Help Small Farmers, Not Big Food

Dear Shopper,

Recently the New York Times published a well-written, organized, and thorough investigation into how Big Food has manipulated and nearly co-opted the system put in place in the early 2000s to set standards for and certify foods as organic, including produce, dairy, meats, processed foods, and much more. It is a scary article, and I have predicted this as the sooner-rather-than-later outcome of the federal oversight and certification of organic anything.

Cabinet departments and regulatory agencies in this country have long been more kowtowing than browbeating in their approach to dealing with the businesses they regulate. I remember reading and condensing a story in The New Yorker for a college professor of mine more than forty years ago about the discovery by a Senate Committee led by Estes Kefauver that the Food and Drug Administration was allowing the drug industry to run the show even then. In those days, this revelation became a minor government scandal. I can guarantee you that there will be a similar story today in a newspaper or on the Web about some recently revealed regulatory malfeasance.

At this point, we have let ourselves and our families down by not insisting on and fighting for better representation, not just in the legislative branch of the federal government but within these regulatory agencies and the commissions and committees they create to advise and consent. It is not just the government agencies that have abdicated their responsibilities. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

So what can we do? I think we have made some headway with the Farm Bill this year, though not nearly enough. The subsidy program may even get worse, which is outrageous, but some of the smaller programs designed to promote small farmers, farmers’ markets, and access to fresh, local food in what we now call “food deserts” have at least not been cut, and a few have received additional funding. This funding still represents a small budget compared to the subsidies going to wealthy farmers who grow for Big Food. If that kind of money went to nurture and support small farmers all over this country, we would all be eating better and be healthier for it. More corn on the table and less in the stockyard or the corn-syrup plant would be a good thing for all of us.

Some concerted grass-roots efforts were underway throughout deliberations on the bill, and in previous newsletters I have provided links to great information about the bill and to petitions you could sign or letters you could sign and send. I was impressed by the activity and outreach, and it looks as if the people were heard on a couple of provisions.

Please read the New York Times article and learn what is now being labeled “organic” and what is being considered for approval to be added to foods sold under the “certified organic” label. Then look at the prices being charged for this charade. It may make you sick, as it did me, but it will bring you back to the farmers’ market — any farmers’ market — in a minute.

One thing you can do is to work with us and others to help strengthen and promote our markets here in Northern Virginia. Smart Markets can always use help on the ground at our markets (I need a couple of market managers right now) and outreach assistance from those who are active in their communities, churches, and schools or with children’s activities. We can get you materials and give you something to do. We may not be able to change much at the national level, but we can let people know what is really happening to the food system and what their options are in the marketplace. And the more folks we get out to the markets, the more we can reach with our own little informational campaign.

I always think back to the success of the anti-littering campaign. My family traveled long distances in the car north to south along the East Coast for many years. Before the campaign, the highways looked terrible, and people would throw all kinds of trash out their car windows. I remember when the campaign started, mostly with signs and radio ads, and as kids we would holler at people we saw littering from their cars — not that anyone ever heard us, but we understood the message anyway. The informational campaign succeeded, and even though highways still sport litter occasionally, it is rarely from people throwing it out of their cars. My point here is that information does work and can lead to action and change.

So let’s start here and get the word out. And get your friends and neighbors out to your farmers’ market right in the middle of your community with farmers who come quite a distance to bring you what they grow, even if it isn’t “certified” organic. At least it’s real food.