The Maze Of Food Policy
Ezra Klein premiered a column about food policy in the Washington Post today, with a sort-of review of Food, Inc., the latest movie about the problems with what we eat. Klein praises the film but wonders if it could be more specific:
"Food, Inc." is certainly an important film. But, like the movement that spawned it, it's also a frustrating one. It's driven less by a thesis than by an intuition: Something is wrong with our food production system. It's just not clear what. Over the course of 94 minutes, we wander through meatpacking plants and fast-food drive-throughs and the halls of Congress. We meet a mother who lost her son to tainted meat and a farmer who can no longer stomach Tyson's treatment of her chickens. We stop in with a hyper-charismatic farmer who pets his pigs and preaches sustainability and loathes corporate cash cows, then travel with a hippie yogurt baron who touts his company as the ethical future of big-box food.
The sense that something is wrong with our food quickly blurs into the suggestion that everything is wrong with our food. It has too much bacteria but also too many pesticides. It is too expensive, but we do not spend enough money on it. We need fewer corporations, or maybe more corporations run by the yogurt guy. With so much wrong, it is hard to know where to start. And sometimes, in fact, it seems that fixing one problem would create another: Making fruits and vegetables cheaper, for instance, is hard to do if you also want them to be organic.
Klein is right to consider the complexity and enormity of our food system. It has an impact on every major domestic policy challenge in this Administration, and yet we barely mention it. Meat production accounts for more carbon emissions that car travel. Health care costs soar in part due to obesity and child diabetes, much of which comes from the food we eat. But the biggest problem that he singles out is one of accountability and transparency - small groups direct our food policy, they refuse to allow sunlight to shine on the process, and as a result consumers lose. This goes all the way from giant chemical and agribusiness corporations to the Congressional Agriculture Committees, which are feeding troughs (pardon the pun) for the parochial interests of farm-state lawmakers.
This plays out in very deliberate ways. This interesting study on food deserts - urban areas without access to affordable, nutritious food - finds that, in many respects, this gets caused by an overabundance of bad, cheap food options, rather than a lack of good ones. Who makes those decisions? Which comes first, the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood or the crappy fast-food joints at every corner? How can we use local zoning to improve this? How can Congress get involved? How can businesses be made to face the externalities they cause with food that makes us sick? There used to be a mandate for educational programming from television - could a mandate for legitimate healthy food options make sense?
It seems like we all watch films like this and Super Size Me and read books like Fast Food Nation and nothing ever really changes, because the audiences for those films all talk to themselves and never figure out the pressure points for action. I'm hopeful that Klein's column, or sites like La Vida Locavore can elucidate these points for us and come up with some tangible actions.