Outlook upbeat for food activists

This was good news to read, and it’s a start. Now lets get labeling on our food too!

White House backs healthier eating

By Andrew Martin

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

2:00 a.m. March 22, 2009

ANAHEIM – As tens of thousands of people recently strolled among booths of the nation’s largest organic and natural foods show here, munching on fair-trade chocolate and sipping organic wine, a few dozen pioneers of the industry sneaked off to an out-of-the-way conference room.

Although unit sales of organic food have leveled off and even declined lately, versus a year earlier, the mood among those crowded into the conference room was upbeat as they awaited a private screening of a documentary called “Food Inc.” – a withering critique of agribusiness and industrially produced food.

They also gathered to relish their changing political fortunes, courtesy of the Obama administration.

“This has never been just about business,” said Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm, the maker of organic yogurt. “We are here to change the world. We dreamt for decades of having this moment.”

After being largely ignored for years by Washington, advocates of organic and locally grown food have found a receptive ear in the White House, which has vowed to encourage a more nutritious and sustainable food supply.

The most vocal booster so far has been the first lady, Michelle Obama, who has emphasized the need for fresh, unprocessed, locally grown food and, last week, started work on a White House vegetable garden. More surprising, perhaps, are the pronouncements out of the Department of Agriculture, an agency with long and close ties to agribusiness.

In mid-February, Tom Vilsack, the new secretary of agriculture, took a jackhammer to a patch of pavement outside his headquarters to create his own organic “people’s garden.” Two weeks later, the Obama administration named Kathleen Merrigan, an assistant professor at Tufts University and a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture and healthy food, as Vilsack’s top deputy.

Hirshberg and other sustainable-food activists are hoping that such actions are precursors to major changes in the way the federal government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms, changes that could significantly bolster demand for fresh, local and organic products. Already, they have offered plenty of ambitious ideas.

For instance, celebrity chef Alice Waters recommends that the federal government triple its budget for school lunches to provide youngsters with healthier food. Author Michael Pollan has called on President Barack Obama to pursue a “reform of the entire food system” by focusing on a Pollan priority: diversified, regional food networks.

Still, some activists worry that their dreams of a less-processed American diet may soon collide with the realities of Washington and the financial gloom over much of the country. Even the Bush administration, reviled by many food activists, came to Washington intent on reforming farm subsidies, only to be slapped down by Congress.

Even so, many activists say they are packing their bags and heading to Washington. They are bringing along a copy of “Food Inc.,” which includes attacks on the corn lobby and Monsanto, and intend to provide a private screening for Vilsack and Merrigan.

At the heart of the sustainable-food movement is a belief that America has become efficient at producing cheap, abundant food that profits corporations and agribusiness, but is unhealthy and bad for the environment.

The federal government is culpable, the activists say, because it pays farmers billions in subsidies each year for growing grains and soybeans. A result is an abundance of corn and soybeans that provide cheap feed for livestock and inexpensive food ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup.

But advocates of conventional agriculture argue that organic farming can’t provide enough food because the yields tend to be lower than those for crops grown with chemical fertilizer.

“We think there’s a place for organic, but don’t think we can feed ourselves and the world with organic,” says Rick Tolman, chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association. “It’s not as productive, more labor-intensive and tends to be more expensive.”

The ideas are hardly new. Farmland philosopher and author Wendell Berry has been making many of the same points for decades. What is new is that the sustainable-food movement has gained both commercial heft, with the success of organic and natural foods in the past decade, and celebrity cachet, with a growing cast of chefs, authors and celebrities who champion the cause.

It has also been aided by more awareness of the obesity epidemic, particularly among children, and by concerns about food safety amid seemingly continual outbreaks of tainted supplies.

While their arguments haven’t gained much traction in Washington, sustainable-food activists and entrepreneurs have persuaded more Americans to watch what they eat.

They have encouraged the growth of farmers markets and created such a demand for organic, natural and local products that they are now sold at many major grocers, including Wal-Mart.

“Increasingly, companies are looking to reduce the amount of additives,” says Ted Smyth, who retired this year as senior vice president at H.J. Heinz, the food giant. “Consumers are looking for more authentic foods. This trend absolutely has percolated through into mainstream foods.”

The sustainable-food movement also owes much of its current success to pioneers in the organic and natural foods industry. Many started their businesses for idealistic reasons and have since turned their startups into major corporations.

Manufacturers improved their organic and natural products so they could compete with conventional foods on packaging and taste. Whole Foods Market also lured more mainstream customers by creating lush displays of produce and fish that have influenced more traditional grocers.

Nancy Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University, said sustainable food activists forced the public to focus on the quality and sourcing of food. She says that “continual attention in the news” also gave the movement legs.

But Childs worries that some of the activists’ recommendations for buying fresh, local or organic food cannot be adopted by many Americans because those foods may be too expensive. “By singling out certain lifestyles and foods, it’s diminishing very good quality nutrition sources,” she says. “Frozen goods, canned goods, they are not bad things. What’s important is that people eat well, within their means.”

“We’d all love to live on a farm in Vermont, right?” she adds.

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