Ready, set, go change the food system: A checklist for evaluating the new USDA’s first six months

USDA building circa 1930s

Above: National Agricultural Library archival image, shot from the Washington Monument in the mid-1920s; US Department of Agriculture greenhouses on the Mall are shown in foreground.

The food system in this country has broken down like a rusty old tractor. Or more accurately, like a $250,000, brontosaurus-sized, air-conditioned, computer-controlled, herbicide-misting machine. Calories may be cheap and abundant, but actual food is growing scarcer. The side effects can be seen in a populace growing ever unhealthier (and fatter); in our chemical-soaked soil, oceans, and drinking water; and in the shrinking pool of farmers and farmworkers, most of whom barely make a living. While everyone can identify infinite variations on these problems, there is no panacea that will solve them all.

When it comes to food policy, the quest to make progress on such a massive set of intertwined problems can result in tension between the big-picture visionaries — people like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Eric Schlosser, whose gifts lie in their ability to synthesize the issues into a coherent whole — and the folks working inside the Beltway or their state capitols, who by necessity must focus on smaller pieces of the puzzle. The difference in approaches can result in name-calling: DC insiders are too compromising, too willing to settle for Big Ag’s “crumbs,” while the blue-sky thinkers are too impractical, too blind to the political reality of what it takes to eke out progress toward long-term change. But the two groups can (and occasionally do) complement each other well. The visionaries can shine a public spotlight on the areas that most need it, and the pragmatists can translate the groundswell of interest generated in a particular topic into political action.

In a much-emailed article last Sunday, Washington Post reporter Jane Black, after hobnobbing with the big-picture side during the inauguration festivities, concluded that the food movement lacks focus and an actionable message. (And also that green-apple gelee, however “homey,” won’t change the world. Agreed.) This isn’t exactly a new critique, but it’s an accurate one. Because food and farming touch many issue areas, the big-picture thinkers so often quoted in the press can’t and shouldn’t concentrate on only one aspect. But behind the scenes, the groups that are immersed in a single facet of the problem — whether it be food justice, farmworkers’ rights, children’s nutrition, organic farming, animal welfare, food safety, or conservation to name just a few — are right now laying the groundwork in the new Obama administration for a set of policies that, taken together, just might someday result in food that nourishes not only eaters but the farmers and the farmworkers who produce it, as well as American soil itself.

Their proposals aren’t flashy or romantic, and the choir probably sounds more cacophonous than harmonious. But no one should say the food movement lacks for specifics. To the contrary, we have a bounty. The challenge is to see how these many small proposals could together possibly equal something much greater.

As a start, we embarked on a quest to find out which policies the new USDA, led by former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, could reasonably put in place in its first six months to inspire real changes in the food system. On Sunday, we asked 30-plus groups involved in the nuts and bolts of policymaking and a few individuals to tell us their top food and farming priorities for the agency’s next months. More than half got back to us within our two-day window. We have filtered and synthesized the policy papers and informal emails we received into 10 big-picture directives supported by 30 specific, concrete actions. The majority fall under the domain of the USDA, while a few will require muscle from the Administration, but these are all proposals that the USDA can put its weight behind and support right now. They also happen to be in keeping with the Rural Agenda posted by the Obama Administration at on January 20; sadly, neither food nor farming merited their own action agendas.

The first half of the list follows; the second will be posted on Monday morning. We hope you will tell us bluntly what’s missing or what you think we got wrong in the comments section: we will integrate the best additions and criticisms into a new draft of the list that we intend to send to the USDA (and possibly turn into a Facebook petition).

We will also revisit this list of concrete, short-term proposals over each of the next six months to see where we stand. Think of it as a performance evaluation for the new USDA. Any progress made over this time will be incremental, to be sure, and it will frustrate the dreamers as much as it subsumes the wonks. But it’s significant and important. These “crumbs,” if successfully carried out, could someday add up to a pretty nourishing loaf.

One final caveat: The organizations consulted for this project have not endorsed this list, and people quoted herein are not responsible for any of the post’s content beyond their comments. We regret that we were not able to reach out to the full breadth of groups and individuals active on farm and food policy; to pull this project together with formal input from representatives from every disparate food-movement sector would have required weeks, conferences, and possibly both Clintons.

And now, here’s the big-picture view of Part One. After the jump, we call out the wonkishly specific actions that the new USDA could undertake to support of these directives in its first six months:

  1. Make the USDA once again the “people’s department” with staff that answer to citizens before corporations.
  2. Start supporting diversified, decentralized food systems right now, and stop risking American lives by encouraging all our eggs to be put in one basket (or hamburger in one plant, peanuts in one processor…).
  3. Stop using the nation’s kids as a garbage disposal.
  4. Give us clear information about where our food comes from and how it was produced.
  5. Start protecting us from food gone wrong, and GE crops gone wild.

Below: The USDA building, completed 1930, photo circa 1934.

USDA in 1930s

1. Make the USDA once again the “people’s department,” as President Lincoln called the agency when he established it.

Move quickly to fill appointed positions at the USDA with aggressive, capable, and hard-working reformers (like these) who will serve the interests of citizens first. From the Deputy Secretary and Under Secretary positions on down, putting the right people in these roles is one of the most important and consequential actions the Administration and Secretary Vilsack will undertake in the first 100 days. Barbara J. Masters, who is apparently being considered to head the Food Safety and Inspection Services, is not such a person, seeing as how she works for Washington’s largest Big Ag lobbying firm.

2. Start supporting diversified, decentralized food systems right now, and stop risking American lives by encouraging all our eggs to be put in one basket (or hamburger in one plant, peanuts in one processor…).

You have two immediate opportunities to direct federal support to small and local food producers. The first is by taking advantage of the economic stimulus package to support agriculture programs that will build strong new rural businesses and jobs. Increase funding to two existing programs: The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (PDF), which provides loans, training and technical assistance to rural businessfolk, and the Value-Added Producers Grants Program, which builds local processing facilities and help farmers access high-value markets. “Microenterprise accounts for most new jobs in many of the nation’s most struggling rural counties,” says Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “The recession and tighter credit markets are making it harder for rural small businesses to finance startup, expansion and even ongoing operation. These programs are a vehicle for rural economic recovery.”

Your second opening is the Child Nutrition Act, the federal legislation that establishes and sets the guidelines for our nation’s school meals programs and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Every five years, Congress takes up this legislation. The current Child Nutrition Act is set to expire in September 2009. It’s a prime opportunity to make our local systems stronger by boosting farm-to-institution relationships. Section 122 of the 2004 Child Nutrition Act authorized a farm-to-cafeteria program to cover start-up costs of these innovative programs, however, funding was never appropriated for this purpose. Invest resources in Section 122 of the Child Nutrition Act and make the funding mandatory. “The number of farm to school projects has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, despite the lack of support and frequent resistance from Food and Nutrition Service,” says Andy Fisher of the Community Food Security Coalition. “Think about what could be done if USDA actively encouraged schools to support local farmers and ranchers.” We’d love to see Secretary Vilsack issue a policy directive to the Food and Nutrition Service to set goals for the procurement of locally grown food by school districts.

3. Stop using the nation’s kids as a garbage disposal.

Sasha and Malia Obama may be part of the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents’ if we don’t act quickly to improve the food they consume. Prime opportunity: School food programs. Right now, the federal reimbursements for school meals are so woefully inadequate that food service directors have less than a dollar to spend on creating a healthy lunch. The USDA should back higher reimbursement rates for school child nutrition programs in the Child Nutrition Act, and adjust the rate on a semiannual basis so as to better reflect food costs. And you can commit to introducing an administration bill outlining USDA spending priorities for child nutrition programs. “The best return on investment is healthy children,” says Debra Eschmeyer of the National Farm to School Network (and an Ethicurean contributor).

4. Give us clear information about where our food comes from and how it was produced.

We like to know what we’re eating, but recently we haven’t been feeling too informed. Congress headed in the right direction last year by finally passing mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, but there are loopholes that need closing if our new president’s message of transparency is going to follow us to the grocery store. You can revise the final rule for COOL to close the loopholes for some processed forms of covered foods (meat, poultry, fresh and frozen fruits and veggies, fish, and some nuts) and make meat labels more accurate. “The COOL rule put forward by USDA does not reflect the spirit and objectives of Congress,” says Tom Buis, President of the National Farmers Union. Revisit the rule before your window of opportunity expires on March 31.

You can also shine a light on our food choices by rejecting an industry petition to allow the irradiation of meat carcasses without labeling the final cuts that consumers eat. To be blunt, we aren’t fans of the idea that we could be eating animal waste, even that whose pathogens have been rendered inert by ionizing radiation. It will make the slaughterhouses and processors even more careless, we think. We’d rather that you focused your energies on keeping contamination off our food in the first place. Thanks.

In the last two years, as we’ve covered previously, the USDA has scaled back and then suspended the national Agricultural Chemical Usage Survey, the only reliable, public database of its kind outside of the state of California. USDA should immediately reinstate the Agricultural Chemical Usage Survey and associated annual reports. “The U.S. is now flying blind on pesticides,” says Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides. The data has been used by chemical groups, trade groups, public interest groups and government agencies to track pesticide use and safety. Without it, we have no idea how many pesticides are being used on crops in the U.S., nor how much, and thus can’t track their effects on the surrounding communities.

Farmworkers are on the front lines of our toxic agricultural system. The 2008 Farm Bill contains a new program to study the relationship between cancer and farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides; to develop technology for testing humans for pesticide poisoning; and to test sprayed fields for pesticide residues and degradation of the pesticides to determine how long before farmworkers can re-enter the fields safely. Get these studies started: collaborate with farmworker advocates, other agencies, and Congress to obtain the necessary money and contract with the National Cancer Institute for this research.

5. Start protecting us from food gone wrong, and GE crops gone wild.

Leaving food safety to the manufacturers hasn’t worked. Most recently, more than 500 people have been sickened by contaminated peanut butter from a processing facility that knowingly sent out salmonella-tainted products. Melamine has been found in imported foods, there’s mercury in our corn syrup, and don’t even get us started on the E. coli recalls or Downergate. Since meat and poultry safety are under the USDA’s domain, you must reverse the deregulation of the meat industry that’s been slowly underway for years under various names and pilot projects. “We need a recommitment to continuous government inspection of meat and poultry – as the law requires,” says Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch. That means, as a first step, filling the chronic vacancies at the Food Safety Inspection Service that keep meat and poultry inspectors from doing their jobs because they are spread too thin. But long term, we need to centralize government oversight of food safety. A commission to study how the patchwork of responsibility shared (badly) by the FDA and the USDA could be better streamlined, staffed, and funded would be a start.

And while contaminated food makes headlines now, we think deliberately manipulated foods could be the ones hurting people later. As evidenced by superweeds and new species-jumping diseases, even those of us with advanced science degrees often fail to predict the impact of genetic manipulation years down the road. In your first weeks, you should scrap and re-write the Bush Administration’s proposed regulation of genetically engineered organisms under the Plant Protection Act. We already thought the regulations for genetically engineered foods were laughably toothless, but this is beyond the pale. The USDA regulates any GE plants that could cause harm, but the proposed regulation narrows the definition of “harm” so that only extremely harmful GE crops — for example, those that completely take over the environment in which they grow — would have to be regulated. “That could potentially allow the commercial use of GE plants that cause great harm, but not quite the devastation of the narrow definition,” Doug Gurian-Sherman from the Union of Concerned Scientists told us. The regulation is pending review after the executive order on Bush’s midnight madness. Time to send that Orwellian-sounding piece of legislation back to the drawing board.

Oh, and while you’re at it: In the new version of the regulations, ban the use of food crops grown outdoors for the production of pharmaceuticals. The history of contamination of food by genetically engineered crops — even by regulated experimental field trials — strongly suggests that we’ll end up with drugs in our corn flakes if pharma crops are grown outdoors.

Part II, for Monday:

6. Usher in a new era of conservation.
7. Make a firm investment in non-biotech agricultural research – and make sure it stays in the public domain.
8. Help more people become farmers, and help the ones who’ve made that difficult choice succeed.
9. Level the pasture for small farmers and ranchers.
10. Realize where the market has failed and help us weather it.

13 Responsesto “Ready, set, go change the food system: A checklist for evaluating the new USDA’s first six months”

  1. andrew says:

    if you had asked any actual farmers for their opinions, they might have told you that more regulation is the last thing we need, at least for small farmers. you can’t get to a diversified, decentalized food system if you have centralized government oversight of that system. right now things like:
    selling raw milk
    setting up a small, local slaughterhouse
    selling homemade jam, yogurt, or tomato sauce
    are either illegal or effectively prohibited by the high costs imposed by “food safety regulations.” how can a small farmer succeed when it costs thousands of dollars to sell one jar of jam?

  2. Dan says:

    While I agree with most of the first five, it seems that a top 10 list does not synthesize our rallying cry far enough.  Maybe we should have a simpler phrase such as “Promote transparency and decentralization.”?

  3. Ed Bruske says:

    All things bad about our food system stem from decades of government (USDA, Congress, etc.) working hand-in-glove with corporations to create an industrial food systemfueled by oil and guaranteed with subsidies for a surplus of corn and soybeans. This sytem now accounts for most of the food eaten in this country, and most Americans seem to be happy with the way things are. Is that something that can really be changed by the executive branch, or do we simply need to wait for the bottom to fall out of the fossil fuel economy?

  4. andrew says:

    ed, you’re absolutely right that we should not look to the government for salvation. that’s what got us into this mess in the first place. anyone who believes in sustainable agriculture must set to work on building local food networks from the ground up. opting out of the sytem is the most powerful statement you can make.

  5. Agreed, most of the problems now facing farmers, and thus the American people, were caused by government-BigAg collusion. We’ve got too much regulation in all the wrong places coupled with subsidies that create a tilted playing field in favor of the big producers and processors.
    For a letter to Vilsack from a farmer, me, suggesting what we need see this post on <a href=””>Letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack</a>.

    in Vermont

  6. Hmm… Sorry that last comment contains ugly code. I was trying to make a clean link. Looks like the way to do it is not use HTML but just the raw link.

  7. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Andrew: A farmer (Deb Eschmeyer, one of the Ethicureans) in fact helped put this list together, and we did poll farmers groups. The second part of the list focuses more specifically on what the government can and should be doing to help small farmers (“Under leveling the pasture”). There is definitely an issue with scale and regulations — they should take farm size into account. Would love to hear your thoughts when we post that.

  8. andrew says:

    Bonnie, thanks for that. It’s good to know that you listened to farmers, not just academics and non-profits. I’m very surprised though, that you still think that small farmers need – or even want – help from the government. Nearly all the farmers I know wish only for the government to get off of their backs, to stop criminalizing their efforts, and to stop subsidizing agribusiness at their expense. I hope for more on these topics in your second post.

  9. Hi all,
    I thought, since the discussion includes GE crops and the Obama Administration, that some here would be interested to read an article I wrote last week, debunking the claim that Obama promised to label GE foods:

  10. andre says:

    1.  Add producer tax to all processed meats….  if we can add a sin tax to cigarettes why not deadly food products, let make these products reflect their true cost to society.  I am sickened every time I go to the grocery and see meat(factory farmed) as bait to get people into stores, then they are charged higher prices for healthy foods(fruits, veggies and grains)
    2.  Add sales tax to fast food restaurants, or all restaurants, a small tax, all funds going to support the cost of health care.  I would really like to see this targeted at fast food!!!
    3.  Let’s focus the food policy on producing food for people, not factory farm animals!!!!  We are wasting resources, destroying the environment, and dooming our obese children to a life of horrific medical problems!!!

  11. Adam says:

    Wont work. First it isnt a sin. Second youre fiting too big a lobby. You ask too much and will get nothing.

    Another problem. Factory farmed fruits & veggies are just as bad for you as factory farmed meats are for you.

    Try asking for something you can actually get rather than the moon…… support small pasture livestock farms and small vegetable farms and smal orchards. Vote with your pocket book while you are at it.

  12. erica kempter says:

    Please create a petition that is not on Facebook. Not everyone is on or wants to join Facebook and you must join to sign Facebook petitions. Let’s not be beholden to corporations to do our work.


  13. Dixie Burkhart says:

    Vilsacks policies will work???? I doubt it.  His bigger problem is a lack of ethics and transparency.

    Dixie Burkhart
    Facts Don’t Matter