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.

This week, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is hosting its annual Food and Community Conference, a three-day gathering of farmers, advocates, and experts to discuss the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles, in part by increasing community access to fresh food.

On Tuesday, the foundation released of a poll and trumpeted its results. Among other things (including that 75% of Americans support doubling the value of food stamps at farmers markets), the poll found that over 90% believe “equal” access for all Americans to fresh produce is either very or somewhat important.

It’s great that so many people think it’s important to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh, whole foods are better for us than processed ones, and if people think its important to have access to them, maybe that means we’re getting our dietary priorities back in order. A closer look at the actual poll questions and results, however, reveal that it may be focused on the wrong issue.

The poll contains numerous questions about access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Yes, 93% of respondents said they thought it was either very or somewhat important to make sure all Americans have equal access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But, according to the poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans already enjoy such access–in response to a question about that issue, 89% said that a place where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables is either within walking distance or a short drive away from their home.

So if 93% understand the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, and 89% can already easily get them, what’s the problem? A better question–one that, unfortunately, the Kellogg Foundation poll did not ask–is whether Americans actually do access fresh fruits and vegetables when they have the chance.

Thanks to a number of other recent polls, we have an insight into what the answer might be, and it suggests there’s a big gap between access and consumption. A Gallup poll released last month found that, in 2011, 56% of Americans reported eating five or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables–the minimum amount recommended by federal dietary guidelines and a significant portion of the nutrition community–at least four days a week.

And an even more granular study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010 found that, in 2009, only 32.5% of U.S. adults consumed fruit two or more times a day and only 26.3% consumed vegetables three or more times per day.

These polls obviously lack scientific certainty–small variations in how the questions are phrased can skew results, and self-reporting is unreliable–and fruits and vegetables can be a regular and significant part of your diet even if you don’t eat five servings of them every day. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Americans are eating less fresh produce than they should, despite the fact that they know it’s important and can get it relatively easily.

Based on the knowledge that convenience is a bigger barrier than cost or access, this gap shouldn’t be all that surprising. But ordinary Americans aren’t the only ones guilty of buckling before the barrier of convenience.

Just as it’s easier for people to answer a poll question than to plan, shop for, and cook three healthy meals a day, it’s easier for advocates of fresh and healthy food to focus on access and call it a day than to change people’s actual eating habits.

This change won’t happen overnight, and access is a necessary prerequisite, so we should applaud the Kellogg Foundation and its partners for doing their part to raise awareness and keep the dialogue going. But we should also take these opportunities to ask the questions that really matter–and, more importantly, to encourage people to ask those questions of themselves.

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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.

Free lunches may be elusive. Unhealthy ones are anything but.

Anyone can walk into (or easier yet, drive up to) McDonald’s, and three minutes later, be gorging themselves on a Big Mac, a pile of fries, and a Coke. If getting up from the couch seems like too much effort, a pizza (with or without hot dogs baked into the crust) is just a phone call and a 30-minute wait away.

On top of being convenient, unhealthy food is cheaper–at least according to conventional wisdom. Whenever we debate the feasibility of a food system based on sustainable agriculture or the intractable nature of the obesity epidemic, invariably, someone blames the high cost of healthy foods and the relative affordability of their less nutritious counterparts.

Newsflash: the conventional wisdom is wrong. According to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service entitled “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price,” healthy foods are not necessarily more expensive than unhealthy foods.

In light of the fact that most Americans’ diets fall short of federal nutrition guidelines, the report set out to determine whether a commonly cited reason for our dietary woes–the high cost of healthy foods–is actually true. In doing so, it examines three different metrics to determine the cost of food–the oft-used cost-per-calorie metric, as well as two alternatives: cost per portion and cost per edible gram. The report found that, in all metrics other than cost-per-calorie, healthier foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy) were less expensive than unhealthy foods (proteins and foods high in saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium).

The report’s methods appear to be sound, and, since not all calories are created equal, the two new metrics are arguably more rational ways to measure the true cost of certain foods. In addition, the findings should reassure cash-strapped Americans that eating foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy can help us eat healthier and save us money.

The troubling part is that anyone finds the report’s findings at all surprising. A diet that includes (1) less calories, (2) whole foods instead of processed ones, and (3) a steady dose of home-cooked meals has always been healthier and cheaper. Furthermore, the fact that Americans routinely choose to eat diets heavy in processed foods and empty calories suggests that cost isn’t even the primary driver in people’s eating decisions.

The authors of the USDA study acknowledged as much in a conference call on Wednesday, asserting that consumers put a higher premium on convenience and taste than on cost. With respect to convenience, it’s easy to see why unhealthy diets beat out healthy ones: planning a recipe, buying ingredients, and cooking a meal is harder than pulling up to the drive-thru window or microwaving a frozen dinner.

But what about taste? In theory, a home-cooked meal should taste as good as or better than most alternatives–after all, you know which foods you like, and you get to prepare them based on your own taste preferences.

Unfortunately, preconceived notions about “healthy” foods’ lack of flavor combined with a general and growing disconnect from a food culture in which home-cooked meals play a significant role have conspired to make good food taste bad–both in our minds and on our dinner tables.

Still, the USDA report has value. Any time the idea that healthy foods can cost less than unhealthy ones receives news coverage, the conventional wisdom becomes a little less conventional, and a seed is planted in the minds of people who might never have considered the advantages of eating well.

But in a food culture where making tomato sauce and boiling pasta water is considered too hard, or where roasted vegetables aren’t considered tasty, we need to start thinking about factors other than affordability. On that count, we’re failing–and we’re paying for it.

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.

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.

When most of us think of pies, our mouths start watering. In the world of farm policy, however, pies are more frequently represented as budget charts–and their impact on the next Farm Bill is likely to leave a bitter taste in our mouths.

Last Thursday, after a brief delay, the Senate Agriculture Committee reported out its version of the 2012 Farm Bill on a relatively strong bipartisan vote of 16-5. So what happens next?

As I’ve mentioned in my two previous posts, the Farm Bill requires reauthorization every five years, and the most recent iteration is scheduled to expire at the end of September. The proposal passed by the Senate Committee will serve as a guidepost for negotiations between now and then, and includes two noteworthy changes to previous policy: a significant cut in overall spending ($25 billion over ten years), and the elimination of two forms of subsidies in favor of a new insurance program designed to help farmers better manage risk.

Those of you who paid attention in civics class will remember that the next step in the legislative process is for the full Senate to take up, debate, and amend the bill. But when and whether that actually happens is the prerogative of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), and he’ll only bring it up if he believes the political upsides (and, to a lesser extent, the policy-related ones) outweigh the downsides.

Those downsides are significant. Putting the bill before the full Senate would give senators less concerned with farm policy than with politicking a ripe forum in which to rail against wasteful spending, as well as present a target for damaging and politically problematic amendments (e.g., on issues like pink slime, mad cow, and food safety)–all with no guarantee that both houses of Congress will agree on a final bill, and all in a Presidential election year.

Why not just wait until the political stakes are likely to be lower? For one thing, next year is the start of a new Congress, which means that the entire process would have to start over with new players. But an even bigger motivation to act now is that, fiscally speaking, next year is likely to be an even worse environment for those who believe farm policy reform requires devoting additional resources to sustainability. That’s because of a little something called the Congressional Budget Office “baseline.”

The baseline is CBO’s annual projection of what the government will spend given current law (i.e., all existing programs continuing at authorized spending levels) and projected economic conditions.

For the purposes of the Farm Bill, the CBO baseline is crucial, because it determines the size of the pot of money from which our farm programs derive their funding. Congress can spend more, but, according to CBO’s figures, doing so would increase the deficit and open the bill to all sorts of procedural points of order and anti-spending demagoguery that could sink the whole thing. (Congress can also spend less, as it is on the path to do this year–that $25 billion figure is the cut as measured against CBO’s baseline.)

And, due to the economy and some accounting quirks, CBO’s baseline for Farm Bill spending in 2013 is likely to be higher with respect to a few of the bill’s largest programs (e.g., food stamps and the conservation reserve program).

On one hand, a higher baseline figure is a good thing, since it means more money for farm policy makers to dole out. In the face of increasing budgetary pressures, however, the concentration of more baseline money in a few established Farm Bill programs translates to less money for other programs, including those that support organics, research, conservation, and beginning farmers. What’s worse, there are 37 such programs scheduled to expire on September 30, meaning their funding levels won’t even be included in the 2013 baseline, tightening the vise even further.

However you slice it, whether you believe the Committee-passed proposal is a step in the right direction or a disappointment, it’ll be worse for sustainable agriculture if Congress kicks the can into 2013.

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 cow is finally out of the barn. And it’s a little leaner than it was four years ago.

Last Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee fired the opening legislative salvo in the effort to pass a 2012 Farm Bill when Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) released their bipartisan draft bill for consideration by the Committee.

Process-wise, the draft proposal is significant because it represents the official legislative starting point in the process, as well as the culmination of months of hearings and negotiations–both within the Committee and between legislators and agricultural interest groups.

Most of the initial news coverage about the bill will focus on its price tag, which amounts to an approximately $25 billion cut in overall Farm Bill spending over the next ten years (out of a total of $995 billion, for a cut of 2.5%). In addition to serving as a meaty target for the assault on spending, the proposal makes some noteworthy policy changes.

Since the minutiae of farm policy can have the same effect on one’s brain as a captive bolt pistol, it’s best to ease into things slowly. The vast majority of Farm Bill money is divided into four main areas: nutrition, commodity payments, crop insurance, and conservation, with nutrition taking the lion’s share (approximately three-quarters) of that funding.

Nutrition is obviously a centerpiece of the bill, and at the heart of the debate over cutting spending (Congressional Republicans–notably, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan–have targeted food stamps for massive cuts). However, it is the the other three major pieces–commodities, crop insurance, and conservation–that drive U.S. farm policy.

Of those pieces, commodities payments and crop insurance together comprise what is considered the “safety net” for American farmers. When you hear people arguing about whether our agricultural policies provide the right kinds of incentives for our food system, they are arguing about how this safety net is–and should be–woven together.

For the past decade and a half, the commodities title of the Farm Bill, which dictates the nature and levels of the subsidies that flow to farmers, has essentially been a three-legged stool consisting of direct payments (fixed annual payments based on historical yields irrespective of market conditions), “counter-cyclical” payments (payments based on historical yields triggered when crop prices fall), and marketing assistance loan payments (payments based on a farm’s actual production and triggered when crop prices fall below a price “floor”). Only a handful of staple crops are eligible for these payments, and over 90% of all payments go to five crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.

Due to its complexity and reliance on factors that have little to do with market conditions, this system has drawn its fair share of criticism. And the Senate Committee’s draft proposal contains what, in the insular world of DC-savvy agricultural types, amounts to a sea change: the elimination of direct and countercyclical payments, the very face of the “subsidies” that are so often decried.

In their place, the bill would create a new kind of insurance program to complement the existing crop insurance program, significantly shifting the safety net to a system based on risk management, rather than one based on chasing federal subsidy dollars. What remains to be seen is whether the proposed changes will have any significance outside the world of policy-makers–i.e., whether they will be perceived as a positive step for the future direction of our food system as a whole.

Ultimately, it comes down to expectations. If you’ve been hoping that negotiations between mostly self-interested politicians and entrenched interest groups operating under intense budgetary and political pressures would produce a complete overhaul of the farm subsidy system, you’re likely to be disappointed.

However, if you can take some measure of comfort in incremental reform, you have reason to be encouraged by the fact that those same politicians and interest groups have demonstrated a willingness to relax their leather-gloved death grip on a status quo that even they acknowledge had market-distorting effects.

As the Senate Committee begins the work of debating and modifying the draft bill in public mark-ups this week (the first session is being held today), supporters of sustainable agriculture should listen for how the new subsidy system is framed in the context of the effort to reform the food system, as well as how the draft bill addresses other sustainable priorities, including fruits and vegetables, organics, beginning farmers, and research.

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

Around these parts, a healthy mix of policy, politics, and punditry is as much a part of a balanced meal as protein, vegetables, and starch. I hope you’re hungry, because you’re about to get your fill of all three, wrapped up in a colossal–and colossally important–piece of federal legislation known as the Farm Bill.

As is the case every five years, the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization this year, with its latest iteration scheduled to expire in September. The bill is an extremely complicated mixture of programs, all of which impact the way Americans produce and consume food in varying and often inscrutable ways. Accordingly, the debate over the bill is riddled with misinformation and confusion, and serves to further cloud an already muddled issue.

This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to synthesize the most important aspects of the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill and present them in a digestible way to people who care about promoting local, sustainable agriculture.

Unfortunately, the solutions to some of our food system’s most serious problems are not as simple as we would like them to be. Even if we knew definitively how to structure our federal farm policies to elevate local, sustainable practices, the debate over the Farm Bill can’t ever be completely separated from the federal budget framework in which it is just one piece, or from the powerful political forces that too often dictate the policy-making process.

And, since that backdrop will be responsible for how the Farm Bill process unfolds over the next several months, it’s as good a place as any to start. First, it’s important to understand that the Farm Bill doesn’t exist in a fiscal vacuum; it’s part of a broader federal budget picture in which every dollar is the target of fierce competition.

The same is true of programs within the Farm Bill. It’s a fixed pot of money over which a wide range of constituencies–including environmental interests, traditional commodities producers, and reform-minded supporters of organic, regional farming–are forced to scrape and claw. Add into this mix the recent Tea Party-fueled hysteria over federal spending–in a Presidential election year, no less–and an already difficult fiscal dynamic becomes nearly intractable. The sharp regional divisions characteristic of federal farm policy and a divided Congress promise to make things even more fun.

And while all of these factors suggest that passing a Farm Bill in 2012 is at best an uphill battle, for a variety of wonky budgetary reasons, there is likely to be far less money to go around in 2013, increasing the pressure to get something done this year.

Now imagine trying to have a rational debate over the future of farm policy in this environment.

As daunting as that may seem, it’s exactly what we’ll try to do in this space in the weeks and months to come. Finding room on our plates for all of these moving pieces will be a challenge, but it’s imperative if we’re to understand why and how important decisions are made, and how advocates of sustainable farming can best focus their advocacy efforts. So pull up a seat, and get ready to dig in.

Even seasoned mycologists will tell you that the traits of mushrooms are largely a mystery. For my sake, I can only hope that one of them is forgiveness.

When I worked as a line cook at Blue Duck Tavern, I was responsible for the daily harvest vegetable ($9)–or “farm veg” in the vernacular of the kitchen–a side dish featuring one or more of whatever vegetables were in season and happened to be in house that day. In theory, I was supposed to come up with the dish each day, but I consistently shirked that responsibility on the premise that I was a novice cook–a culinary school extern, in fact–and that it was therefore too much to ask me to conceive and prep a dish from scratch every day on top of the daunting task of managing my station’s more involved but less ephemeral dishes. (Of course, this meant that the chef–who had many more responsibilities than I did–had to come up with the farm veg. I feel slightly bad about my recalcitrance, but am prepared to live with it.)

Because a poorly planned or inadequately prepped farm veg could throw an otherwise calm day into chaos, we typically mapped out a tentative strategy a few days in advance, doing as much ahead of time as possible so as to ensure smooth sailing on the farm veg’s big day. For example, we might use a lull in service one night to trim brussels sprouts that would then be blanched the following day for use in the farm veg on the third night.

Shockingly, it did not always proceed according to plan. The restaurant was open seven days a week, and I worked five of them, which meant that someone had to cover my station on my days off. Frequently, I would spend all week getting ahead on the farm veg so that my understudy would have an easy go of it, only to return from my sabbatical to find that the farm veg pay-it-forward scheme I’d worked so diligently to engineer had collapsed in my absence. Other times, the chef would have an idea for an upcoming farm veg–one that in theory required relatively little prep work–but fail to actually order the required produce.

As a result, I came to despise the farm veg.

Nevertheless, I worked dutifully to stay ahead of the curve, so that I was consistently putting out a farm veg that met the restaurant’s reputation for tastiness without compromising the quality of my other dishes, while also maintaining my sanity.

On one fateful occasion, I arrived at work without a farm veg plan, and approached the chef to discuss the topic levelheadedly. Having become accustomed to my inability and/or unwillingness to do my own farm veg-related work, the chef took my entreaties in stride, and pronounced plainly that the day’s farm veg would feature roasted wild mushrooms over Anson Mill grits with a goat cheese fondu.

To set his plan into motion while simultaneously taking care of a bit of housekeeping, chef hurriedly asked me to follow him to the walk-in fridge, where I watched him root through a tower of mushroom boxes. As he stacked the boxes in my arms, he noted which I was to use for farm veg, which I was to discard, and which I was to relay to other cooks for one purpose or another. His instructions flew at me fast, but my brain registered them apace, and I exited the refrigerated repository with a clear sense of purpose.

I delivered a portion of the mushrooms to their intended destinations, and carried the remainder to my station, where I proceeded to clean, break up, slice, and otherwise fabricate them into a mushroom medley consisting of a rich and textured variety of bite-sized mushroom morsels, ready for roasting.

Along the way, I came across a rather unsightly batch of fungi in a damp, half-empty box. The mushrooms were rather large, with a passing resemblance to royal trumpet mushrooms with their thick stems and cream coloring. Half of them looked to be on the verge of rotting, and, since I had an ample supply of honey, hen-of-the-woods, and beech mushrooms on hand, I trimmed these misfits liberally, tossing the more questionable ones, and gouging any other parts that were remotely soggy or discolored. I treated the good bits as I had the other mushrooms–I cut them into bite-sized pieces, folded them into the mix, and pan-roasted the hell out of them.

Farm veg that night–as was the case every night an assortment of roasted wild mushrooms were involved–was a hit. When all was said and done, I had enough left over to fill a shallow six-pan–less than a quarter of what I’d started the night with–which I wrapped in plastic and tucked into the walk-in along with my other mise en place.

When I arrived at work the following day, I learned the harsh truth of the matter: those damp, homely mushrooms I’d treated so unmercifully hadn’t been royal trumpets at all. They were porcini mushrooms. Fresh ones. The kind that cost anywhere from $25-$50 per pound. The ones intended for use in a dish for that night’s high-priced chef’s table. And while chef was angry enough at the fact that they had been incorporated into the wild mushroom mix along with their inferior, far cheaper brethren, he didn’t–and still doesn’t–know the worst part: I threw more than half of them away.

I’d like to issue a public apology, first to my chef at Blue Duck, for not following his instructions, for compromising his meticulously planned chef’s table menu, and for unceremoniously dumping good money into the trash.

But, more importantly, I’d like to apologize to the species porcini: we don’t know each other well, but we’ve had some good times together (that week in Italy after my wedding was unforgettable), and I am more than fond of your meaty flavor and creamy texture. I know this doesn’t mean much, but I’d like to think that the pressures of cooking on the clock, where common sense often takes a back seat to haste and the mechanical completion of assigned tasks, was as responsible for the demise of your offspring as any personal failing of mine.

If you’ll still have me, I’d like to get reacquainted over a bowl of fresh pasta and a bottle of Gattinara.