Want to help fix America's flawed food system? Here are ideas you can implement at the personal, local, and national levels.
The Farm Bill is currently up for reauthorization. This federal piece of legislation, which comes up for approval every five years or so, enacts sweeping policies that set the rules for America’s agricultural system. From protecting industrial-scale agricultural monopolies to subsidizing commodity crops like corn, cotton, and soybeans to allocating funding for federal nutrition programs, the Farm Bill impacts virtually every bite of food Americans consume.
This year, legislators have an opportunity to make changes that will actually shift power away from industrial-scale megaproducers that currently dominate the country’s agricultural system and support local, sustainable farmers. They also have the opportunity to provide funding for invaluable federal nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.
But so far, negotiations seem to be agribusiness as usual. The current iteration of the Farm Ball calls for continued subsidies to Big Ag, makes significant cuts to conservation programs, and slashes federal nutrition program funding by $4 billion over the next four years. There’s bickering in Congress about what the final bill will look like, and many fear that it won't be reauthorized at all. There’s still a chance to turn things around—Congress has until the end of September to reauthorize the legislation—but things aren’t looking good.
Environmentalists always learn to prepare for the worst, and luckily, there are still many ways consumers can fight for a fair food system even in the absence of a forward-thinking Farm Bill. Here’s how you can push for a sustainable food system at the personal, community, and national levels:
1) Shop Sustainably
Forgo the supermarket and purchase your groceries from small-scale, local purveyors. Think farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, food co-ops, meat and seafood shares, and always purchasing what’s in season in your area. Find a farmers’ market near you through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online National Farmers Market Directory and locate a local CSA program with LocalHarvest’s CSA finder.
2) Grow Your Own Way
Support local food by becoming a urban farmer. Plant fruits and vegetables in your yard, keep backyard chickens, or raise honeybees. No yard? No problem. Start your own urban farm, lend a hand at a local community garden, or participate in a crop mob. You can even get creative, as Los Angeles resident Ron Finley did. He transformed his parkway, the strip of city-owned land between the street and sidewalk, into a lush urban garden growing kale, tomatoes, squash, melons, and more. He even shares his bounty with the neighbors—as long as they’re willing to lend a hand in the garden.
3) Push for the Legalization of Local Food Production
A fair food system depends on an abundance of sustainable, small-scale producers, but local legislation isn’t always on board. County zoning laws frequently outlaw things like backyard chicken-raising or home honeybee hives. Other ordinances may bar small-scale bakers and food producers from selling their wares without first obtaining prohibitively costly licenses or kitchens. Get your neighbors together and petition city and county officials to legalize backyard chickens, as this group is doing in Boston. Support cottage food laws like those passed in Michigan and Texas, which allow home bakers and producers to legally sell their goods. And push for a Local Food and Self Governance Ordinance like the one adopted last year in Sedgwick, Maine, which exempts direct farm sales from state and federal licensing and inspection.
4) Educate Others
The sustainable food movement has steadily gathered steam in recent years, largely because of evangelizing among friends and neighbors. Teach a cooking lesson using local, seasonal ingredients; organize a neighborhood carpool to the local farmers’ markets; start a foodie book club; or host a food documentary-watching night. Some good options: Food, Inc., Fresh, Farmageddon, and King Corn.
5) Break Down Food Access Barriers
There’s a reason the sustainable food movement has been criticized as elitist—good food costs more than its processed counterparts, and fresh food purveyors like farmers’ markets tend to be located in more affluent neighborhoods. But individuals and organizations can break down those barriers by getting farmers’ markets to accept food stamps and even incentivize their use. Wholesome Wave, a food justice non-profit, works to get farmers’ markets to incorporate its Double Value Coupon Program, an initiative that doubles the value of food stamps and other federal nutrition benefits if they’re used at participating farmers’ markets rather than places like supermarkets and corner stores. The Double Value Coupon Program now operates in 300 markets across 25 states.
6) Get the Kids Involved
Good eating habits and the knowledge of where to source sustainable products starts at a young age. Programs like farm-to-school initiatives—which bring local, seasonal fare to school cafeterias—and schoolyard learning gardens—where children can learn to farm and eat sustainably—are ways to plant the fair food seed early. Get involved with your local school’s Parent-Teacher Association or attend school board meetings to advocate for healthy school lunches. Organize field trips to community gardens and working farms. Talk to local chefs and try to get one or two to commit to visiting neighborhood schools through the federal Chefs Move to Schools program.
7) Support Food Supporters
Getting sustainable food onto the national agenda has proved incredibly difficult, but there are lawmakers out there who care about small farmers, proper nutrition, and food justice. Take Jon Tester, the senator from Montana who successfully implemented protections from small-scale producers into the federal Food Safety and Modernization Act. Or Alaska’s Senator Mark Begich, who helped ban genetically engineered salmon. There are lawmakers out there—at the local, state, and national levels—who care about food. So before casting a vote—whether it’s for town council member or U.S. president—do your research.
8) Support Good Organizations
It’s hard for a single individual to make change at the national level, but coalitions have greater power. That’s why it’s important to align yourself with forward-thinking food groups and national campaigns. Food & Water Watch, Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace, Center for Food Safety, Slow Food USA, Pesticide Action Network, and other organizations work to promote sound, sustainable food policies at the national level. Make a donation, sign online petitions, get informed, or volunteer your time. You can also get involved with national campaigns like the Just Label It initiative, which pushes for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.