

On that count, so far so good: since the book’s release on Tuesday, she’s already made appearances on Good Morning America, NPR’s Morning Edition, The View, and The Daily Show, and nearly every major media outlet has run a piece about the book.

In some respects, the motivation behind this book and even its specific content are irrelevant. It’s a book about the benefits of a food culture rooted in fresh, healthy, local foods written by a woman with cross-culture appeal and enormous reach, and that, in itself, is a good thing.

It’s also hard to blame politicians for being political–in fact, Mrs. Obama’s team deserves to be commended for crafting a book that contains useful information presented in an appealing way (it unfolds against the backdrop of a seasonal motif, and features beautiful photographs, illustrations, and diagrams throughout), while remaining true to their political objectives and/or limitations.

Still, if the goal of this project is to help change Americans’ eating habits, I wonder whether the First Lady missed an opportunity by putting out an advertisement for her healthy lifestyle initiative rather than something that might have a greater impact on the way people interact with food on a daily basis–namely, a cookbook.

While American Grown does include about 20 recipes, they’re almost an appendix to the rest of the content, and the book only briefly touches on ways people can turn fresh and seasonal produce into meals–the kind of knowledge that might help people overcome the convenience barrier that persistently keeps them from actually eating the low-cost, healthy food that’s available to a vast majority of Americans.

It can’t hurt that cookbooks are enormously popular, even as sales of other categories of books are on the decline. Add in a popular, high-profile author like, say, the First Lady of the United States, and it seems to me you have a winning formula for selling books–or, in this case, altering eating trends.

Instead, we’re left to cross our fingers and hope that Mrs. Obama can use her stature to at least get more people talking about the issue, and or even to take a crack at the recipe for corn soup with summer vegetables near the back of the book.

Maybe the success of this book will get Mrs. Obama thinking about the possibility of another book–one that belongs under “Cookbooks” rather than “Politics”–sometime during her husband’s second term. I’d vote for that.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

We’ve got a big problem. Even bigger than the overuse of weight-related puns when talking about the American obesity epidemic.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held its second annual “Weight of the Nation” conference — a gathering of political leaders, health professionals, and concerned citizens intended to highlight and discuss progress in the effort to address the public health crisis presented by the United States’ alarmingly high obesity rates.

The conference coincided with a deluge of new obesity-related fodder, including an upcoming HBO documentary and the release of two reports — one by the Institute of Medicine (the health arm of the quasi-governmental National Academy of Sciences) and one published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine — that include the latest set of statistics on the growing obesity problem, analyses of its implications for Americans’ health and our nation’s economy, and strategies for combating it.

Both reports articulate the same basic state of play: currently, approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults, and one-third of children, are overweight or obese. The human and economic costs of obesity-related illness and death are enormous; obese individuals are far more likely to live shorter lives and suffer severe health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, increasing national medical costs by hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And the problem is getting worse—the AJPM report estimates that, by 2030, 42% of the population will be obese.

According to that report’s authors, part of the reason obesity rates are so much higher than they were 50 years ago is that high-calorie foods are far more abundant and cheap than they used to be, making it much easier for someone to gain weight while eating the same “amount” of food. On top of that, our food culture increasingly extols a super-sized, all-you-can-eat mentality, mitigated only erratically by the latest fad diet.

So what can we do to reverse the trend toward a heavier, unhealthier population? While the complexity of the problem is daunting, almost everybody agrees that encouraging people to eat healthier and exercise are part of the solution. Not surprisingly, the first two “goals” articulated by the IOM report are “Make physical activity a routine and integral part of life,” and “Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine and easy choice.”

But when it comes to figuring out how to achieve those goals, particularly with respect to the food part of the equation, there is no consensus. This is especially true for the policy approaches that public health experts believe have the greatest impact on individuals’ food decisions: taxes, regulations, and other restrictions on high-sugar, high-calorie foods and beverages.

There has been a good deal of teeth-gnashing over the failure of recent efforts to enact some of these approaches–e.g., a federal soda tax, limits on what food stamps can buy, and rules governing how unhealthy foods are marketed to kids–including among supporters of the sustainable food movement, who share the desire to incentivize better food choices (and naturally derive pleasure from anything that sticks it to large food corporations).

In the crossfire between public health advocates (who are often singularly focused on “evidence-based” strategies to reduce obesity, regardless of whether such policies are otherwise desirable) and food companies (whose arguments are tainted by their clear financial interests), we often miss out on the chance to have a level-headed discussion about whether we want a system in which government policies actively prescribe which foods we should eat.

Presumably, most Americans–on both sides of the debate–would like to be able to choose the foods they eat without the government putting its finger on the scale, especially in an environment when our notion of what’s good for us and what isn’t is constantly evolving.

Of course, they’d also like a food system and culture that doesn’t send an inordinate number of people to an early grave, or drag down an already overburdened health care system. Whether we can have both depends on whether a sea change in the way people think about food is truly possible.