Sunday, April 6, 2008

Weekend Update

Don't look now, but a record number of Americans have applied for food stamps, more than at any time since the food aid program was started in the 1960s.

Experts attribute the swelling need for assistance to a mix of economic hard times and the rising costs of food staples.

As we've written before, food prices are rising around the world as a result of "diet globalization," whereby countries with growing incomes, such as India and China, are demanding more and better food, to go along with the pricing pressures brought about by turning food crops into fuel for automobiles.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that 28 million American families will be on the food stamp rolls next year at a cost to the federal budget of about $36 billion.

In Michigan, one in 18 residents now receives food stamps. “Our caseload has more than doubled since 2000, and we’re at an all-time record level,” said Maureen Sorbet, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Human Services.

So how does the Bush economic policy look now? Remember all those tax cuts that were supposed to create prosperity for everyone? Now we simply have bigger deficits than ever. The national debt is a joke. The dollar is in the toilet. The housing and finance industries are in free-fall. And Ross Perot, crazy nut that he was, has been proved right after all--the great sucking sound we heard were all the jobs being sent overseas. We have become a bumbling giant, totally in hock to the Chinese and wishing for the good old days of cheap gas and cheap food.

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Meanwhile, the nation's food banks are in desperate straights. The same conditions that are swelling the food stamp rolls are also prompting millions of American to seek emergency handouts, and increased aid has been tied up in the languishing Farm Bill legislation that Congress has been dickering over for months.

Food banks around the country report an estimated 20 percent more people are visiting soup kitchens and food pantries for help this year compared to last year, according to America's Second Harvest.

“Hungry Americans can not wait any longer,” said Vicki Escarra, president of America’s Second Harvest. “We are seeing absolutely tragic increases nationwide in the number of men, women and children in need of emergency food assistance, many for the first time ever. Meanwhile, more than 1.3 million more people are enrolled in food stamps compared to a year prior. Hungry Americans need a Farm Bill enacted now.”

The food agency says several factors are contributing to a "dire" situation and making it difficult for food banks to feed more hungry people. Federal commodity support for emergency feeding organizations has dropped nearly $200 million per year since the enactment of 2002 Farm Bill because of a decline in need for the federal government to buy surplus food to support farmers. Additionally, food price inflation has caused rapid erosion in the purchasing power of food stamp benefits. While benefits are adjusted for inflation annually, food prices have risen 5.5 percent since the last adjustment just six months ago.

“These combined factors have created a perfect storm of hardship,” said Escarra.

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It is against this backdrop that fresh and local food gurus Michael Pollan and Alice Waters were quoted as saying that maybe price inflation in processed foods might not be such a bad thing. It would start to make organic farm produce look affordable.

The theory goes that if Big Macs become too expensive, consumers might look more favorably on pastured beef and fresh broccoli from the farmers market. I'm trying to picture shoppers bolting from the WalMart and racing across town to the farmers market. I'm trying to picture American consumers waiting in line to pay for their farm-fresh zucchini and string beans.

Alice Waters, who seems to be doing rather well for herself, suggests that American's feeling a pinch in their grocery budgets "make a sacrifice on the cell phone or the third pair of Nike shoes."

Maybe you should stick to writing recipe books, Alice.

Local food advocates that we are, the idea sounds a bit silly, especially when you look around and see how we've already paved over our prime local farmland with strip malls and subdivided mansionettes.

Better than squeezing Americans with high food prices would be some sensible government policies that supported healthy local food production, rather than the toxic industrial products that result from subsidizing a few commodity crops. How about subsidies for organic apples and potatoes?

Tom Philpott over at Grist has it right as usual. The solution isn't to make industrial food more expensive, but to make sustainable food more accessible and more affordable. Instead of federal policies crafted to pump profits into huge corporations, states should be adopting more policies such as Washington State, which is pulling out all the stops to link local farmers with school children and food banks.

Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) recently signed a new law with near-unanimous bipartisan support. It will put real resources into farm-to-school: It will dedicate two and a half full-time state agriculture-department employees to running the program, and commit $600,000 annually to create a "locally grown fruit and vegetable snack program" in elementary schools with high numbers of low-income students.

Unfortunately the new legislation has some built-in limits, reports Philpott. For instance, it can't change the National School Lunch Program's minuscule budget, which allots $2.47 to school cafeterias per lunch served to students who qualify for assistance, and $0.23 per meal served to students who pay. Once you account for labor and other overhead costs, schools have about a dollar a day to spend on actual ingredients.

Nor can measures supporting local food restore cooking facilities to public schools, which have mostly been torn out to make way for "closet-sized rewarming centers."

Or maybe we should just take a page from the Brits: Make cooking classes mandatory in all public schools, using local produce for ingredients.

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And if things get really bad, we can all eat weeds, right?

Well, the idea's not so far-fetched, it seems. The recent piece I wrote for Martha Stewart Living on edible weeds has shown up in two different places in regards to hard food times.

Check it out here and here.

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Just when all was looking glum on the agricultural front, this e-mail arrived from the Rodale Institute with a heartening story about the People's Grocery in Oakland, California.

It all started with a group developing ways to deliver wholesome local produce to about 400 needy residents of Oakland. Then they hit upon the idea of a fixed grocery as a business model, "to solve problems of the inner city and poor communities, providing not only food at different discount levels as needed, but also addressing public health issues by providing only the best of fresh, local, and whole foods, along with information about cooking and nutrition."

The group runs five urban gardens and a 2-acre parcel in a 18-acre Sunol, California, project called Sunol Water Temple Agricultural Park. The project is part working farm, part park and has allowed People's Grocery to greatly expand their food production capabilities and their educational outreach.

If you're looking for a good read about hope and grit triumphing over business as usual, this is it.

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For a very different kind of read, take a look at the tell-all on Monsanto in Vanity Fair's recent "green" issue. You know how much we love to hate the chemical company that would own the world's seeds. Here you get the whole sweeping story about how one man's idea to make a few bucks manufacturing saccharine yielded one of the planet's worst polluters (Monsanto was a major manufacturer of toxic PCBs and the herbicide Dioxin) and a corporate giant that loves to sue farmers over its genetically modified seed patents.

Truly, Monsanto has turned the face of American agriculture in a twisted snarl. To fill its coffers, the company has flooded the heartland with investigators and goons who spy on farmers, harass them, bully them, sue them into bankruptcy at the first sign they might have unpaid-for GM plants growing in their fields. The Monsanto model would undo 10,000 years of human agricultural practice by forcing farmers to destroy the seeds their crops produce rather than planting them.

Monsanto's legal teams are ready to crush any opposition with endless suits and court filings. "Ever since commercial introduction of its G.M. seeds, in 1996, Monsanto has launched thousands of investigations and filed lawsuits against hundreds of farmers and seed dealers," says Vanity Fair. "In a 2007 report, the Center for Food Safety, in Washington, D.C., documented 112 such lawsuits, in 27 states."

In the tiny town of Pilot Grove, Missouri, Monsanto trained its ferocity on the local soybean co-op on suspicions that illicit GM soybeans were being given a free pass.

"Over a period of months, Monsanto’s investigators surreptitiously followed the co-op’s employees and customers and videotaped them in fields and going about other activities. At least 17 such surveillance videos were made, according to court records." Monsanto then started suing local farmers and the soybean co-op, accusing them of seed piracy.

Many farmers are eager to settle such suits whether guilty or not. They just can't afford the legal fees. All this prompted one local wag to quip that it seemed like an awfully strange business practice--suing your customer base to death.

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Finally, the day boat cod have finally disappeared entirely from the waters off Chatham, Massachussetts.

Those would be fish that are caught and put in customer's hands within 36 hours. The fishermen of Chatham have been at it for centuries. Now, no cod since January, and none expected back until June.

Cod have been famously overfished to the point of collapsing fisheries all along the Canadian and U.S. Atlantic coast. But the anglers in Chatham think the most recent dearth of cod owes to the absence of one of their favorite foods, the herring. Seems the herring are missing too.

Let's see. Cod, pacific salmon, bluefin tuna, herring, Chilean sea bass, shark. Do we detect a pattern here?

Bon appetit....

1 comment:

CaliGardenGirl said...

Schools have it rough in this day and age. Unfortunately, if it weren't for National School Lunch Program a lot of children would just go hungry.

I grew up in WA and I know of a plenty of students whose breakfast and lunch was subsidized by the State and their family didn't have the where-with-all to give them dinner.

Infact, those people often complained that the lunches were TOO expensive.