I work on food policy, and I’m nearly always thinking about my next meal. So for me, pretty much every day is food day.
But today, October 24, is capital-letter Food Day, the first annual day set aside for all of us to reflect on what we’re eating and where it comes from, and to commit to creating a healthier, more sustainable food system.
What’s a “food system,” anyway?
If you think food is something that springs, fully formed, from packages at the supermarket or from a drive-through window, you’re not alone. To many Americans, the “system” involved in getting food from the farm to our plates is invisible and rarely considered. But in fact, unseen forces determine what farmers grow, how and where they grow it, what’s available to consumers, and how much it costs.
For example, right now we are making the wrong foods cheaper by paying billions to subsidize things like corn syrup that go into processed foods. The farmers who grow healthy food like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and so on, have to work with little or no support.
But we can make smarter choices with public policies that promote healthy food, good farm and food related jobs, and agriculture practices that don’t damage our soil, water and air.
Think globally, eat locally
This week, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine will ask her colleagues in Washington, DC to take a big step in that direction. She will introduce legislation, the Local Farm, Food, and Jobs Act, that will bolster federal programs that support local and regional food systems, which increasingly provide much-needed investment in rural communities, create jobs and support family farms, and produce healthy foods for consumers.
In recent years, local and regional agriculture has become a major economic driver in the farm economy, greatly benefiting farmers, consumers, and local communities. The availability of locally and regionally produced food has increased dramatically as farmers markets have expanded, more and more farmers sell directly to consumers, and consumers themselves have demanded more fresh and healthful food. There are now more than 7,000 farmers markets throughout the United States—a 150 percent increase since 2000—and direct to consumer sales have accounted for more than $1.2 billion in annual revenues.
As Congresswoman Pingree said in a letter last week to her fellow members of the House of Representatives:
Congress and the USDA have played a critical role in this success through the development and implementation of innovative programs that have supported farmers and rural communities through the promotion of local food systems. However, significant barriers remain to the expansion of this growing food and agriculture sector.
The Local Farm, Food, and Jobs Act includes a comprehensive set of measures that will bolster local and regional food systems from farm to table. This legislation will not only help farmers and ranchers engaged in local agriculture by addressing infrastructure, aggregation, processing, and distribution needs, but will also assist consumers through improving access to direct, retail, and institutional markets. And of utmost importance, this legislation will provide more secure funding for critically important programs that support family farms, expand new farming opportunities, and invest in the local agriculture economy.
The Congresswoman referenced UCS’s recent report, Market Forces, which found that a modest investment in local food systems could create 13,500 jobs over a five-year period. That means redirecting just a small portion of the subsidies that currently go to farmers growing processed food ingredients.
Over on the other side of the Capitol, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio will introduce legislation similar to Congresswoman Pingree’s this week.
On this first Food Day, take a moment to urge your members of Congress to help build healthy local food systems by supporting these bills.