The Distasteful Politics of Food

How, what, and where we eat everyday is strongly influenced by the federal government, in partnership with major food corporations, through a piece of legislation called the Farm Bill. Many of the social determinates of health that impact our communities find their roots in the Farm Bill a massive piece of legislation up for renewal in 2012.

We need to pay close attention to this legislation in the coming months. In particular, we need to focus on the ways in which the Farm Bill enables corporate practices that contribute to racial disparities in health, set us back in terms of racial equity, and promote greed over need. In a climate where Congress is looking to make cuts, corporate agribusiness will be working hard to protect their interests, leaving the rest of us with a huge tab that will cost not just in dollars but also in lives.

Communities of color disproportionately suffer from the negative impacts of the food system, in both the production and consumption of this country’s foods. In the Color of Food, the Applied Research Center, an Alliance affiliate, examines race in our food system. Their report documents widespread racial inequities both in the production of food and in what’s available for consumption.

People of color typically make less than whites working in the food chain. Few hold management positions in the food system. Instead, they are concentrated in low-wage jobs in the food chain. Human Rights Watch stated that there are “systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry [processing] employment.” These violations include a failure to use known injury and illness prevention methods, denial of workers’ compensation claims, interference with unionization, and mistreatment of immigrants.

As consumers, many low-income and minority communities experience physical and economic barriers to accessing varied, healthy, and affordable food. These barriers are determined in part by limited mobility (e.g. inadequate public transportation options) and absence of supermarkets or fresh food options such as farmer’s markets and/or community and backyard gardens. These barriers complicate already existing socioeconomic inequities and health disparities.

Current farm policy provides few incentives for the promotion and production of fruits and vegetables, and actually refers to them as “specialty crops.” It does, however, provide strong incentives that contribute to the excess production and consumption of sweets, fats, and meat. These investment and production decisions result in food processors using artificially cheap high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil in most processed foods, helping to make sweets and fats prevalent, convenient and inexpensive for consumers.

Family farms have also suffered important social, economic, and human losses from industrial agriculture and large agribusinesses. This is due in no small part to the Farm Bill, which has helped shift things in favor of corporate agriculture. Policies that favor deregulation and promote unsustainable overproduction of grains such as corn and soy have favored global food companies. Similarly, large-scale animal agriculture operations use artificially inexpensive grains for feed, further concentrating their market power. Meanwhile, small and midsized farm owners have been less able to compete in the market. This market consolidation is responsible for money moving out of many rural communities.

Rural communities often have little say when industrial food production facilities want to move in. Large agribusiness lobbies have systematically introduced and passed state laws stripping local governments of their right to pass local ordinances designed to regulate large-scale animal factories and lessen their public health and environmental impacts.

Idaho, for example, continues to pass legislation to deregulate factory farming practices, making the state a preferred place to do business for large agribusinesses looking to evade stricter regulations in other states. Just this year, the state legislature amended Idaho’s Right to Farm law, prohibiting local governments from regulating agricultural facilities as nuisances once they’ve been in operation for more than a year. The new law also prohibits neighbors from filing complaints using nuisance law.

Barring rural communities from protecting themselves against Big Ag also has economic and racial justice impacts. Several studies have shown that swine CAFO’s (confined/concentrated animal feeding operations), which have horrible environmental impacts, are disproportionately situated in low-income communities and communities of color. Effects of industrial food production on communities include water contamination, odors, respiratory conditions, reduced property values, and stress and mental health effects.

We will need to make sure that our communities’ interests are reflected in the pending legislation. It will be critical to hold lawmakers accountable to the people they serve rather than to corporate players.  

The choices are pretty clear. Either lawmakers can support families seeking SNAP benefits, WIC, and child nutrition help – especially needed now in this time of high unemployment, lack of living wage jobs, and record-breaking number of applications for assistance with food. Or, lawmakers can dole out huge subsidies and tax breaks to agribusinesses.

The Super Committee has been charged with finding $1.2 trillion to cut in the federal budget. If the past year has been any indication of where we may suspect these cuts to come from, we should be worried. Our message to the Super Committee needs to be: don’t cut vital programs that people rely on to feed their families during a time of such great need. Instead, cut subsidies to large agribusinesses that reap enormous corporate profits and harm communities with shady business practices. We need to invest in guaranteeing unobstructed access to healthy foods for all people in this country. The corporations in this country are doing quite well. It’s the American people that need to be the priority in the federal budget.

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