Helen Dombalis, Policy Associate, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
A diverse group of over 100 farm, food, and health stakeholders came together in Washington, DC Tuesday and Wednesday for Healthy Farms Healthy People: A Farm & Food Policy Summit for a Strong America. The summit was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and convened by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Public Health Institute, California Food & Justice Coalition, Public Health Law & Policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and American Farmland Trust.
A.G. Kawamura, former California Secretary of Agriculture and co-chair of Solutions From the Land, opened the summit with a discussion about the current state of agriculture and public health, both domestically and abroad. He said that he would add to USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative a “Know Your Century” element, reminding attendees that we are no longer in the twentieth century – we must unite both the best practices in agriculture and public health to develop solutions that match today’s challenges.
Dr. William Dietz, Director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity in the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at CDC, then offered a slew of facts about challenges and opportunities for agriculture and public health:
- one-third of Americans have high blood pressure;
- two-thirds of water and half of pesticides used in the U.S. are for agriculture;
- 70 percent of water pollution stems from agriculture;
- 44 percent of fruits and 16 percent of vegetables consumed in the U.S. are imported;
- 4 percent of Americans live in a “food desert” yet 40 percent lack access to fresh food because they are more than one mile from a supermarket;
- grass-fed beef contains less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids than its conventional counterpart;
- sugar-sweetened beverages now account for 250 calories in the average child’s daily caloric intake; and
- feeding programs now touch 1 in 4 Americans.
Dietz encouraged participant consideration of how these facts in agriculture and public health are intricately linked.
When asked about the Administration’s priorities in the next farm bill, keynote speaker USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan mentioned the need for an expanded farm safety net, a strengthened rural development focus, and a beginning farmer intiaitve aimed at securing 100,000 new farmers and ranchers. She also suggested that the gains for specialty crops from the 2008 Farm Bill “are not going anywhere” with leadership efforts by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, former Surgeon General for Michigan, kicked off the second day of the summit. She noted the need for more physicians to be a part of the conversation on food and farm policy. Dr. Wisdom mentioned farm to school and farm to institution programs as examples of ways to improve health outcomes.
Dr. Mike Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State, gave the second day’s keynote. He offered three tasks for the next farm bill: (1) preserve the gains of the last two farm bills (e.g., Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rule and conservation programs); (2) fund important programs for food access (e.g., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative); and (3) build for the future.
Dr. Hamm then spelled out the reasons for needing local and regional food systems instead of the current reliance on a few states for a majority of our nation’s food supply. He noted that populations and energy costs are rising and thus there will be less land, water, and energy with which to produce more food for more people and added that with projected temperature increases in California, the state will no longer be able to supply for the U.S. the 50 percent of fruits and vegetables that it currently does.
Furthermore, Dr. Hamm noted, these considerations are all in the context of a nation that currently eats only half of the daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables; if consumption increases, so too will the need to produce more. As he put it, we will need two to three more Californias and thus there are plentiful opportunities in agriculture and economic development. Dr. Hamm proposes “locally-integrated food systems,” defined as “a dynamic blend of local direct, local indirect, regional, national, and global” food systems, with the first step being to buying local when possible.
Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, concluded the summit by highlighting the similarities between the agriculture and health worlds: both have traditionally focused on fixing problems rather than on preventing them. From soil loss and pests in agriculture to obesity and diabetes in health, the model has been on correcting what has already happened. He envisions a shift in which both fields can align around forward-thinking prevention.
With a wide range of stakeholders in attendance, there were many and varied conversations. Some of the themes that emerged included:
- Despite historical tensions between agriculture, nutrition, and anti-hunger groups, there are real opportunities to partner with one another for the upcoming farm bill cycle. Public health is a key part of this dialogue.
- A significant point of general agreement is the need increase access to and consumption of fruits and vegetables.
- Nonetheless, public health goes beyond obesity and food access – it includes environmental health, farmworker health and safety, and production methods, among others.
- Social justice must be an important part of the conversation – socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, farmworkers, food service employees, and other low-income Americans are part of our food system and have an important voice.
- Farm credit and access to capital, land, and training are important needs for beginning farmers and ranchers.
- Great strides were made in the last two farm bills and a campaign is needed to maintain and build upon the progressive accomplishments; otherwise the “last hired” will be the “first fired.”
The conveners of the summit will be surveying participants on next steps including the possibility of forming a farm bill public health coalition of some kind. They will host a series of discussion webinars over the summer to explore the feasibility of and interest in various policy options and will organize a meeting for advocates.