The past could hold keys to a new national food policy. I would encourage policy makers and influencers to search our nation’s past for historical precedents that could help some of these ideas gain traction. They exist.
And there are some things we could do immediately that would facilitate positive transformation in the food system. Many of these recommendations are based in historical practice. These are teachable moments in our nation’s history, but also actionable moments.
1. Capitalize on the phenomenal interest in gardening. Support a gardening ethos at all levels, incorporating policy, practice and demonstrating personal value.
To paraphrase Gandhi, be the change you want to see in the food system. Grow something for yourself. Grow something for your community. Move your backyard garden and make it a front yard garden. Claim an unused space in your community and grow it. Share your gardening skills with youth in your community, at a school or an after-school program, or through a church youth group. Volunteer to grow container vegetables at a senior facility. Scale up to the community level – and the state and then national level – much like the Victory Garden programs of WWI and WWII.
2. Preserve what is grown. Reduce food waste.
We should also focus on food conservation and preservation…and on reducing food waste. The amount of food waste in our nation is staggering; simply reducing that could help address at least part of the nation’s hunger issue. WWI and WWII models of food conservation and preservation programs provide a clear road map on how to accomplish this task. The Cooperative Extension Service is seeing growing interest in its Master Food Preserver Program, which equips volunteers to train others in communities on food preservation methods, with a strong focus on safety. This kind of expertise and capacity should be developed and available in every American community.
3. Encourage the development of local, regional, state, and federal policies that support gardening and urban agriculture – and the next generation of farmers.
Food was recognized as a political and military issue during WWI and WWII, in addition to being an economic, social and cultural issue. Policies at all levels arose that supported various food-related efforts. We could learn from those.
We also should vote with our forks. It’s a short distance from our plate to our politics. A sustainable food system ought to be part of every political platform, because a sustainable food system is all about children, families, communities, health, food access, economics, green jobs, sustainability and national security. Become a food voter. We should insist that every individual running for local, state or national elected office have a food platform. A school board candidate could be asked his/her position on farm-to-school, healthy snacks, and school gardens. A city council candidate could be queried about his/her receptiveness to urban agriculture projects. A state candidate should make known his/her commitment to implementing federal programs such as SNAP, and how as a legislator he/she will support sustainable food systems and agriculture at the state level. Candidates for federal office should provide a food platform that clearly explains their position on every aspect of the Farm Bill, and also how they feel about investment in public research and science that supports a sustainable food system.
4. Make nutrition – particularly childhood nutrition – a national priority. Really this time.
For decades and decades and decades, American public policy has dealt in fits and starts with the pressing issue of childhood nutrition. While millions of public school students have had access to school lunch through the National School Lunch Act (signed into federal law by President Harry Truman in 1946), and through earlier programs offered by the Works Project Administration, the reality is that much of the food served in our nation’s public school is not of high quality. Access during out-of-school periods (such as summer vacation) is not assured. A nation that does not address hunger and does not place an emphasis on childhood nutrition risks its national security and its economic future. Real national security comes from investing in the health of children, families and communities, and by investing in the production of healthy food. This is a moral issue.
5. Explicitly link school lunch programs with school and community-based gardening efforts and local food projects.
I volunteered in school garden programs for many years. My single largest frustration was the inability to take what was produced in the garden and serve it in the school cafeteria. While some programs, such as The Edible Schoolyard, have been designed to overcome the barriers – and while farm-to-school efforts may link certain schools and districts with local food projects – there are too many barriers to moving food from the garden into the cafeteria. Food safety is a legitimate concern, but common sense policies should be developed that would make it easier to accomplish this goal.
6. Begin actively coordinating local food sheds.
In WWI, Herbert Hoover’s Food Administration utilized local food administrators to encourage gardening and food conservation measures at the community level. We ought to do this again today. Every citizen and every local, county, regional and state government ought to have an idea of where the community’s food comes from, and should also have a mitigation plan should a natural or man-made disaster occur. Mapping local food shed – knowing what food is available, where food is grown or might be grown – is vital. With the widespread availability of mobile devices and free social technologies, mapping is becoming easier. Raising awareness about where our food comes from and how it is distributed in our communities may lead to a better understanding of our national food system and food policies, including trade policies. As the world food market grows ever more volatile, access to food supplies will grow even more important. What we don’t know can hurt us. Start small, but start somewhere.
7. Embark upon a fundamental restructuring of agricultural and food policies and the USDA.
This includes not referring to fruits and vegetables as “Specialty Crops.” Shouldn’t life-giving fruits and vegetables be considered among the most special crops? Policies developed during the New Deal (and before, and since) have not kept pace with new realities and changes in the food system. Current policies privilege certain commodities, certain geographic regions of the United States…and also certain special interests. America’s energy policy (or lack of it?) plays into this dynamic. We need policies and programs that diversify an aggregated food system, programs that rebuild infrastructure and processing capacity at the local level, programs that draw new, young farmers into agriculture, and policies that work for all scales of agriculture, from a one-acre urban farm to a massive corporate farm.
And the question ought to be asked: is there an inherent conflict of interest in federal feeding programs being housed within the agency that issues agricultural subsidies?
8. Develop – and mandate – a national curriculum that educates youth about food systems, environment, healthy lifestyle and nutrition.
You could look back to WWI’s United States School Garden Army for this model. Because when we fail to educate them about the food system, we leave all children behind. Make food systems education simultaneously a grassroots effort (involving people in communities), a goal of private enterprises (sustainable food systems enhance economic growth), and a series of nationally and locally driven governmental initiatives (public policy). The need is there. The curriculum is there. What is needed is political will. Any national core curriculum should have at its heart an educational purpose that focuses on the most fundamental of things: food.
At the outset of World War II, Vice President (and former USDA Secretary) Henry Agard Wallace exhorted Americans to consider the role they could play in strengthening the nation’s food system and to engage in the act of growing Victory Gardens for their families, for their communities, and for their nation. He wrote this:
“On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”
The same holds true today.
“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”
P.S. Make it a New Year’s resolution to read my book.