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Celebrity chefs join farm-bill food fight

June 05, 2012|By Kim Geiger
  • A customer browses at the Pasadena farmers market. Food activists have asked Congress to do more to help promote healthy, local foods in this year's farm bill.
A customer browses at the Pasadena farmers market. Food activists have… (David Karp )

WASHINGTON – As the Senate considers a once-every-five-years farm bill this week, a group of food activists and celebrity chefs has called on Congress to cut subsidies to commodity crop farmers and reinvest the money in conservation and healthy food programs.

The bill before the Senate would take “positive steps” toward meeting those goals, but it “falls far short of the reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges,” the group wrote.

The letter was coordinated by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization, and was signed by celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio; food writer Michael Pollan; and Alice Waters, the grandmother of the local food movement, among others.

Citing a July 2011 poll in which 78% of respondents said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the farm bill, the group said the bill before the Senate would reward wealthy farmers and insurance companies with an “extravagant entitlement program” while neglecting hungry families and farmers who grow healthier products.

That bill appears poised to pass the Senate this month.

As written, it would eliminate a $5-billion-a-year handout to farmland owners but replace it with an insurance program estimated to cost about $3 billion. That program, while open to all farmers, is expected to benefit those who grow commodity crops such as corn, wheat and soy more than those who grow fruits and vegetables.

Of the bill's 10-year $969 billion pricetag, the vast majority -- $786 billion -- would be spent on food stamps and other nutrition programs. That figure includes a $4 billion cut to food stamps, a program that feeds one in seven Americans.  

“We are deeply concerned that it would continue to give away subsidies worth tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the largest commodity crop growers, insurance companies, and agribusinesses even as it drastically underfunds programs to promote the health and food security of all Americans, invest in beginning and disadvantaged farmers, revitalize local food economies and protect natural resources,” the group wrote.

Farmers, particularly those who grow corn and soy, have argued that the program will protect them from steep price declines, ensuring a steady and stable food supply for consumers.

The bill also would provide an estimated $9 billion a year to continue a long-standing insurance program that benefits only farmers of commodity crops.

Last year, about one-third of the subsidies awarded under that program went to just 4% of farmers, most of them large farms, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.  Unlike other subsidy programs, those dollars do not require recipients to comply with conservation standards.

“Growers collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance premium subsidies should at least be required to take simple measures to protect wetlands, grassland and soil,” the group wrote. “Instead, the unlimited subsidies will encourage growers to plow up fragile areas and intensify fencerow-to-fencerow cultivation of environmentally sensitive land, erasing decades of conservation gains.”

Congress should invest in initiatives that expand access to local and healthy food, and that strengthen organic and disadvantaged farmers, the group said.

“We have a great opportunity to rebuild our communities and food and farming systems from the ground up by investing in stewardship, local and organic food production, the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and sound nutrition,” author Dan Imhoff said in a statement. “To make that happen, the public needs to dig in politically and vote with their forks.”

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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