7 Highlights (and a Few Lowlights) in Food Since President Obama Was Elected
Just about one year ago, Barack Obama was elected to be the 44th President of the United States. Proclaiming change across the board, Obama swept in to office on a wave of hope and optimism for millions of people, and his mandate for change created some pretty high expectations for fast, meaningful change. Those passionate about food, food safety, and the politics of safe and sustainable food production were certainly among those counting on the President to put his presidency where his promise had been. A year later, these are the highlights (plus a few lowlights) of his time when it comes to food.
The White House Farmers' Market has been one of the more high profile food events of the past year. Photo credit: David DeFranza
Listening to Michael Pollan
Though it was published just before the election, Michael Pollan's call for a "Farmer-in-Chief" resonated with Obama, who brought the issue further into the national conscience when he was interviewed by Time magazine. He didn't create any policy, or initiate a sweeping change that would affect everyone in the U.S., but he did acknowledge that the agriculture industry was contributing to climate change more than transportation, and that the oil-dependent monocultures we've created are not only unsustainable, but vulnerable to security threats and unstable prices. It was largely symbolic, but when was the last time you heard the leader of the free world connecting oil and food production? Just hearing the word 'monocultures' in a negative context felt good.
The White House GardenPerhaps the most high-profile food-related White House action of the last year was the planting, tending, and harvesting of the White House garden. Aside from netting over 700 pounds of veggies and nearly 150 pounds of honey, the garden, largely driven by First Lady Michelle Obama, proved that a few seeds, a few bucks, a few hours, and a little know-how was all that was required to help bolster the most local of all food systems. The backyard garden was back in vogue, and Americans could see that not only was it possible to grow some of your own food, it was pretty easy, cheap, and even cool to do so. Not everyone can grow everything, certainly, but if the Obamas can do it while running the country, we all can do something, right?
The White House Farmers' MarketOn the heels of the garden, a White House farmers' market was a natural next step to take. While there are nearly 5,000 farmers' markets operating here in the U.S., this may have been the most visible version, leading by example and showing Americans that getting farm-fresh foods, directly from those who grow them, doesn't have to be much different from their regular trip to the grocery store; it's only a little ironic for those doing it a stone's throw from one of the most famous buildings in the world. TreeHugger was there for the opening, and saw it get off to a great start.
Michelle Obama's Activism for Children, Healthy FoodThe garden (and, to a lesser extent, the farmers' market) served as a great jumping-off point for the First Lady to start talking -- and get the nation thinking -- about children, health, and food policy. The challenge put forth by the success of these early initiatives: Leverage the buzz to improve school lunches and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and to make how we eat an integral part of the national health-care debate. By taking care to emphasize her personal, family oriented story about food and health, and by coming across as a down-to-earth mother, Michelle able to take a step toward elevating the discourse about food's everyday impact -- not just on our planet, but on our bodies. Her statement about making a "small change in our family's diet and adding more fresh produce for my family, Barack, the girls, me, we all started to notice over a very short period of time that we felt much better," made taking simple green steps toward a healthier, greener lifestyle simple and accessible.
Bringing Mr. Kass to WashingtonWhen Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef, isn't busy working in the White House garden, or whipping up a meal for the first family, he's helping shape the food messages coming from the Obama administration. He started cooking for the family two years before they moved to Washington; once they all arrived at the White House, he began reinventing the role of "Presidential chef" to include non-profit partnership and outreach, child health and nutrition, and bringing all of these to the forefront of national food policy; indeed, he's among President Obama's senior policy advisers who gather twice a month to brainstorm strategies for how to improve the health of our country's children.
Know Your Farmer, Know Your FoodOf course, there's only so much that leading by example can do; when it comes down to it, policy, mandates, and national programs are essential to improving the supply and accessibility of the ideas put forth by the First Lady and her team. One such program, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, was put together by Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Merrigan, the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, respectively. The initiative was designed to help provide a direct connection from producers to consumers, a "start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate."
While big government programs like this will never replace the relationship that you might already have with your farmer, farmers' market, or community supported agriculture co-op, it helps connect the dots for millions of consumers who still think that food comes from "the grocery store" and that garbage can be thrown "away." So, though it may sound a little strange for to anyone who has visited their local farm, or helped butcher a pig before taking some of it home to have the U.S. government telling us to "know our farmers," but it's a nice start for millions of folks. Time will tell if it pays dividends.
"Smart Choices" labeling program suspendedA big part of the difficulty in expanding the interest and engagement in green food and better health has been the flood of often confusing and misleading labels in the marketplace. Near the top of the list was "Smart Choices," a label that told consumers that products like ice cream and mayonnaise were "smart," healthy, beneficial choices for their diets.
Thankfully, after much scrutiny from industry and government, Smart Choices was abandoned pending an investigation by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the Food and Drug Administration's decision about how to approach food labeling standards. While it's now on the FDA to get labeling standards right, getting Smart Choices off the shelves is a big win.
The lowlightsIt hasn't been a year without negative developments in food policy and the food world. A few that we'd like to have back:
Americans are eating more imported frozen fruits -- along with imported fresh produce -- than ever. Photo credit: epSos.de via Flickr/Creative Commons
Nomination of a pesticide lobbyist to handle agricultural trade interests abroad
In a move widely panned by green groups, President Obama recently nominated a pesticide lobbyist, Islam Siddiqui, from CropLife America, to be the chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Office.
That means that the guy heading up the organization that wrote a letter chastising Michelle Obama for not using pesticides on the White House garden would be in line to handle our agricultural trade interests abroad. It's not a done deal (yet) but it's an ominous sign for anyone interested in keeping the green food and sustainable agriculture movements growing.
Produce imports still far exceed exports, local food
The confirmation of Siddiqui wouldn't help this sad fact: Americans are consuming more imported fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen and canned produce, and fruit juice than ever before. This according to the Food & Water Watch, who found that on average, each American consumed 20 pounds of imported fresh fruit, 31 pounds of imported fresh vegetables and 24 pounds of imported processed produce, and drank three gallons of imported juice in 2007.
Not only does that leave a lot to be desired when it comes to the benefits of local food -- strong community, growing local economies, lower carbon footprint -- but these statistics have big-time food safety implications, too: Imported produce was more than three times more likely to contain the illness-causing bacteria Salmonella and Shigella than domestic produce, according to the latest FDA survey of imported and domestic produce.
Plus, imported fruit is four times more likely to have illegal levels of pesticides and imported vegetables are twice as likely to have illegal levels of pesticide residues as domestic fruits and vegetables. Since less than one percent (!!) of imported fresh produce shipments are inspected at the border, and three percent of the FDA's food safety budget is dedicated to monitoring domestic and imported produce, this isn't likely to change without new priorities in both where our food comes from, and how it's monitored.
So, there have been some very promising steps and exciting developments in green food and sustainable agriculture in the past year, but there is ample room for improvement, and more action to be taken by individuals, co-ops, companies, and government to continue to make sustainable, safe, healthy food available for the whole country.
More on sustainable food and food policy
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