“All Roads Lead Back to Food” – Food Tank’s Third Washington, DC Summit

Partnering with the World Resources Institute and the George Washington University’s Sustainability Center, Food Tank hosted its third annual Washington, DC Summit on February 2.  With a nod to the political changes that emerged from 2016, the focus of this year’s summit was “Let’s Build a Better Food Policy,” offering perspectives and recommendations for improving food systems both domestically and internationally.  Once again, the summit featured an impressive line-up of speakers, moderators, and panelists touching on nearly the full spectrum of food issues, including food policy, trade, climate change, labor, infrastructure, nutrition, and food access.

Closely tied to food policy in the United States is the farm bill, an omnibus, multi-year law that governs a wide spectrum of agricultural and food programs.  With the farm bill up for renewal in 2018, speculation about how the new administration will shape this piece of legislation is off and running.  Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the GW Sustainability Center, predicted there could be a push to “sharpen the knives” on the organic portions of the farm bill.  While this might have been a fairly easy cut several years ago, today more and more consumers are seeking out organic products, and companies are responding.  Anne O’Connor from Organic Valley, the largest farmer-owned organic cooperative in the U.S., pointed out that organics are a $43 billion industry and the fastest growing sector of the food industry.  Organic Valley alone is a $1 billion company working with 2,000 farmers across 35 states, producing only organic products.  This type of consumer driven demand, which now has the attention of major corporations, will not be easy for legislators to ignore.

Likewise, the popularity of farmers markets and demand for seasonally grown foods is also growing, but that demand must also be accompanied by consumer awareness of what it actually costs to produce food.  With more than two-thirds of farmers working second jobs just to make farming viable FRESHFARM Markets Executive Director Mike Koch, stressed that the perception of farmers markets as expensive flies in the face of economic reality.  As a small organic farmer herself, Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree knows these challenges firsthand.  Shifting more funds toward local food programs and infrastructure, said Pingree, is critical to keeping farms connected, solvent, and a viable option for new, young farmers.

Food access is another important and politically charged issue that will certainly be part of the next farm bill discussion.  Matthew Herrick, a senior Vice President at the public affairs firm Story Partners, noted that certain members of Congress are already proposing to decrease the budget of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), despite the program’s proven success in achieving the lowest rate of child food insecurity in our nation’s history.  Reduced federal funding for these types of programs could mobilize local governments to become more proactive, as exemplified by Washington DC’s Food Policy Council, which brings together stakeholders and government officials to discuss local food business, access to food and nutrition education, urban agriculture, and food-system education.

While many other threads emerged from the one-day conference, each speaker was clear that none of these issues can be considered in a vacuum.  To paraphrase the World Resources Institute’s Janet Ranganathanj, “All roads lead back to food.”

 

 

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