Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's Gotten Into Your Food and Where Has It Been?

Occupy Wall Street Farmers' March graphic. Photo courtesy of Occupy Wall Street.

IMAGINE for a moment how our eating habits would change if we did the kind of background check on the food we eat that employers do on employees; that banks do on borrowers; that we do on potential partners and new acquaintances.

Can you fathom enjoying that prime rib if you knew that it came from a cow that had contact with the excrement of other cows or was sick at the time of slaughter? Or travelled thousands of miles before it reached your plate?

Of course, not. But as a country we are not conditioned to think of food this way, distracted as we are by aromas, colors, flavors and sometimes low prices. Food+Tech Connect's Farm Bill Hackathon and Occupy Wall Street Farmers’ March are two weekend events in New York that may forever change the way many view food. Both seek to inform and empower a mainly uninformed, disengaged public to act in its interests as it regards food. Eating/buying local and organic, along with legislative remedies, are likely to be among the core messages emerging from both programs.

No doubt, the OWS Farmers’ March on Sunday will grab the most headlines. The latest OWS beef is that Wall Street and corporations have despoiled the food system by commoditizing food to the point of perversion. True that.

Farmers from across the country, food justice advocates, food workers, community gardeners, occupiers, musicians and other concerned folk will sound the alarm for the American people to take back their food system. Along with the beefs will be ways forward, ideas for activism, solutions and so on. All events are open to the public.

In the spirit of full disclosure, please note that Yours Truly has joined OWS. In fact, I am a member of the Food Justice subgroup (of the OWS Sustainability Working Group), the organizer of the Farmers' March.

Farm advocate Jalal Sabur, right, with Dr. Cornel West. Photo courtesy of Jalal Sabur My Space page.

The Farmers' March gets started at 2 p.m. at La Plaza Cultural Community Garden where after a little day music, speakers along the food chain will address issues, including the marginalization of small family farmers, soil pollution, the role of urban-rural solidarity in food system sustainability as well as toxins that contribute to health problems such as obesity and diebetes. Jalal Sabur, founding member of the Freedom Food Alliance and advocate for an alliance between black urban communities and black rural farmers, is among the speakers. Also addressing the crowd will be Severine von Tscharner, producer of “Green Horns,” a film that profiles young farmers.

From the garden the Farmers’ March will set out with drummers and marshals leading the way toward Zuccotti Park (aka Liberty Plaza), the birthplace of the OWS movement. In a peoples’ mic format in the park a “Solidarity Circle” forms and those gathered will share stories as it regards food and the place of OWS in the food justice movement. After the circle breaks attendees participate in a seed exchange followed by a short walk to the Trinity Church Parish Hall for a reception and more musical performances.

The hackathon on Saturday has a lower profile than the Farmers' March but is equally important because it is designed to deconstruct the very important Farm Bill that is due to be passed next year. The bill is renewed every five years. Legislation passed next year will be intact until 2017. Why is the Farm Bill aka Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (Pub.L. 110-234, H.R. 2419, 122 Stat. 923.) important? Because its effects are far-reaching.

The Farm Bill will dictate the price of food, which food(s) can be grown and which can be traded, agricultural research, development, energy issues, etc. A good deal (nearly 70 percent) of the Farm Bill funds nutrition programs such as Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), school lunches and that old chestnut food stamps, less popularly known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). One program that does not fall under the nutrition rubric helps farmers transition back to the old-school way of growing food: organic farming. Interestingly, farm programs account for less than 25 percent of the bill. That doesn’t bode well for small farmers, who should rightly produce most of the nation's food.

Over the course of 12 hours, commencing at 8:30 a.m. at Cookstr, volunteers will openly “hack” the Farm Bill based on project ideas suggested by groups with an interest in food issues such as Oxfam America and Food & Water Watch. Their progress can be tracked on livestream. The Farm Bill, a roughly 700-page, $300 billion piece of legislation, may as well be Greek so arcane is the language, hence the need for hacking.

What should result are language-friendly resources and tools that journalists and advocacy groups can use to explain the bill to the public or that the public can read for itself. One such document, born of an idea from Food & Water Watch, will address the “corporate control of the meat case." Indeed, there is a serious control problem: four corporations, led by Tyson Foods Inc., account for 86 percent of beef production in the United States. It makes one wonder how companies with so many cows treat their livestock, no?

There are two more matters that the general public should know about the Farm Bill that are far easier to understand than its language. First, the Congress is mulling the Farm Bill in secret. In other words, there is no transparency. However, agribusiness lobbyists are unofficially privy to the negotiations – matter No. 2. This access presents an opportunity for lobbyists to campaign for Farm Bill policies that are beneficial to agribusiness (a member of the 1%) and detrimental to the general public (mainly the 99%).

Four companies have a near monopoly on beef production in the United States. Photo from USDA.

It is lobbying that spawns policies and guidelines that allow for harmful pesticides to be sprayed on that Red Delicious. Consider the baked chicken on the table. Yes, it is a chicken, not a young turkey. It looks delectable, doesn't it.

Unfortunately, much more often than not, when the creature was alive it spent its short, miserable existence packed like a sardine in a cage with other chickens. It was pumped full of hormones to make it grow faster and larger so that it could get to market quicker and fetch a higher price. After all, this is a product of a publicly traded corporate farm that is churning out chickens quick, fast and in a hurry to maximize profits and maintain or increase its market share and stock price. This is not the chicken from Old McDonald's Farm of nursery-rhyme fame that ran around (free range) the chicken yard and was fed grains all of its live-long days.

There's no question, right, we should look into the background of our food?

Learn more about Occupy Wall Street Farmers’ March at and Food+Tech Connect's Farm Bill Hackathon at

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