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Big Boxes, Little Boxes, and Farmland Protection

Reforming farm subsidies can slow sprawl, trim waistlines

June 24, 2004 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


$19 billion in annual subsidies to American farms have favored the largest operations, surpressed the smaller ones, and promoted the rise of cheap,highly processed "junk foods."

Every day Americans buy groceries at Wal-Mart supercenters and other hypermarkets built on what used to be farmland. There’s rich irony in the thought of food centers pushing out food producers — part of sprawl’s two-acre-per-minute consumption of farmland. That irony is only heightened by the fact that inside those big blocks of concrete and fluorescent lights are cheap replicas of the wholesome food that once grew right below where their slab foundations now sit.

In the middle of summer, even as fresh fruits and vegetables are ripening nearby, for example, consumers fill their supercenter baskets with strawberries grown under chemical fogs in South America and tomatoes picked green hundred of miles away and gassed for ripening. Branded bread and cheese selections gleaming under the center’s bright lights win out over the creations of local organic food makers because of cheap sugar and fat additives, and eggs and milk mass-produced in livestock factories and churned out of distant warehouses.

The reason families have come to confuse these industrial foods for the real, nutritious thing parallels the reason communities keep putting parking lots on top of fertile fields. The common cause of America’s current appetite for both junk foods and expressways dominated by chain-store billboards is a distortion of the free market that makes tasty foods from nearby farms difficult to find and afford.

This distortion is a system of federal agriculture subsidies that steer families toward fake foods and allow companies that make them to consolidate markets and squeeze out family farm products. For example, since 1977, sweetners and fats in foods have increased 20 percent, largely because of the subsidies, which have kept retail price increases for snacks, sweets, and similar items well below price increases for fruits and vegetables, which now are sorely lacking in our diets.

Three Steps
Turning the tables on this industrial-food farce, the damaging, drive-thru development it feeds, and the family farms it destroys requires three things: Massive consumer outreach, big changes in U.S. agricultural policy, and direct community intervention to reconnect people with local farmers, food processors, and distributors who can offer true freshness and quality. Helping consumers find real food alternatives and changing the economic signals federal policy sends farms are powerful steps the nation must begin taking to tame rising rates of obesity, cholesterol, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. These tactics can also help build strong urban and rural communities by saving the farmland that provides open spaces and nurtures local commerce.

Happily, the third part of this strategy, community intervention, is beginning to take root across the nation as more and more people join together to protect green spaces, enrich their diets, and grow jobs by consciously choosing to put local food on local menus and make family farms an economic development priority.

Northwest Lower Michigan offers one example. A new, five-county farm foods guide, called Select a Taste of Traverse Bay and produced by the Michigan Land Use Institute, has helped to crystallize a growing coalition of local business, land use, and agricultural interests keenly interested in capitalizing on regional food production, processing, and distribution opportunities.

Traverse City, the region’s largest town, is also home to the Fresh Food Partnership, a group that breaks through the cheap-food-unhealthy-diet conundrum that poor people face every day because junk food is now cheaper than good food. As an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article put it, today a dollar can buy 1,200 calories of cookies and chips but only 250 calories of carrots and celery. The reason is the same subsidies that crowd family farm foods out of the market. The Fresh Food Partnership buys local seasonal produce from area farms and donates it to local food pantries. In particular, the group buys “no-spray” and organic foods to bring some of the safest, tastiest, and most nutrition-packed greens to the people who have the highest rates of obesity but who can least afford healthy food alternatives.

Other efforts, such as the national FoodRoutes initiative and western Massachusetts’ “Be a Local Hero” marketing campaign, operated by Communities Involved in Supporting Agriculture, a nonprofit group, are leading a new local food and farm movement. This movement is gaining ground as families search for healthy food choices and voters recognize the high cost of allowing sprawl to pave over farmland, drain economic life from cities, and spoil America’s quality of life with traffic and pollution.

Subsidy Reform
But these local interventions, as promising as they are, also require changes in state and national farm policies for ultimate success. Consumers, voters, and elected officials must push hard for them; some already are. Many farm, environment, and nutrition groups are preparing for the 2007 reauthorization of the federal farm bill — legislation that currently puts $19 billion year into subsidies for major crops like corn and soybeans, which is what makes them such cheap fodder for junk food. These groups want to gradually wean farms from those subsidies and redirect the money to helping farmers take better care of their land and produce more of what the nation needs and what consumers say they want: Healthy food, clean water, fertile soil, and strong communities.

America began traveling down the road to our current, dysfunctional food supply system just over 30 years ago. New York Times writer Michael Pollan explains in his October 12, 2003, article, “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity,” how the country’s farm policy took a dramatic turn that has helped junk food dominate markets and menus. It started in the early 1970s, he writes, when a shortage of grain caused dramatic increases in the prices of meat, milk, bread, and other staple foods. The Nixon administration pushed up grain production to lower food prices by, for the first time, paying farmers to produce more and more of a just few crops, such as corn and soybeans, no matter how low their market prices.

Before that changed, farm programs focused on matching supply with demand in order to keep consumer food prices affordable and farm incomes reasonable. The new, direct-payment subsidies, however, put so much corn and other subsidized grains on the market that food companies can buy them extremely cheaply, pump them into chickens, cows, and breakfast cereals, and then out-produce and undersell farms that do not have big factories or marketing budgets.

Price vs. Value
According to a 1999 analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 80 percent of the money American consumers spend on food pays for advertising, packaging, and other promotion. Cheap junk food ingredients and marketing power have combined to crowd out real food alternatives from real farms.

As a result, the subsidized, mass-marketed system has actually lowered food value across the board by pushing little boxes containing skillet dinners simmered in fake flavorings ahead of meals made with real tomatoes, meats, and herbs. And, as real food has lost market share, its shrinking scale of production has driven up its price — a classic case of a downward economic spiral.

Changing the farm subsidy scheme is the only way to stop the overproduction of junk food commodities that enable this perverse way of making, distributing, buying, cooking, and eating food. It is the key to opening markets to new food choices and new, entrepreneurial farms ready to give consumers the blue-ribbon quality that grandma knew all about and that so many of us have let slip away, almost unnoticed. People across the country can help to increase both consumer demand and the political will to change our farm subsidy system by working to make local foods more available, family farms more plentiful, and a new generation of real food businesses more profitable.

Economist and journalist Patty Cantrell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture project. Reach her at patty@mlui.org. The Institute’s food guide for northwest Lower Michigan, Select a Taste of Traverse Bay, is online at www.mlui.org/foodguide.

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