New Federal Food Program Generates Local Controversy

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A new federal push to reinvigorate regional food systems and reconnect people to food has generated heat from three prominent U.S. Senators, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, who say the “feel-good” program is detached from reality.

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Locally grown onions are just one of the items sold at the Payson Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Meanwhile, local residents have also led efforts to increase access to local food and promote knowledge of food’s source.

Interest in nutritious food has escalated as obesity rates continue to rise, and an emerging debate centers on whether locally produced food can feed the nation.

Local food advocates say homegrown food is more nutritious while others point to the demand for blueberries in winter.

“I never understood why it had to be either or,” said Payson resident John Roethlein, who runs the local farmer’s market with his wife. “Let the consumers decide what they want.”

Regional efforts coincide with the national push.

This summer marks the second year for the farmer’s market, which has doubled in size.

Also, local ranchers and educators recently organized an Agriculture Day sponsored by Tonto Natural Resource Conservation District aimed to teach kids where food comes from.

Local 4-H Director Lani Hall said when she taught kids in school about the origins of pizza ingredients, one student thought pizza grew whole on a farm. Hall taught students that one pizza requires food from multiple farms — including ones that house cows and others that grow tomatoes and wheat.

Know Your Farmer Know Your Food, an initiative launched late 2009 under the Department of Agriculture, aims to begin a national conversation about developing local and regional food systems while spurring their economies.

The USDA hopes that increased access to local foods will help people eat more nutritionally and decrease the amount of resources absorbed in transportation, according to a press release.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from “farm to plate.”

The initiative will focus on helping small farms grow, expanding access to nutritious food for low-income people, and developing farm to school programs that connect local farms with schools.

The program also seeks to address holes in the nation’s food distribution system.

For example, a recently released USDA map compared the prevalence of slaughter facilities to ranches. The map shows a concentration in the mid-west, and a gap out west.

Wisconsin, for instance, has no inspected slaughter facility in the entire state. Arizona had about 14 inspected processing facilities for hundreds of farms.

The letter, written by McCain, along with Sens. Pat Roberts and Saxby Chambliss, criticized the program for helping “hobbyist and organic” farmers to the detriment of “conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply.”

It asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to cite the Congressional authority to operate the initiative, and also requested a list of money the department plans to spend on the initiative.

The three senators criticized the bill for targeting small producers whose “customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”

Vilsack laughed the criticism off during an interview on AgriTalk, an agriculture talk show. “I wish those fellows had checked with us before they wrote the letter,” he said.

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Vilsack said the push to expand regional food systems isn’t new. In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress set aside 5 percent of Business and Industry Loan Program funding for local food projects benefiting underserved communities.

Roethlein said the program makes sense. “Anything we can do so the food we’re buying is better quality and better for us.”

Although farmer’s markets aren’t a necessity — “we’ve proven that we can buy food from Chile” — Roethlein said the growing trend allows local economies to thrive. Many vendors at Payson’s market are small business owners, and a higher percentage of dollars stays locally.

One study completed by the economic analysis firm Civic Economics in a Chicago neighborhood found that $68 out of every $100 spent locally stays local, compared to $43 out of every $100 spent with a chain.

Although the initiative is not a program, and does not have a specified budget or staff, the three senators expressed concern that money USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan plans to spend on the program is misdirected.

“American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addressed their needs,” the senators wrote.

Late last year, USDA also announced $4.5 million in grants to promote farmer’s markets.

Agriculture generates a trade surplus of more than $22 billion for the national economy, according to the USDA.

Merrigan wrote in a memo that she plans to spend $31 million in stimulus grants and another $930 million in stimulus loans on the initiative for non-profit local foods organizations to buy equipment or facilities to support their work.

Merrigan said in an address to the National Association of Agriculture Journalists last month that the country’s changing demographics make it imperative for more people to understand farm policy. As more people move to cities, urban Congressional representatives will create farm bills.

“That’s why we’re stressing,” said Merrigan, “the connection between economically healthy farms and ranches and a nutritious, sustainable food supply, and the nation’s overall economic health.”

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