By Wendy Weiden
As the idea of “occupying” everything from parks to ports has taken hold across the United States this fall, it was inevitable that food activists would take up the call to “Occupy Big Food.” And for good reason: the increasingly concentrated, profit-driven, and polluting industrial food system that provides us so many calories (but not necessarily nutrition) has resulted in deeply entrenched problems for its workers, the environment, and those it purports to feed.
The cozy relationships between those in Congress, federal agencies, and executives in the industry are well established, and lobbying expenditures by Big Ag have reached nearly $100B. A system praised by insiders for its efficiency and productivity has indeed worked remarkably well; it’s produced so many low-cost calories that it’s created a raging obesity epidemic that is now estimated to cost Americans $147 billion annually and afflict nearly 20 percent of all children.
But if we truly are to Occupy Big Food, let’s not dismiss the importance of Occupying School Lunch, a $11 billion federal program that feeds over 30 million children each year.
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a critical source of nutrition for many of its participants, over 60 percent of whom receive meals at free or reduced costs (a number that has significantly increased recently due the financial crisis.) Given its reach and size, delivering healthier, tastier food to children through the NSLP could have a meaningful impact on improving children’s health.
And yet, when faced with the opportunity to enact new rules meant to do just that, Congress failed. It blocked changes to the program – changes approved and recommended by USDA, the agency that administers the NLSP—to increase availability of fresh produce, reduce sodium, and decrease availability of starchy vegetables, especially potatoes. Notably, the rules would have kept the tomato paste used on pizza as from counting as a vegetable serving, providing much fodder for headlines and jokes in the wake of the vote.
Undeniably, it’s dismaying and disheartening that yet again, our Congressional representatives, ostensibly elected to protect the best interests of their constituents, bent under the weight of dollars thrown their way (led by the comically disingenuously-named “Coalition for Sustainable Meal Programs,” a lobbying group funded by ConAgra and Schwan’s, among others). And yet, after the usual outcry and uproar from the typical sources, the issue has already faded away. Pundits and activists have moved on, partisan politicians have a payroll tax over which to bicker, and why really fight over a lost cause anyway, right?
But if there’s a message from this fall’s Occupations, it is that to make change happen, we must take it into our own hands. Conservatives love to use the language of “personal responsibility” to explain why food choices shouldn’t be “limited” by government policies or regulations. Who cares if you’re surrounded by fast food outlets rather than farmer’s markets, if corn syrup flows freely?
The reasons why this belief is a gross oversimplification would fill an entire blog’s worth of posts, but that’s not the point to be made right now. The point is: we must take personal responsibility for not letting our politicians get away with letting us down. To be a force for change, “occupying” must be more than a trendy term. It must be real action. Call and write your Congressional representatives. Talk to the nutrition director at your child’s school and demand better food. Explain why healthy school food matters to your friends, neighbors, and children. Participate in campaigns for change. And most importantly of all, vote. Representatives who don’t look after their constituents’ best interests don’t deserve to occupy Congress.
Wendy Weiden has loved food since her essay about baking a cake helped get her into college. She is pursuing a Masters in Sustainable Public Administration at Presidio Graduate School to explore how public and private institutions can together bring productive, positive, and healthy change in our food systems.